Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

Why South Africa shunned disco queen Majalisa and Bulawayo loved her

By Bruce Ndlovu

On South Africa’s “black twitter”, a platform on the social network where many advertise their joy, their anger and their sorrow at the state of Mandela’s “new” Mzansi, the news of Patricia Majalisa’s death passed without a flutter.

Disco queen Patricia Majalisa
Disco queen Patricia Majalisa

Her death was not breaking news in any of the major channels and this indifference was matched by the eight million or so users of the social network in South Africa who did not bat an eyelid at the news of the disco queen’s fall.

On Twitter, when Rasta the Artiste unveils a new painting, it is a sure sign that the sun has set on another great life. But on the occasion of Majalisa’s death, even that notorious artiste’s paintbrush remained dry, its tongue reluctant to dip in paint and to lick canvass and give another hilarious likeness of the dearly departed.

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Majalisa’s passing came and went without notice, just like it has for a lot of musicians under the Splash brand. In the same way that there was no great pomp when Joseph Tshimange passed, or when Penwell Kunene breathed his last or even when Dan Tshanda departed just a day after his son passed his matric, there was no song and dance made about Majalisa’s death by her countrymen.

Instead, it was the social media users north of Limpopo that felt the blow. Within minutes tweets and posts were composed as, in 280 characters or less, Zimbabweans mourned her passing. Within hours, Majalisa’s songs and pictures were on most people’s statuses.

If one needed any further proof to show that Majalisa, like Kunene, Tshimange and Tshanda before her, was the proverbial prophet not accepted in her hometown, the reception of her passing provided it.

But what is it about Majalisa and Splash that made their music such a hit in Zimbabwe? And what made her and other disco stars of the 80s and early 90s the forgotten men and women of South Africa?

For people that are 45 and above, their love of Splash is understandable. It is the music of their youth, the soundtrack to wild parties that are a distant but never fading memory. For millennials, (people between 24-40) the relationship with Splash is a little more complicated.

For one thing, if most went back in time, they would probably find that maybe this is not the music they would have chosen to listen to growing up in the 90s. After all, Splash was typical “shebeen music.”

It was not hip or cool like kwaito or rap, two genres parents feared would lead their children astray in the 90s.

Back in those days when youths religiously followed television and radio slots steered by those two captains of urban cool, Tich Mataz or Peter Johns, kwaito and hip-hop were the genres that dictated the pace. Young people lived on either side of the divide created by these genres. One was either a “Pansula” or a “Yo”.

Both genres were more than just music in the cultural melting pot that was 90s Bulawayo. They were cultural movements that affected how one talked, dressed and even walked.

Who can forget the classic pansula look: a hat whose brim was just above the forehead, khakhi shirts tucked into khakhi shorts that dropped below the waist but were never long enough to reach the ankles? Sitting below the ankle was the trusted All Star whose laces were even tied up in all kinds of stylish patterns.

And who can forget the sight of a typical Yo, a young man labouring under the weight of an oversized Chicago Bulls jersey, baggy jeans and matching Timberland boots. Never mind the fact that the Timberland was popularised by natives of New York where temperatures can sometimes plunge beneath zero. In Bulawayo, where the sun shines even in wintertime, they kicked up dust just as eagerly like they would have tossed aside snow in the Big Apple.

Despite this, as time has gone on, even these young men and women have gained an appreciation of Splash. The genre always has had its horde of fans in the city, but even in high end nightclubs, a session of “shebeen music” gets feet shuffling and voices singing.

Sure, the old school kwaito and hip-hop gems still get people on their feet when DJs in the city remember that music has no expiry date and they are allowed to play more than Amapiano the whole night. But the feeling is just different when Splash comes on.

When Majalisa’s voice, in high definition, starts tumbling through the speakers, everyone knows that the time for fancy cocktails sipped through straws is over.

It is now time for the ngudu (quart of beer) and a wide-open throat, it is time to sing along. It is a rare feeling, a feeling that is not reserved for shebeens only anymore.

Most joints now have a slot during which a bit of Splash is played to take patrons down memory lane. How did a genre that some younger people did not care about in the 90s gain relevance later in their lives? Perhaps it is because at its best, music is a time capsule. A melody from Majalisa can transport one back to those times in the 90s, that decade of plenty that Zimbabweans fondly remember.

That is the decade before mass migration, when most still lived with their kin and did not rely on texts and phone calls as to communicate with siblings. Splash transports people back to a time when their fathers and mothers were alive, before death’s thieving hand dealt its irreversible blow.

When you see one dancing to a Majalisa tune, a ngudu in one hand and a tear on the eye, they are not only enjoying today’s good times, but perhaps mourning yesterday’s party whose patrons are no longer with us.

“Nostalgia is an extremely powerful force linked to memory,” says David DiSalvo, a behavioural science. “But it has a way of putting a rosier view on our memory. When we smell those chocolate chip cookies, it’s a link to memory that brings us back to a more stable, comfortable place in our lives. We can inhabit it in our minds and feel a level of support that most of us aren’t feeling right now because there is so much instability.”

On Thursday 9, July, Majalisa joined the ranks of the departed. In South Africa, disco and bubblegum music declined in the 80s as the impression grew that, at the height of South Africa’s political struggle, the tunes Majalisa and others was not serious or political enough. It was the music that white South Africa preferred the disgruntled blacks in townships to listen to. When freedom and kwaito came, the genre was swept off radio completely.

In Zimbabwe however, Majalisa’s music is still party music. It is the music that refuses to die, the music to party to and, when remembering the good old days that will never come back, music to weep in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo in particular, Patricia Majalisa is still alive. The shebeen queen has only departed, long live the shebeen queen! Sunday News