The Forgotten Bulawayo Artists

Imbube music in the 1970s was more than entertainment or a means of survival, but it had a serious political purpose.

BY THABANI H. MOYO | @The_CBNews | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | OCT 19, 2021

The older generation in the Imbube genre is well and alive, still talented as before, but it would appear the platforms to share their talent are limited, why is this so? Thabani H. Moyo asks.

BULAWAYO (The Citizen Bulletin) — One of the unique programs during Intwasa Arts Festival koBulawayo was the live-streamed Imbube by Phephindaba and Indlela zimhlophe.

What made the event unique was that the performances were done by the pioneers of Imbube in Zimbabwe. The groups have been in existence going as far back as the 1970s. It was refreshing to see the older men sing and perform umgqashiyo dances. The sound was very original as the two groups expended their energies.

The performances were loud and powerful, their voices singing homophonically in rhythmic unison, creating intricate harmonies. As they performed in their fine black and white uniforms, one could feel the connection that the performance brought between the present and the past. One could only but feel the pride in the performers as they shared their acts.

It boggles the mind that such acts by the old are now rare. Why are groups like Phephindaba and Indlela Zimhlophe not given prominence in Bulawayo and the surrounding areas despite their performances being rich in cultural aspects?

Although such performances are important for social cohesion and cultural preservation, they haven’t been given preference. Why have groups been pushed to the sidelines of performance art?

In these Imbube performances by groups of the older generation, one notes that their song text is based on rich Ndebele history. Through songs like Imbizo, they portray the Ndebele as brave people who are determined to defend their identity. Imbizo is one of the Ndebele regiments that the Ndebele still pride themselves in. The song Imbizo emerged as it was sung to praise the army during war times or move them into action.

Today’s young people must interact and interface with such great artistry rich in Ndebele history. Therefore, one will hope that the sidelining of such groups as Iphephindaba and Indlela Zimhlophe is not a deliberate move to annihilate the Ndebele history and culture.

It is mind-boggling that these groups, despite talent and performance history stretching far back into the 1970s, have never had an opportunity to get a recording deal to keep their artistry for posterity. One would understand that this would have been difficult during the colonial period since their activities were sometimes regarded as some form of protest art.

Some of the songs directly challenged the colonial administration and taunted the white colonial rule. This explains why these songs were mostly sung at night during gatherings.

This was because the white administrators would be fast asleep, and this was an opportune time to criticise them. It then follows why it would be difficult for them to get recording deals during that period. Imbube text was used to express the political and consciousness of the Ndebele people. Its music was used to convey its political adversities.

In this regard, it can be noted that since this type of music emanated during colonisation, it can be concluded that Imbube was used for protesting against foreign domination. By not giving Imbube an appropriate status during the colonial period, the preceding and current administration may be deliberately destroying the important history of the music.

Their songs' text is based on rich Ndebele history.

The performances have a serious intangible heritage. The song texts are sometimes coined based on Ndebele storytelling, hunting activities and social activities like weddings. When listening carefully to the text, one would feel a subtle lampooning of the coloniser and their ways. A simple song coined around hunting activities sometimes brought a message of encouragement to the community to be brave and ready to face the new enemy in the form of a white coloniser. Imbube songs in the 1960s and 1970s were sung for political purposes.

These songs are a heritage that, if left untapped, will go to waste. The unfortunate phenomenon is that the colonial system deliberately limited these performances to beer gardens like Big Bhawa, MaDlodlo, Iminyela and others as a deliberate move to limit their influence and impact. Once limited to these places, they were viewed just as pastime activities and their importance were undermined. It is a pity that even after independence, we failed to acknowledge the importance of these performances.

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The other interesting aspect of isicathamiyo that these groups perform is that their song texts have some spiritual elements. In most cases, they aim to connect the performer to their immediate creator in their parents and their ancestry. This makes the songs relevant in reinforcing belief in the family unit, which is lacking in most of today’s performances.  

Imbube music in the 1970s was more than entertainment or a means of survival, but it had a serious political purpose. It was sung to revolt against the whites as they wanted to destroy African heritage. Therefore, it is important to note that groups like Phephindaba and Indlela Zimhlophe are there to defend and maintain the Ndebele identity and culture.

Ndebele culture, Ndebele history, Indlela Zimhlophe, Phephindaba, Imbube genre, Intwasa Arts Festival koBulawayo, Bulawayo artists

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