Singing for crumbs on foreign lands. . .plane ticket doesn’t mean success, says Cont
By Bruce Ndlovu
While their lives might look glamorous when they hit the headlines when they embark on a foreign trip, it seems that all that glitters is not gold for local touring artistes who often have to perform on streets to make ends meet when they are abroad.
Bulawayo has become renowned as an exporter of artistes to foreign stages, where they are valued for their ingenuity and industry.
A number of groups have blazed a path that has been followed by many, as local artistes line-up for the rich pickings that are perceived to be in abundance on foreign stages.
However, arts doyen Cont Mhlanga revealed to Sunday Life in an interview last week that while life of touring groups might seem glamorous, it was not always the case as most artistes eked out a living performing in the streets of Europe, selling their craft for a few coins thrown their way by well meaning passersby.
According to Mhlanga, many made the journey across oceans to be paid a pittance, something that haunted them when age caught up with them.
“A lot of people that say they’re going on tour aren’t even performing when they get there. Most are doing what we call street busking. This is basically when they perform in front of shops and passersby throw them a few coins. So while abroad they’re living hand to mouth. So this is not enough for one to make a living. It’s either they are busking or they are going around in schools conducting workshops,” said Mhlanga.
This, Mhlanga said, was a problem created by the fact that many got into the arts for the wrong reasons.
“I think that we created and sent the wrong message to talent from around the country. We created the impression that those that go abroad are the most successful. We made it look as if leaving the country was the most important thing, what you brought back did not matter as long as you left.
“I’m one of the culprits who created this dire situation when it comes to international travel whereby one goes abroad but doesn’t come back and apply what they might have learnt or got over there. We wanted to expose our creative exports in a way that benefited them but in doing so we created the impression that getting on a plane defines success,” he said.
With passport stamps regarded as a measure of success, many have decided to sit on their laurels, waiting for the next big gig outside the country.
“The other problem that was created was that we had people joining the arts not to create content but just to go overseas. So all the while they will be waiting to go overseas and after that tour ends they lose interest in performing at home. The net result of all of it is that while you’re sitting idle at home waiting for the next tour, you’re not sharpening your skills,” he said.
According to Mhlanga, the period between tours had made artistes lazy, as they waited for the next big paycheck from Europe.
However, the end of apartheid in South Africa had meant that such behaviour was fatal for Zimbabwean groups.
“A lot of artistes when they went abroad, they were quoting work by South African artistes. This was because they weren’t performing at home and making their own material which they could then export for the consumption of audiences in foreign countries.
“The problem with this is that after 1995, when apartheid had ended in South Africa, a lot of their groups started touring and pushed Zimbabwean artistes out. The South Africans came back and they were showcasing their culture in full, better than we could. So our artistes had to resort to street busking because the South Africans were taking all the premier gigs,” he said.
Rather than use proper channels for touring overseas most groups had, according to Mhlanga, used their personal relationships to get gigs overseas.
“The problem we also have is that most people go to Europe through friends. When one gets a white friend they are then invited to a country through that friend. In the end they just go and say they’re on tour when in reality they’re performing on the street, something they wouldn’t even consider doing at home.
“That’s our biggest disaster. People are going through friends and that’s not sustainable and it just means you won’t make money. Those that went through proper structures, and they are maybe two or three groups that did so, are more successful,” he said.
Weighing in on the same topic, artiste and administrator Nkululeko Nkala said although some members of globetrotting groups later live as paupers, this did not mean that life on the road did not pay.
“An example I could use is that of football stars. How many have made millions only to be broke soon after? It all boils down to the individual. We live among artistes from groups like Siyaya, Iyasa or Imbizo who’ve bought cars and houses from money made while touring,” he said.
Misplaced priorities and poor financial management has pushed many artistes towards poverty, Nkala said.
“The problem with most artistes is that when they get to Europe the first thing that they think about is what they’re going to be wearing when they come back home. They buy fancy clothes and phones so that they show off to the people at home instead of investing.
“Whether you like it or not, the touring cycle ends and you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got something stored away for a rainy day. Travelling doesn’t equate to success. There’re groups locally that are making lots of money yet they’ve never seen the inside of a plane,” he said. Sunday News.