Zimdancehall dreams: the back yard studios helping Harare get heard | Global development

Inside a grimy flat in Mbare, Zimbabwe’s oldest township in the capital Harare, about 10 young musicians nervously rehearse their lyrical chants as they wait to be called into the recording booth.

Many celebrated musicians in Zimbabwe have been born out of this old flat. For those here now, this is their one shot at stardom, or at least a future in music.

One by one, they go in to sing under the watchful eye of Arnold Kamudyariwa, a popular dancehall producer known as DJ Fantan, who often stops those singing off-key.

In a sea of poverty, drugs, unemployment and crime, Fantan’s ChillSpot Records has given a voice to young people itching to tell stories of their daily struggles. It is Wednesday at 1pm, and the sounds of Zimdancehall reverberate from his studio in Matapi, Mbare.

Music is a huge source of comfort for Zimbabweans, and Zimdancehall, a local adaptation of Jamaican dancehall, grew from a demand for music that resonates with daily struggles. The infectious lyrics – often a lament of life’s challenges, losses and social ills, like the rising drug problem – have become the soundtrack for Zimbabweans.

Grafitti of popular Zimdancehall artists in Mbare, Zimbabwe
A mural of popular Zimdancehall artists in Mbare, Zimbabwe. Photograph: Nyasha Chingono

Instead of singing in Jamaican patois, local musicians mainly use Shona, and recently some Ndebele singers have also emerged. A product of back yard studios, Zimdancehall is one of the fastest growing genres in the country.

“I think the reason why people like our genre is that it resonates with their daily struggles. If the ghetto is happy, you will hear us sing about that but if people are struggling, we tailor our message,” says Fantan.

Fantan, who traded turntables for the studio, along with his two friends Levelz and Ribbe, has found a new passion in raising Zimbabwe’s singers. From his tiny studio, the young producer creates stars and hit songs.

DJ Fantan and Ras Caleb at Chillspot Records in Mbare, Zimbabwe
DJ Fantan and Ras Caleb at Chillspot Records in Mbare, Zimbabwe, where new Zimdancehall stars are created. Photograph: Nyasha Chingono

“We started off as DJs, we would just play at parties, but one day we realised that there was a need to create music. Our first studio was in my bedroom. Many artists made their hits from there nearly six years ago,” he says.

As the young musicians take turns to record their best chants, another accomplished musician, Caleb Tareka, popularly known as Ras Caleb, looks on.

“Music has changed my life; I would never be where I am today. Now I can take care of my family from the proceeds of the music, but it has taken years of determination,” Caleb says.

“Zimdancehall has taken many youths off the streets. It has created employment for some who are determined. I think this studio has done very well in raising talent and changing lives.”

Amid economic hardships, worsened by Covid-19, young people in the townships have found solace in music. Hundreds of home studios have sprouted up across Harare as musicians work overnight, encouraged by success stories from the townships. With no funding to build studios, they use basic recording equipment to create hit songs.

Michael Moso, a young hip-hop producer who works in his brother’s studio in Mbare, says: “This studio is very useful. It is better for the ghetto youths to spend their day here than on the streets. They become creative and do something useful with their time, so it makes perfect sense for us to have this studio.”

Although dancehall dominates in Mbare, Moso believes his genre will break through. Zimbabwean hip-hop is also growing, driven by the demand for local music.

Michael Moso, a music producer in Mbare works with young hip-hop artists at a studio in Mbare
Michael Moso, a hip-hop producer, works with young artists at his brother’s studio in Mbare. Photograph: Nyasha Chingono

While only a few of these artists become mainstream, the Covid pandemic has led to an increase in those marketing their music online through WhatsApp and YouTube.

Dozens of young people visit the ChillSpot studio daily, but most come from disadvantaged homes and cannot afford studio time.

One such young musician is Tanaka Chivese from Glen View, who has visited ChillSpot Records several times, hoping to get studio time.

“I kept coming here because I love music, until the producer gave me an opportunity. I recorded my first song in 2020 but it was never released – I guess I was not ready. But I am working on something which you will hear soon. I believe I can make it in this industry. What I need is an opportunity to show what I can do,” Chivese says.

Outside the studio, giant, colourful murals portray the musicians who have become heroes.

Dancehall producer DJ Fantan outside his studio, Chillspot Records, in Mbare, Zimbabwe
Dancehall producer DJ Fantan outside his studio, Chillspot Records, in Mbare. Photograph: Nyasha Chingono

The studio churns out hundreds of songs, but only a few make it on to radio.

Guitarist and music producer Trust Samende says: “Musicians are doing their best to create with the little resources they have, but our system is killing us, the radio stations are killing us. So, the product is there, but our DJs prioritise foreign music over us. I do not know why they think anything that comes from outside is better. You can never hear our music being played outside.”

“Radio airplay is still an issue,” says Tremier Msipa, another producer. “When you are starting, you don’t know the ins and outs of radio. But I stand by the philosophy that if I keep making good music, it will eventually play.”

At the turn of the century Zimbabwe imposed a 75% local content policy to support local art. This gave birth to several celebrated artists in the country. But the Zimbabwean music scene remains male-dominated, with female musicians facing unequal opportunities.

Eighteen-year-old singer Tanaka Chivese records his latest song, that he hopes will become a hit
Eighteen-year-old singer Tanaka Chivese records his latest song, that he hopes will become a hit. Photograph: Nyasha Chingono

“There are a number of amazing female artists, but there are definitely many obstacles that come into play being a woman in the industry. The percentage of successful female artists compared with their male counterparts is an indication of this. There is still work to be done,” says Gemma Griffiths, one of Zimbabwe’s top female musicians.

Until Zimbabwean music breaks through to other markets in Nigeria or South Africa, the producers will continue to make music on a shoestring – but with passion.

“We have already seen a number of self-taught producers winning the hearts of international artists and that bears testimony to what the future holds,” says music critic, Plot Mhako.

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