Hokoyo is a great Zim album

JAH Prayzah (pictured)’s continental wars are well-known but after every battle is fought, an artiste’s never-ending conflicts are against himself.

Think of a musician as different splinter personalities in one room, each fighting for creative control. That is Jah Prayzah, the stage monster, the business strategist, the regional crusader, the cultural revivalist, and the vulnerable underdog.
he best of these splinters have just won the latest round and recorded a great Zimbabwean album.

Hokoyo, the new 15-track offering, is Jah Prayzah’s tenth. It is not just a comeback from the uninspired Chitubu, but one of his most ambitious yet, alongside Tsviriyo, Jerusarema and Kutonga Kwaro.

There are sounds that are as grounded in the Zimbabwean tradition as they are open to cross-border influence. The mythic vibe on the traditionally themed, stand-out tracks is what sets Jah Prayzah apart from his generation.

He is as able as anyone to stick around the pop conversation with bubblegum anthems but here the dance floor bounce is driven by harmony between wholesome production and the soul-deep words of an ancient poet. The question, what is new, is a fair one but we should also ask what time it is in the 32-year-old musician’s career. He has challenged himself, challenged us, and now he is defining the essential Jah Prayzah.

Producer DJ Tamuka has stressed that Hokoyo is a back-to-essentials album. DJ Tamuka produced the whole album, except the tracks Munyaradzi and Donhodzo, which were done by his frequent collaborator, Rodney Beatz, Chiramwiwa (produced by Drummerboy Stanley from Nigeria) and Nyaya yeRudo (done by Young DLC). He also co-produced the Zimpraise-assisted Miteuro with Rodney Beatz and Eriya with Zoom Beats.

Tamuka’s production is computer-generated but also draws on trusty instrumentalists, most obviously Stimela’s hosho and Jah Prayzah’s mbira, and session artistes for whom he writes the music. Hokoyo is his third album with Jah Prayzah.

Kwayedza and Hokoyo, the lead single which has already been around for a minute, are the strongest artistic statements on the album. The title track’s incantatory hook enchants you from three directions, assisted by shakers and a spare trumpet looking for somewhere to land on the chaos. The verses show that Jah Prayzah’s achievement is not just singing deep Shona lyrics that would seamlessly blend into the fireside and moonshine rituals of the golden past but in adapting them to his present feelings.

In both tracks, the Uzumba-born musician is shaking off bad energy and reminding us that he is self-made, a very current music conversation if one does not look past it to be absorbed in the traditional scenery. And if the songs are romantic reconstructions, Vusa Blaqs’ peerless visuals achieve a mystic urgency.

Another feature of Jah Prayzah’s song-writing is his mock-distracted approach to serious issues. A verse like, “Kundipa museve usina uta/ Ho wandivirimira/Ha mutema wakaoma,” may sound like a sonic afterthought but it is one of the core messages of the song. Jah Prayzah turns to black-on-black resentment and the crab-in-the-bucket mentality in lyrics that are more playful than they are preachy.

Mbira dzeNharira leader Tendayi Gahamadze, whose classic mbira gourd carries his totem, Samaita, spent some time with Jah Prayzah, Blaqs and crew in Kariba for the shooting of Kwayedza and also appears in the video. Tamuka says this was a special song for Jah Prayzah, especially since he held on to it for more than three years, waiting for the right moment. Samaita’s appearance is one of the few shout outs Jah Prayzah gives to Zimbabwean greats on the album.

With Mudhara Achauya, Jah Prayzah changed his video rollout from a corporate-sponsored DVD album to the more international procedure of strategically spaced singles. For this lockdown album, he chose to drop a number of videos just a day apart. Mukwasha, the first video is quickly piling numbers and highlights the artiste’s lighter side, driven by a classic Jah Prayzah theme.

The musician has made a career out of playing the troubled son-in-law, disqualified, henpecked and even left for dead, from Sungano to Maria and the Charma Girl collaboration. This is hardly surprising. Zimbabwean musicians are the most troubled sons-in-law in the world. James Chimombe is made to stone snakes and thatch huts in Mukuwasha. Mpopoma in-laws shake out Lovemore Majaivana’s pockets all day in Mkwenyana. And spare a thought for stone-broke John Chibadura, charged $5 000 and 30 head of cattle way before the bond-dollar era, or Oliver Mtukudzi, ordered to hunt for his own totem just to appease greedy in-laws.

Of the two collaborations on this album, the Zimpraise-assisted Miteuro is lyrically wobbly and less inspired. But Kana Ndada joins the bottomless trove of Jah Prayzah’s love classics. Tamuka puts the sun on pause and gifts the long-distance “lovers” with a steady, jazzy beat to empty their chests and keep things going during lockdown.

While it will be for the audience and the industry to decide impact and durability, we can already pick the album apart for a binding concept, capacity for reinvention, production value, song-writing, social relevance, technical range and emotional relatability. Hokoyo checks almost every box from the songs already discussed.

I have previously written some of the harshest criticism of Jah Prayzah, unimpressed by his easing into an undemanding, bubblegum template. The songs worked for his high-octane, fast-paced performances but were socially distant “music about music.” As Jah Prayzah got more polished, he gave up his original vulnerability and insane penmanship so that by the time he wrote Dangerous, all he had in mind was four more minutes of show time. Whereas, already on his first album, he was capable of emotive and love songs like Taura impassioned traditional ones like Rairai, the production quality just was not there back then. Hokoyo’s clean production and classic lyricism defines the essential Jah Prayzah.

Jah Prayzah is not an obviously political artiste in the prophetic sense of Leonard Zhakata or Winky D. At his most political (2016-2017), he offered conspiracy rather than critique.

When Thomas Mapfumo reclaimed the mbira from what historian Mhoze Chikowero calls “mbira-pocalypse” and “Rhodesian epistemicide”, subversion was the game, even before you considered his lyrics. Majaivana’s folk songs are a revolution at the point of revitalisation, before parsing the dense correspondence of the lyrics with the present. That is mbira in the hands of Jah Prayzah, married to his politics of black pride and African renaissance.

Hokoyo is a solid album by one of the best African musicians of this generation.

 Stanley Mushava is a Bulawayo-based journalist and music critic. He writes in his personal capacity.

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1 Comment

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