By Silence Charumbira
African music has always taken the world by storm due to the uniqueness of its sound, compositions and other important aesthetics.
It is, therefore, no surprise that 31-year-old Norwegian, Eirik Hoff Walmsness, has become literally married to Zimbabwean sungura music.
The music teacher, who has now travelled to Zimbabwe multiple times for research purposes and wowed crowds with his mastery of the country’s sound said he is enthused by the sound.
Ironically, Eirik was first introduced to Zimbabwean music when he attended the late Afro-jazz legend Oliver Mtukudzi’s show in his home country a decade ago.
“My first encounter with Zimbabwean music was at a show with the late Oliver Mtukudzi. In fact, he came to perform in my hometown 10 years ago. At the time I had never heard about him. He played at a festival in Trondheim, Norway.
“A friend invited me. I remember Oliver coming out on stage and the first thing he did was ask for all the chairs in front of the stage to be removed. This was a big mistake from the festival organisers because he would make everyone dance. I really enjoyed his show and it was something completely new to my ears.”
Academic introduction to Zimbabwean music
However, he was to come across Sungura music while in music school studying musicology in Norway. I was introduced (academically) to the music of Zimbabwe during the last stage of my music studies. I first did a Bachelor’s degree in Musicology here in Norway and I opted for all the courses that covered non-Western music.
“To begin with, I learned about West-African, Congolese and Ethiopian music. I took a year off my studies when I got a job in Namibia, to go work at the College of the Arts in the capital Windhoek. I got into the live music scene and I met with many musicians who incorporated Zimbabwean styles.
“There was this one day when I took a taxi in Windhoek and I remember hearing something on the car stereo, which I, in retrospect, identify as sungura. I guess the taxi driver was Zimbabwean. I remember being hypnotised by the hi-hat pattern and interlocking guitars. I had no clue this was sungura but I came to learn that later.”
He said after Namibia, his studies got interrupted once again when he got a job offer in Malawi in 2012.
“Moving to yet another African country was indeed a great experience, giving me a chance to learn more about the culture and music while I was working. Again, I interacted with many musicians who had strong Zimbabwean influences but I still didn’t know any Zimbabwean artistes except Tuku.
“I was also growing an interest in Congolese rhumba and soukous and it was around this time that I started a real interest in bass playing.”
After Malawi, he said he applied for a Master’s music programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and that is where he was finally served sungura on a silver platter.
“Well, what happened is that I signed up for a course on Sub-Saharan popular music and one day it was time for a presentation dedicated to Zimbabwean music. The teacher sampled a whole bunch of song examples, starting off with Thomas Mapfumo, followed by Oliver Mtukudzi and the Four Brothers.
“Then, I really jumped in my seat when my teacher played the next example. This was a song by ‘Khiama Boys’ she said. It was only an extract but I remember how it triggered my memory from the taxi in Windhoek and I finally connected the dots.
“The next example was John Chibadura. I was in heaven, tapping the rhythm with my hands and moving my feet. I didn’t even know about the dance styles yet. My teacher handed out copies of the few academic papers that have been written on sungura, and I read all of it with excitement.
“Finally, I had gained knowledge on this music and I was given more artiste names to explore, which had been my problem until now. Remember – being from Norway – basically the other side of the planet from Zimbabwe, it was very tricky to find information on sungura, as it didn’t have much international exposure. Now that I had more leads, YouTube became an important source of information, of course.”
Travelling to Harare
As fate would have it, Eirik would eventually travel to Harare for one of Africa’s, if not the world’s premier arts festivals, Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa) and he seized the opportunity to enrich his music library.
“In 2015 I travelled to Harare for Hifa with a friend and I took the opportunity to visit a music shop to stock up on some CDs. The store owner prescribed albums from Nicholas Zakaria, Alick Macheso, System Tazvida, Leonard Dembo, Tongai Moyo and John Chibadura. I think he was amused that I showed such an interest.
“Hifa was an amazing event and I really enjoyed all the shows but I realised not so much sungura music was on the programme. There was the brilliant Victor Kunonga and other mbira-infused music but for sungura I only remember Sylent Nqo, who included parts of Macheso’s songs in his jams – and the audience went crazy,” Eirik said.
Hifa and performing with Alick Macheso
Following his Hifa experience, he applied for a grant from a Norwegian arts association to return to Zimbabwe to do more research.
“I was only able to squeeze in two weeks but that still marked a turning point – because I was finally able to visit Chitungwiza. And that is when my sungura adventure really started. All thanks to a very good friend of mine, Silas Muzira, who hosted me in Chitungwiza and assisted me so that I could attend a number of sungura shows and get real close.
“I was so excited when I attended my first show with Alick Macheso. And to end up on stage with him was pretty surreal. My introduction to sungura has been a long, gradual process. I’ve been (unknowingly) exposed to it in different environments, before finally learning about it through my studies and finally meeting it face to face in Harare.
Why sungura is special to Eirik
While sungura has often been rejected for its repetition, Eirik says there remains a certain beauty to the music.
“It’s tricky to describe but there is something about the whole package that I’m so attracted to. Sungura is really simple, yet complex and advanced. Some say it’s just three chords over and over again and yes – there is a certain harmony structure that is repetitive – but the endless variations and creativity over this ‘formula’ is to me such an art.
“I’m drawn to the rhythmical aspect. The bass and drumming are just so much fun. And I really like the ‘orchestration’ with the rhythm guitars that blend together so nicely and play in a loop over and over. I have so much respect for the rhythm guitar players. They are really the secret weapon in Sungura.
I also enjoy the way the vocals sing in harmony, but when it comes to the lyrics – I’m having a hard time, as I don’t know much Shona,” he said.
Eirik, food, language and career
“I am 31. I’m a drummer/bass player and I live in Norway. I’ve been working as a music teacher for some time and I have performed and recorded with a lot of different bands in Norway before landing on sungura. Right now, I’m working a full-time office job here in Norway and doing music part-time (including my videos on YouTube) but I hope that one day I can dedicate my all to music.
“As explained above, I have lived in several African countries and living in other cultures has really made an impact on me. You know, once you’ve had a taste of braai, it’s difficult going back to unseasoned Norwegian fish … I’ve always enjoyed eating the local food when visiting places and at least attempting to learn some local phrases/language. The first time I greeted Alick Macheso, I said to him ‘maswera bwanji’ (a mixture of Shona and Chewa), as I knew he could speak Chewa. His face was priceless,” Eirik said.
Sungura album on the way
The musician says for now he has concentrated on mastering the Sungura craft but he hopes to release his own album.
“I’ve been determined to first learn as much as possible about Sungura. It takes time to learn the technique and get used to the way of playing. I didn’t grow up listening to it and we know that as adults we take longer to learn things … But I’m determined to learn Sungura and I want to reach a level that sounds authentic.
“For a number of years now, my strategy has been to imitate and copy other artistes, to learn the skills and ‘musical language’. Then I aim at creating my material and composing my own songs, using the same musical language. It might not sound 100 percent authentic but my main point here is that I’m trying to be careful not to come as an outsider stealing a musical tradition from another country – appropriating it – but rooting my project first and having the acceptance from the people – that really matters.
“I want to be different from some artistes who sample this and that without fully knowing the significance of the music they’re using. My goal is to one day release my own sungura album that celebrates the sungura tradition. I want to pay tribute to all the great sungura artistes and at the same time, I want the album to be ‘new’ and refreshing in the sungura jungle. I mean, by default – me being an outsider – it’s going to be a slightly different sound.”
Future is bright for the genre
Sungura has remained in the doldrums for several years despite being one of the most authentic Zimbabwean sounds for various reasons ranging from perceived shallow arrangement, lack of adaptability with others sounds and poor marketability.
Despite the history being laden with great names like that of Leonard Dembo, who is arguably the best lead guitarist the country has produced, it has been restricted to Zimbabwe and perhaps a few other African countries. Where it is played, the audience is often labelled backward and at one time, with the advent of new sounds, the genre seemed to going extinct.
However, Eirik still sees a future for the genre across the borders.
“Yes, there is hope – I really want to collaborate with other artistes and I think it’s just a matter of time. For now, I’m trying to come up with my own material and I expect to release something this year. I’m aware there is an ongoing debate on the state of sungura and I’ve heard many claims that sungura is threatened by other genres, especially Zim dancehall.
“Some say Sungura must further develop or modernise, whatever that means. I think no music genre will or should ever have a monopoly and that’s the beauty of it. We should have variety. Sometimes I compare music with food. When cooking, you can improvise, add a little of this, a little of that. Or you can just go for that old traditional recipe that you love so much, a dish that remains unchanged and it’s just what you want.
“Later on, you might be tired of it and you’re seeking new flavours. It’s the same with music. At times I listen so much to one type of music, until I get a little tired of it. I give it a break, listen to something else, and that’s refreshing. Looking at music history, there are always waves and changes in what is considered popular.
“Nothing stays constant. So, it’s okay for Sungura to be challenged a bit by other types of music fighting for the people’s attention. I think that puts the artistes on the edge of their chairs, they can’t relax too much and get lazy, but need to constantly stay creative.”
“As for international interest and crossing borders, I think sungura still has a lot of potential. I think it is important to consider the ‘market’ over there. A lot of people in Europe love African music, which is why we see an increase on festivals catering for this.
“I think that when you have a product that is aimed at being ‘exported’ to another place, you perhaps need to adjust it a little. I want to use Youssou N’Dour from Senegal as an example. Today he is considered a big star in world music, I read that he used to do two different shows when he came to perform in France (I think he had one band for each) – one that was adjusted/blended for a ‘European’ audience and one set, which was more traditional, rather original with hard-core mbalax (the drumming from Senegal).
“Of course, that is a choice you have to make – whether you want to ‘compromise’ your music or not but maybe it doesn’t hurt to try – it can take you places? If a sungura band was to come perform in Norway, expecting to put on an eight-hour show until the sun rises, I have bad news for them. People would leave after two hours. They’re just not used to it.
“Also, the language is an important factor. If people don’t speak a word of Shona, it is more difficult to connect to the music. I have to be honest – at times sungura can be like a wall of sound that hits you right in the face.
“It’s really awesome when it’s massive and powerful, and the singers scream their lungs out but I think many sungura bands could benefit from more dynamic arrangements and variation in intensity.
“But yeah – I think there is potential, it’s just a matter of exposure before sungura can grow more abroad. Some Zimbabwean artistes have been really successful abroad, especially Oliver Mtukudzi and I think one of the keys to his success was that he was able to bridge the overseas audiences and his music in a way.
“He sang in Shona but also in English. There were familiar instruments on stage that he mixed with mbira and marimba. And finally, everyone loves a good song – which he had plenty of,” Eirik said.
This article first appeared on www.theinspiredafrica.com