I’d been a fan of African music for a while before going to work in Zimbabwe. African bands did come to London occasionally and I’d seen a few brilliant shows – Fela was already quite well known – I got to see him and his ultra-bored wives a couple of times - and there were enough Nigerians in London to make it commercially viable to bring over Sunny Ade with a decent sized band. The most memorable moment for me, however, was seeing Etoile de Dakar at the Lyceum with a very youthful Youssou N’dour on what was, I believe, their first trip to the UK. I went pretty much on spec; I’d heard maybe one track on a compilation album. I distinctly remember standing in the middle of the dance floor, open mouthed, for some seconds on first hearing N’Dour’s voice.
I was happy to hear any music whilst I was in Harare (though a bit surprised to hear so much c&w. Strangely, it seemed more at home there than on the radio at home) Bands played in bars, there were night clubs of course, local music would blast out of record shops and radios and, on Sundays, there was church music – unaccompanied choral for the most part - sounding weirdly similar, harmonically, to the chapel music of the Outer Hebrides. (?)
There was one band I had particularly wanted to see and after a few weeks posters started going up around town advertising an upcoming gig by Thomas Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited. Brilliant. I started to organise friends and crew members for a night of music and dance that I assured everyone would be a highlight of their stay. It sounded like a good idea to a number of them but, come the night, some had to work, others had found other forms of amusement and I was left on my own. Which was fine. Harare was a pretty safe town then and it wasn’t that unusual for me to go to gigs and clubs on my own when at home, so, given that the options were, either to go and have another noisy meal in a familiar restaurant with people I’d been eating with for weeks, or to go to see some live African music in a live African location, there was only one choice. I hopped into a taxi and told the driver the name of the hotel I’d seen on the posters.
There was something about the momentary hesitation in the drivers response that alerted me to the possibility that the Mushandirapamwe Hotel wasn’t the sort of destination that he’d been expecting a European visitor he’d picked up at The Sheraton to name. He drove away and, once outside the hotel perimeter, turned the vehicle directly away from the normal down town routes ,onto less regular and more dimly lit roads. I settled back into my seat and wondered if the night was going to develop into more of an adventure than I had imagined.
The taxi stopped at a quiet t-junction next to a 2 story building that I remember looked not dissimilar to an English inn. I was in Highfield, a township just to the SW of Harare built to house black workers for the white owned industrial areas it bordered. If I needed any confirmation that my presence there was out of the ordinary, it was to be found in the stares that followed me from the taxi into the hotel and across the chequered lino-tiled floor of the foyer to the old table at the far end, where a couple of guys tore off tickets and collected the takings in a cash box. Everyone’s rapt attention was centred on the progress of this skinny white man in a Nino Cerruti suit.
I bought my ticket and went upstairs to were the music was playing
People kept dancing, the floor continued to bounce and I was grateful for that. Unlike in those western bar room scenes, the music didn’t stumble into awkward, murmuring, quiet but, nonetheless, I couldn’t help being aware of the three or four hundred pairs of eyes turning in rhythmic waves to follow my entrance.(Some years later I had the exact opposite experience in a lesbian club in Eressos where, apart from a friend who was manning the bar, I was the only guy in the place. My presence was so completely and thoroughly ignored that, had I stayed longer, I think it might have triggered an existential crisis. Really weird)
Thomas Mapfumo and the band were already playing – packed tight onto the small stage.
I said hello and nodded greeting to the curious around me and was immediately drawn into conversation. They were keen to know what I was doing there and quick to let me know that it wasn’t altogether safe but, despite that, their attitude toward me was solicitous, welcoming and, well, you’d have to say, sort of delighted to see me or, rather, delighted to be there the night this silly Englishman tipped up to see Thomas Mapfumo play.
I had a wonderful night. The band was great although the PA was execrable but the audio shortcomings were made up for by the two on stage dancers – or, one in particular. She was magnificent; beautiful and athletic in both look and movement and as intense as any artist at work. I danced too (I can, by the way. I do not exhibit the usual maladroit lurchings typical of my race and gender – I can hold my own on any dance-floor (as long as you’re not expecting a be-sequined fox-trot) – well, could, anyway - back then.)
At the end of the evening my new found drinking and dancing friends escorted me back out to the warm night and magicked up a taxi. ( I have no idea how I would have got home otherwise.) We shook hands warmly and enthusiastically and I they invited me back any time and I promised with all the sincerity that intoxication made available to me, that I would return at the first possible opportunity.
I didn’t go back. I wasn’t in Harare for long after that and, anyway, it was such a special memory it wasn’t likely to be improved or bettered by a second visit.
I saw Thomas again, once in Berkely where he shared the bill with Bembaya Jazz who a friend was road managing, and later in a working men’s club in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, when another friend booked them in. The sound, on both occasions, was much better than it had been at The Mushandirapamwe Hotel but neither event was as memorable. And neither time did he have a dancer like the dancer I saw that night. I haven’t seen her equal yet and don’t expect to.