TO hear Michael Lannas tell it, Zimbabwean music is the ultimate proof that God exists. If the Arcadia-born singer-songwriter is right, then he is also among the prophets, even if only for his contribution of Hapana Mazwi, The River and Moyo Wangu Uri Kuchema to the canon.
SOUND TRACK: Stan Mushava
In a series of retrospective threads recently, the old-time jazz great gave rare insights into his career, singling out African migrant workers as his formative music inspiration. He also opened up on his creative process and paid homage to his iconic Talking Drum bandmates, including Louis Mhlanga, the late Brian Rusike, Saba Mbata and Henry Peters.
“I grew up in what was Rhodesia. At a very early age (three or four years) I fell in love with African music. I would wake up at 5am to the sound of African migrant workers singing as they made their way to work at the Makgoweng (the place of the white people),” Lannas recalled.
“I identified with the black workers. Their music became my music. I would make long excursions as a six-year-old into the no-man’s land of Graniteside to be amongst them, to learn the magic of their music. As a child amongst them I heard the Mbira, Shekere, Balafon, Djembe and Khou. I heard tales of the Pondoland and Sekhukhuneland Revolts of the 1960s — sitting at their firesides,” said the guitarist.
It is not surprising that migrant workers set Lannas on his career path, seeing as much of what has crystallised as classic Zimbabwean music is, in fact, a cosmopolitan blend of folk traditions and popular genres that found home in mid-century Rhodesia, thanks to migrant labour, itinerant performers and the liberation struggle.
Although he has soaked up inspiration from Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Jackson Browne — whom he collectively calls the world’s greatest songwriters — Lannas’ muses remain the working class that first inspired him. He locks into the commonplace for beauty and lends his voice to the hopes, loves and struggles of the working man.
Never overtly political, he nevertheless wrestles with history on the side of the underdog and gleans his stories and images from the base of the pyramid. In Mazimbakupa, for example, a rough-and-ready recollection of a township called Maranjisi, Lannas addresses a black friend who needed a permit to drink whiskey, so that a side market for “chikokiyana” (“skokiana”— an illicit home brew) sprang up.
With seemingly distracted details, punctuated with Dylansque in-line laughter, Lannas goes political on history without sounding angry or serious. Neither English nor Shona is safe from his playful disregard for grammar. In Moyo Wangu Uri Kuchema, the opening cut on his Red Sun album, the muse is pursued with the refrain, “I have been looking you for a long, long time.”
Make-do rhymes are forced out of accented stresses as in Mazimbakupa: ”They were living their life so peacefully/ When love brought them together to make family tree.”
It is all part of his career-long thank you to the labourers who made Lannas.
“I knew that when I was old enough I wanted to write songs as a tribute to these men,” he said, asserting elsewhere that his music talent was not for the system, the middle class or the nouveau riche but the underdogs.
Take Me Back, the song about a migrant worker pleading to be taken back home, up the river, having broken his back, emptied his life and lost the flame of love just for some coins in the pocket, is the perfection of this form. Hama Yangu, his collaboration with Don Gumbo, is the sort of song you want to hear when you are alone in your broke days with no love and comfort to fall back on.
“I love the acoustic guitar. My guitar is my woman. But I am a songwriter — not a singer. I compose to express what I am, a ‘half caste.’ If my music brings any pleasure, I am grateful,” Lannas said. “I ‘sing’ if that is the word, because no one else can sing about Michael Lannas better than Michael Lannas.”
When Lannas’ voice celebrates the red sun, triumphing from the east against the dying yellow moon in the west — the metaphor of Zimbabwe’s independence and whatever geo-political shape-shifting that implied on the Red Sun title track — there is fully realised music to sustain the motif.
Each guitarist riffs his own direction, the strokes blending into one mystical canvas. Saba Mbata kneads wholesome rhythms from his hourglass drum, against Brian Rusike’s intricate finger-work on the keys. Nothing anemic.
In a 1992 interview with Linda F Williams published in the 2003 book, Jazz Planet, Lannas discusses the cross rhythms that build, from different instruments, into a buffer against redundancy. “Each additional person in the group becomes obligated to listen closely and find an independent meter to sustain all of the patterns.”
In the end, the music itself is the language, a conversation of string and hide, hence the band name, Talking Drum. As in Hapana Mazwi, the deeper essence of things is to be found in the words beyond words. He arrives at a musical creation, first as a “subconscious motivating force,” developing into a “conscious insight” of the musical problem he is trying to solve and the spiritual resources he can summon for the task.
“As a jazz artiste who is sometimes concerned with the creative process and my inner voice, I define the subconscious as a latent sense of my awareness. While improvising, I often attempt to bring on a unity of the subconsciousness with consciousness,” he says.
Lannas writes approvingly of mbira-guitar musicians and other less celebrated inventors of Zimbabwe. “I love the music, the culture and the people of Zimbabwe. I hope that, in some small measure my music reflects this love.”
Now based in the United Kingdom, Lannas plans to return to Zimbabwe next year to record an album and stage concerts in honour of his former bandmate, Rusike, who passed away in Harare recently.