In a backroom at the Music Crossroads Zimbabwe Centre in Hatfield, Harare, the five-man Mbare-based band Sukuzonke Stars, are deeply engrossed in rehearsals, belting out a sungura tune that talks of lost love.
The twang of guitars and the thump of drums impregnates the 25-square-metre room and the virtually unknown Sukuzonke Stars belt it out as if they were seasoned, passionate musicians performing before a live audience.
Suddenly, Mathias Bangure, director of the centre, steps forward towards the guitarist in the far left corner who is strumming his guitar with his head held down, eyes staring at the movement of his fingers on the strings. Slowly, Bangure pushes the guitarist’s head upwards and then steps back casually.
“You must always keep your head up when you’re playing your guitar because there must be communication between you and the audience, so don’t look down. The audience wants to communicate with your face,” says Bangure after the band pauses to take questions from this interviewer.
Zephaniah Zingwena, 25, the founder and leader of the Sukuzonke Stars, who have one album titled Sadza Usavi, concurs with Bangure and emphasises to his band members to always rehearse with an imaginary audience in mind.
Zingwena’s Sukuzonke Stars outfit is but one of the many bands that are benefiting from the centre which has been in existence since 2008.
“The centre is really helping upcoming artists by providing space and facilities to rehearse music. If it was not for this centre our band would have collapsed because we lacked equipment. We practise from Monday to Friday interchanging with other bands. By getting this practising space, we have managed to get back together again. We are currently busy rehearsing in preparation to do a recording early next year with the Zimbabwe Music Corporation,” said Zingwena.
Music Crossroads Zimbabwe’s performance rehearsal, research and documentation and boarding facilities are increasingly gaining popularity among upcoming musicians from all the four corners of the country. The centre currently offers rehearsal facilities for its members and graduates at a cost of next to nothing and for outsiders at $5 per hour.
“We have many groups that come here to practise, we’ve created a safe space for musicians to experiment with their work.
“Our aim is to make Zimbabwean music get its due recognition but it’s an uphill struggle and we will soldier on till we make it,” said Bangure.
Music Crossroads Zimbabwe began as a project initiated by Jeunesses Musicales International (JMI) and administered by the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe in 1996.
As years went by, the council decided to leave the implementation of the programme to the National Training and Conference of the Arts in Zimbabwe (Natcaz) in 2001.
The programme grew bigger, reaching out to more and more youths, and in 2005, the project matured into a legal entity, now known as Music Crossroads Zimbabwe Trust, headquartered in Hatfield, Harare.
The overall purpose of Music Crossroads Zimbabwe is to empower young people through music.
It seeks to enhance skills development and professionalism among young Zimbabwean musicians through presenting all styles of music, including ethnic and rational music as well as original musical expressions and cross covers.
According to Bangure, Music Crossroads Zimbabwe offers opportunities for meetings and interaction among young Zimbabwean musicians across cultural, social, ethnic, economic, language and national boundaries.
“We want to stimulate self-awareness by assisting young individuals and groups to realise their full potential to make a difference and to affect their immediate environment through the realm of music,” said Bangure.
Unfortunately, Music Crossroads Zimbabwe continues to rely on foreign donor funding in spite of the string of successful music projects that it has launched, including Oscar award-winning Liyana, Mokoomba, Bongo Love, Africa Destiny, Club Shanga and Gwarimba who have all toured Europe.
Other acts that have come out of the Music Crossroads programme include Progress Chipfumo, First Farai, Munyaradzi Munodawafa and Siyaya, to mention just a few.
“It could be good for the corporate sector and government to also support this project or projects of this kind. With the job market so tight, the music industry can play a part in contributing new employment opportunities, particularly for young people,” said Bangure.
But like the proverbial prophet who is not accepted by his own people, most of the projects of Music Crossroads Zimbabwe have largely gained popularity in Europe and remain unknown locally.
Of note, Bongo Love toured the United States staging a show at the famed Madison Square Garden yet they command a very limited following at home.
“From an early age, most of us were taught to look down upon musicians that we don’t even consider them as pursuing a respectable profession when they are starting out,” said Bangure. “The reception locally has not been impressive although we get so much acclaim in Europe.
A combination of the negative perception of the music industry coupled with poor support for upcoming musicians has also seen young, musically- gifted women shun away from pursuing musical careers, said Bangure.
According to Bangure, having a technical understanding of music can help local musicians to collaborate with international musicians and hence traverse into global markets where the financial rewards are substantial.
“However, we cannot go it alone; we need all facets of the equation to be at play: media, government and the corporate sector, and, of course, the consumers. To rely solely on foreign funding for the promotion of the local music industry is unsustainable in the future. The cultural policy must address this issue as a matter of urgency. With better support, music bands such as Sukuzonke Stars could soon be riding high on the music charts, making a difference not only to their personal lives but to the artistic heritage of our country,” he said.