You might have heard of Robert Mugabe. Not content with simply being one of Africa's longest standing dictators, he's achieved notoriety for kicking farmers off their land and printing money whenever his regime runs low. In short: his reign has been disastrous for the average Zimbabwean. In spite of this, however, the people of the southern African country still know how to party.
I first made this discovery when my first day in the country coincided with Mugabe's 92nd birthday. The mood was upbeat, yet not because of the "joyous" occasion, but rather because the nation seem to possess an almost superhuman ability to take every disastrous policy in their stride. Yes, even as the government prints yet more notes to tackle yet another cash shortage ("economic suicide", they remark), Zimbabweans continue to smile and drink Chibuku, a traditional African beer that's as bad-tasting as it is commonplace. As one local hotel owner cheerily put it, "if you don't have a good sense of humour here, you'll slit your wrists."
This playful mentality is far from apparent in the country's most well-known musical exports. Thomas Mapfumo, one of the most popular musicians, has used his music to critique the government. With lyrics lamenting Zimbabwe for being run by crooks, it's little wonder his music has been banned by the state-owned media. Now exiled in the US, he's also called for Mugabe to step down. Another famous Zimbabwean singer, Oliver Mtukudzi, is less explicit—it's been rumoured Mugabe's bought his loyalty with expensive gifts—but there's no getting away from his lyrics clearly stating that "it is time to accept you are old," a favourite track of the embattled opposition. Unfortunately for everyone but his slavish cronies, Mugabe himself has yet to reach that conclusion. His grip on power has been maintained, largely through force and intimidation, since independence in the 1980s. And struggling musicians, like many Zimbabweans, daren't say his name in public (preferring "Uncle Bob," "the old man" or even "you know who") let alone mount a public rebellion.
In spite of these political obstacles, and abject poverty, I was informed by a friend in the tourism industry that the home-grown music scene is fantastic, and that Victoria Falls, the town tourists flock to for its waterfall namesake, is home to much of it. While her enthusiastic claim that "there's an amazing almost 'beach by the river scene,'" proved a little optimistic, there were undeniable pleasures to be found in exploring the local sound.
My search for it took me to a garish backpackers hostel called Shoestrings. The bar fulfilled every travelling millennial cliché—tanned limbs, string vests, beer in abundance and 90s pop bangers blaring. That was until a local nudged me towards a guitarist in the corner, explaining he was "pretty big in Zim." Enter Ryan Koriya: the epitome of both the country's talent, and the infinite obstacles thrown at it. Quickly adopting him as a friend and guide, I learnt of his journey from modest beginnings (all scholarships and struggles) to touring the world with his signature brand of "passion pop."
So, what could the self-proclaimed "Zimbabwean Ed Sheeran" tell me about the country's music scene? First of all, that success requires dizzying levels of tenacity—Ryan spent four years relentlessly trying to get a British visa, had to borrow money to get on the plane itself and relied on busking to make ends meet. Secondly, he emphasised how many preconceptions and prejudices African musicians are subject to, complaining that his background and skin colour have acted as handicaps: "people see me and think bongo drums." He now sees himself as an ambassador for Zimbabwe, aiming to change people's outdated visions of the continent. Oh, and he taught me just how little is actually needed to make music. He lives at the hostel (their idea, not his) and records in peace and quiet once everyone's asleep. Ryan dubs this "the Zimbabwe system," explaining that "I just need a room, electricity and I can make it work." He calls it resourceful, I call that an understatement.
But it's away from the tourist scene and out in the country's capital, Harare, where you are able to better get to grips with the culture. Both city and music scene are shabby but charming upon first impressions, lacking in funds but redeemed by atmosphere. Local musicians play in old warehouses and back gardens, those who can afford to drink frequent the same few watering holes or stick to house parties. "It's nothing like South Africa" one young professional complains; another mutters that "the scene is there, but there's no legs for it to stand on." The closing of an iconic music venue The Book Café certainly demonstrates how run down it is and symbolic of a collective mourning for the past.
Before Mugabe's regime, Zimbabwe was viewed as the "breadbasket of Africa," prosperous, full of promise and rich in culture. Now that so many have fled for work and stability, thanks to the last decade's record breaking hyperinflation, the people left have few savings and even less in the way of income for entertainment. One B&B owner told me she couldn't leave because "its home," even though "there's not much to do around here anymore." This means that boredom, in the case of many, has translated to a culture of heavy drinking. As one friend told me: "everyone basically drinks to fall down."
Young professionals in Zimbabwe aren't immune to the pressures either (probably because so many of them work in the tourism industry the government seems set on sabotaging). One thirty-something from Bulawayo, the country's second city, attributed widespread drug use to the fact that "people are very stressed and need a release." He said that most people he knows have been on or are on drugs: coke and pills mostly. One of his friends died of a heart attack not long ago and another killed themselves around the same time. Both were stress-related. "The government is literally squeezing every penny from us," he frets, "it's just so hard to make business work here."
It seems pretty callous to follow the above with an observation that incompetent governance can spell fun for nightlife, yet through this despair the release of music is more important than ever. Despite the country facing so many challenges, and alcohol and drug abuse presenting an ever-present threat, the country's music scene remains a channel of hope.
Ryan remains a powerful symbol of this. Although the obstacles don't let up for the supremely talented musician—he's 36 and yet to be signed—his outlook is sunny. He attributes this to "Zimbabwean optimism," and speaks proudly to me of the people, their strength and his country. When I ask him how he describes it to fans abroad he answers that "I tell them Zimbabwe is basically paradise." It seemed a comically upbeat answer when you consider Mugabe's regime, but then I looked around me and considered the beautiful landscape, and unbreakable spirit behind the music. Maybe Zimbabwe is a strange kind of paradise after all.