Zimbabwean Self-Understanding as Expressed through Song: An Interview with Mhoze Chikowero – Part I

On 15 November 2017, in the wake of over a year of protests against his government, Mugabe was placed under house arrest by the country’s national army in a coup d’état. On 19 November 2017, he was removed as the party leader and on 21 November 2017, Mugabe tendered his resignation. There have been numerous news reports and opinion pieces that detail what happened in Zimbabwe in November and speculate about the political developments that led to the fall of Mugabe. But how else can we understand it? In this two-part series by Professor Mhoze Chikowero (Department of History, UC Santa Barbara), we learn what an “acoustemological perspective” is and how such perspective can reveal a fuller understanding of the recent events in Zimbabwe. This interview draws from the final chapter of his forthcoming book, The Military Entertainment Complex: Music, Media and State Making in Zimbabwe, which is a story of statecraft read through a particular sensibility in Zimbabwean postcolonial self-understanding as expressed through song. A fuller understanding of Mhoze’s work can also be gained through his first, award-winning book, African Music, Power and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe (Indiana University Press 2015), which reads the historical production of music, song and sound to reconstruct and reinterpret the history of Zimbabwe in the colonial era, from the late 1800s to independence, in 1980.


Thank you so much for your time, Professor Chikowero. Can you please explain what an “acoustemological perspective” is?

My work is underpinned by the argument that if scholarship on Africa is to be truly representative, it needs to take a holistic interest in African knowledge systems as not only archives, also as methodologies and philosophies. The acknowledgement of this need, particularly with the surge in oral histories in the western academy over the last three decades, has produced some significant contributions to scholarship about the continent and its diasporas. What this means is that events can be understood not only through scouting for written official documents, which tend to be controlled and curated (and censored) through the bureaucratic vault and availed only after certain periods. But there is always need to capture the official vault not only for its secrets, but to also pay attention to the everyday processes of knowledge production. For my upcoming book, The Military Entertainment Complex that’s ending with the recent deposition of Zimbabwe’s then President Robert Mugabe in November 2017; one has to pay attention to the very public nature of the process, the acoustics, not simply song texts, as valuable sources to derive spatially grounded knowledge and ways of knowing, that is, epistemes. I am reading the idea of acoustemology with scholarship on sound, that is, acoustics with epistemology. This is a useful way to think about grounded knowledge articulated through sound and local knowledge systems, particularly when one is dealing with participative politics that transcend institutionalized containment.

How can we understand the November 2017 events in Zimbabwe from an acoustemological perspective?

Many reports on what happened in Zimbabwe in November gave details and speculations about the political developments that led to the fall of Mugabe, culled from official sources and observations of the political scene. We were told about the military siege of key state institutions and the president’s residence, and the daily reports of what transpired. The huge crowds that lay the siege together with the military largely formed a backcloth to notions of a peaceful, beautiful coup that supposedly demonstrated how Zimbabweans are “civilized” and “educated”–apparently new “discoveries” to the conventional western press. Now, as often happens with such major political events in Africa and elsewhere, the fuller story can only be learned with time, but beyond the military pronouncements and action, we can at least reconstruct the more immediate process from the energy of the masses who took to the streets raising banners and placards, singing songs, playing music in their cars, hooting their approval and expression of their wishes on that Saturday in November. What were they saying as individuals and as collective masses? Were they crowds on the beck and call of the war veterans and the military, or was there a deeper currency to the mass expression that saw the former president’s back? Questions will certainly remain for now, but these sources, archives, sonicities that do not have to wait to be read with what we will certainly unearth about this event in the future. In other words, what is story of statecraft read through a particular sensibility in Zimbabwean postcolonial self-understanding as expressed through song, sound, and visuality? As a historian, I am aware that this sensibility is not new in Zimbabwean public politics. A fuller understanding of my work can therefore be gained by engaging the larger program that I initiated with my first, award-winning book, African Music, Power and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe (Indiana University Press, 2015), which reads the historical production of music, song and sound to reconstruct and reinterpret the making and unmaking of Zimbabwe in the colonial era, from the late 1800s to independence, in 1980. These acoustics of African self-expression–what Mugabe’s spokesperson, George Charamba, called “atmospherics,” won’t fully open the lid to deeper questions of causation, but they certainly help us understand process.

The basic argument proceeds from the fact that African explication of self-knowledge is grounded in Africans’ own narratives first and foremost, which most scholarship has tended to read anthropologically as ethnomusicology or popular culture. The latter methodologies tend to primitivize particularly non-western cultures, and they must be challenged in critical African scholarship. It is worth paying attention to the fact that self-expression is key to understanding any people, at any point in history. This is why, as Edward Said demonstrated in his important book, Imperialism and Culture, a good category of celebrated works of European literature is a very good source for exploring the imperial psychology in the 19th century. This is self-expression as recorded in books, but books are only one repository of self-knowledge. My first book, African Music, Power and Being proceeds from this same understanding, exploring the African-European colonial encounter at this cultural intersection. This is also because culture–broadly conceived–is a fountain of self-nourishment, self-expression, self-legitimation and fortress for self-preservation. When the British conquered Madzimbabwe in the early 1900s, they saw the need to hoist their cultures above those of Africans as part of both the process of disarming the colonized and of making a new, Rhodesian identity. As such, seven decades after occupation, Rhodesian historian, C. T. C. Taylor wrote the history of Rhodesian entertainment in 1968 as essentially as a story of white cultural superiority over “primitive” Africans, arguing that African life was “primitive, both in its working methods and in the nature of its infrequent amusements.” And, by contrast, “the pioneers . . . came for the most part from environments which had all the sophistications of the nineteenth century, environments which, for their relaxation, required entertainment of the standard civilized type—theatre, music, variety” (Chikowero 2015). This was not a mere statement of supposed facts, but the constitution of a foundational, colonizing epistemic racial discourse that depended on a familiar representation of Africa as terra incognita—an uncultured, unexplored, uninhabited no-man’s-land. This is colonization perfected into an art form, what Esther Lezra has called “the art of demonizing others.” It is this “culture” that constituted an ethics for treating the colonized differently, as infrahumans, hence the state and missionary debasement, proscriptions, and appropriation of selected aspects of African lifestyles, practices, signs, and symbols in the colonial production and destruction of knowledge.

This ethics justified the settler establishment of “European” cultural institutions—theaters, training schools and colleges, entertainment halls, hotels, drama clubs, and ubiquitous public-funded symphony orchestras in order to foster neo-European Rhodesian identities, and the conception of a new, “native” entertainment policy meant to manage and reinforce notions of African primitive difference through purported developmental, “native social welfare” programs. As I argue in my book, these colonial interventions into the African cultural sphere were attempts to disarm and witchcraft Africans into subjects of empire; the interventions therefore constituted epistemicide, designs to kill African knowledge systems to necessitate colonial subjugation. Colonialism wouldn’t be able to subjugate Africans otherwise, because African cultures are founts of sovereign self-reproduction. The wisdom is such as explicated by Kenyan scholar, Micere Mugo, when she wrote that cultural zombies cannot create and defend their birthright.

Again, this is why the colonial state and missionary bodies crusaded against African spiritualities and musical traditions expressed through such instruments as the mbira, ngoma, etc, banning indigenous music and replacing indigenous instruments with pianos, brass instruments, saxophones, etc. This is why the European missionary movement sought to replace African songs with hymns, and changed Africans’ names to the Janes, Marys, Irenes, Thomases and such other Bible names that have no heritage in traditions but now populate Africa. The mission was to alienate Africans from themselves, their cultures and histories, and to thus disinherit them as a people who would then need to look unto and admire European cultures; a conquered people. The cultural fortress was the portal into the psyche of the targeted peoples. The survival of Africans and their cultures today therefore say a lot about the resilience of the people and their cultures in the face of such unparalleled adversity. Africans had to hold onto (but sometimes reject) the same cultures to survive, and they had to wield the same as weapons to fight the invasive Europeans and their agenda.

It is this tradition of cultures of resistance that gave us the Chimurenga sensibility and musical genre in Zimbabwe, whose roots I trace in African Music, Power and Being to the moments and continuums of encounters with the Portuguese and the British colonial mission from the 16th through to the 19th century. The very act of refusing to abandon demonized spiritualities and criminalized musical cultures, and the wielding of the same to fight for self-liberation constituted, as I have argued, a culture of resistance that is a broadly shared African heritage. Song and spiritualities formed unassailable, transgenerational cultural technologies of self-liberation during the long, deep-time anti-colonial struggles, as amply documented during the First, and Second Chimurenga in Zimbabwe. My first book traces the genealogies of these cultures, which earlier writings had misdated to the 1960s with the popularity of the musics of Zexie Manatsa, Thomas Mapfumo, Abel Sithole, Cde Chinx and others, whose compositions emboldened and mobilized the spirit of the armed struggle that gave birth to Zimbabwe in 1980.

Stay tuned for the rest of the interview, which will be published later this week.

About Mhoze Chikowero

Mhoze Chikowero is Associate Professor of African History at the University of California in Santa Barbara and ACLS Visiting Research Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand. He attained his undergraduate education at the University of Zimbabwe and his graduate degrees at Dalhousie University, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Rutgers University (2008). Chikowero is also a Founding Fellow of the Mbira Institute, based in Harare. He researches African music and politics; and technologies of state making (including broadcasting and energy). He has worked with Zimbabwean and African artists and organizations that foster African cultures for years. He is the author of African Music, Power and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe (Indiana University Press, 2015), which won the Kwabena Nketia Book Award (2013-17), and is working on a new monograph, The Military Entertainment Complex: Music, Media and State Making in Zimbabwe. His articles on music and politics, nationalism, electrification, and broadcasting have appeared in the Journal of Southern African Studies, Muziki: Journal of Music Research in Africa and in edited volumes.

Featured Image caption: Mhoze Chikowero discussing his then newly-published book, African Music, Power and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe with a Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation TV crew at the Mbira Centre, Harare, 2016.

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