In the 1960s and ’70s, when the country was still known as Rhodesia, black nationalists fought a bloody war to overthrow white minority rule. At the concert celebrating the country’s new independence in 1980, Bob Marley performed his song “Zimbabwe,” singing, “Every man got a right to decide his own destiny.”
Zimbabwean artist Thomas Mapfumo rallied the people of his country with his song, “Tumira Vana Kuhondo,” which translates to “Mothers Send Your Children to War.” And Zimbabwean psychedelic rock band Wells Fargo had a hit with a song called, “Watch Out.” It made the band famous, but it also got its members into trouble.
“We had to sit down and change the lyrics to soften them up a bit,” Wells Fargo co-founder Ebba Chitambo, now 66, says with a broad smile and close-cropped white hair. The first version of the song was banned on the radio.
“The chorus was straight and direct: ‘Watch out, freedom is coming,'” Chitambo says. “So, police came to one of our gigs and knocked us around. We had to change it to, ‘Watch out, big storm is coming.'” That was enough to keep the authorities happy, even if everyone knew the “big storm” was freedom.
But the joy of a free Zimbabwe faded as President Robert Mugabe cracked down on his opponents. Musicians who had sung songs of freedom realized that they were living under a different kind of oppression.
Now, Zimbabwe is in the midst of another transformation. In November, Mugabe was forced from office after 37 years. Zimbabweans are preparing for their first elections without him July 30. His successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has pledged the vote will be free and fair. Though many in Zimbabwe are skeptical of that promise, the country is experiencing an openness and freedom of expression that it hasn’t known in decades.
In this consequential moment, Chitambo is making music again. He has a new outfit, called Friends Band. The group mostly plays covers — they are much less famous than Wells Fargo was — and nearly all of the musicians are about 40 years younger than Chitambo. They have only ever known a Zimbabwe ruled by Mugabe.
The group sits around a table at a hotel bar in the city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, before a gig and the younger musicians have questions for Chitambo about making music in politically charged times.
Bassist David Mabhena, 23, is the youngest in the band. He asks Chitambo if he should sing about the changes in their country and make songs that “touch the people’s hearts.”
Chitambo replies that he should write about the reality he’s dealing with. “Unless you want to write, ‘Kiss me, kiss me baby,’ which I know you don’t want.”
This election will be the first Mabhena has ever voted in. “I feel like it’s now my time to make a change,” he says.
Friends Band’s 27-year-old singer Zinzile Majola says it felt like a window opened when Mugabe left. “It actually gave us more confidence that things would change from now on, from the way they were, from the way they used to be,” Majola says.
Chitambo says his younger band mates remind him of how he was at their age. “Listening to their ideas and all that, it reminds me of the days way back in time,” he says.
And just as Wells Fargo sang about freedom coming at the birth of Zimbabwe independence, Mabhena says he wants to write a song about the better Zimbabwe he hopes is coming after this month’s election.
“When I grew up, I had people promising us that things would change, but things go from bad to worse,” he says. “The song I will write about is a song believing change is near and there is hope.”