13 November 2012

Zimbabwe: Are Women Taking Over Music?

After watching Dudu Manhenga perform alongside Zahara and Melisa from Kenya at the Maputo Festival last weekend which was female dominated, I asked myself, "Are women now liberated enough to take over the music business from men, or is this just a mere coincidence? What criteria did the festival organisers use to recruit mostly women to perform at the festival? Is it because there are more female musicians now or are women easier to negotiate with?" I did not come up with a straight answer, but this festival certainly set me thinking.

The coming of Independence in Zimbabwe in the year 1980 did not only bring about certain freedoms and expansion of the women's roles in society, but also that of music and music-making. Among the traditional thinking that it was taboo for the Zimbabwean woman to play a musical instrument and to be involved in any form of musical activity except in a church choir, Zimbabwean middle class parents who wished to be more modern began to allow their daughters to be involved in music.

Newly-wealthy families could afford to have a guitar or a forte-piano in their homes, meaning that music was suddenly accessible to a larger portion of society than it ever had been before. This expanded interest in music, the fashion of educating young women, and the increase in women's leisure time meant that the number of women involved in domestic music making increased significantly.

Music began to be considered a social accomplishment for women, which reflected on the gentility of one's family, filled leisure time, and drove away ennui. While cooking, sewing, drawing or embroidery were admirable skills to possess they weren't nearly as effective in drawing attention to oneself as music.

A private social evening would be the ideal occasion for a young woman to sit down at the guitar or fortepiano and demonstrate her skills to everyone in the room. Several "enlightened" parents with the advent of independence, began to send their daughters for private music lessons to places such as the Zimbabwe College of Music or to private homes where such tuition was being offered. There were no longer too many restrictions on women practising music.

Today, the Zimbabwean patriarchal society seems to have accepted the role of female musicians. Despite this, there are not very many women in show business in Zimbabwe. One would expect that Zimbabwe, with a population of over 12 million people and 12 000 musicians, at least 6 000 would be women musicians. But that is not the case. Apart from a handful of performers and singers such as Dorothy Masuka, Stella Chiweshe, Busi Ncube, Chiwoniso Maraire, Ivy Kombo, Fungisai Zvakavapano, Betty Makaya, Shingisai Siluma, Plaxedes Wenyika, Dudu Manhenga, Prudence Katomeni, The Women's Band, Kudzai Sevenzo, Patience Musa, Edith WeUtonga, Clairs Nyakujara, Rute Mbangwa, Sandra Ndebele, Skhu, Thanda Richardson, Cindy Munyavi, Cynthia Mare and Hope Ruvimbo Masike, women have found pop business taxing both socially and emotionally.

One would think that since records, cassettes and CDs are bought by both male and female fans, it is only natural that there should be an equal number of men and women in show business.

The majority of women who sing are used as backing singers by male artists. Only the brave ones such as those mentioned front the stage. There is only one female sound engineer of note, one Gloria Chikepe who has worked with Alick Macheso and several other groups. There is also another female director in charge of the Zimbabwe Music Rights Association, one Polisile Ncube who despite her influence in the industry has very little power over this male-dominated industry.

There are a number of disparities that need to be addressed. A number of songs are connected with the relationship between men and women and unfortunately because the majority of song writers happen to be male, women are usually placed in a derisory role in these songs. Sometimes the lyrics describe women as sex objects (e.g. Dhafu Korera) or promiscuous and praise male machoism and chauvinism. These songs are unreal and unbalanced but for as long as studios, record production and the singing are controlled by men the status quo will remain.

The music industry itself apart from giving a few jobs such as secretaries to women, gives almost all of its jobs in the organisations to men. In one or two cases, (such as Frontline Sound where a woman was running the company), there is always a man holding the top job.

The main reason of course is the traditional role played by women in African societies. Even in modern urban centres women are still looking for "female" jobs such as secretarial work or nursing. Few women apply for positions such as record engineers, producers or disc-jockeys.

Surely if singing appears to be glamourous for a man it must also appear the same for a woman. Yet the average African woman is inhibited by social pressures to expose herself in a job such as playing in a band. Attitudes from the society for male musicians are usually very negative as very few people regard being employed as a musician as work. They are worse when the musician happens to be a woman.

A woman who sings in a band in Zimbabwe is usually perceived by our society as a "loose" or "easy" woman (as evidenced by the pressure put upon the likes of Ivy Kombo and Fungisayi Zvakavapano by members of the society who think that as gospel singers they should not wear clothes which are deemed to be indecent).

This is not always true. Probably one of the big reasons is the way many women have been brought up at home and at school. They have been encouraged to believe that men and women always do different things and that the best thing for women to do is to learn to cook and to look after children or perhaps train as a nurse, teacher and secretary. Singing in a band is regarded as a job for male vagrants and certainly not for decent women regardless of how talented they are in that area.

A lot of women in music are found in the gospel arena because it is a safe platform from which to land oneself onto the music scene. Because people fear God, it is difficult for male chauvinists to stop their daughters from singing about God, just like they find it difficult to stop their wives from going to church. Names such as Ivy Kombo, Fungisai Zvakavapano-Mashavave, Mercy Mutsvene, Joice Simeti, Olivia Charamba and Shingisai Siluma are found in Zimbabwean gospel circles while the few who have braved it outside the gospel arena include Hope Ruvimbo Masike, Betty Makaya, Busi Ncube, Dudu Manhenga, Stella Chiweshe, Sister Thanda, Sandra Ndebele, Rute Mbangwa, Prudence Katomeni-Mbofana, Cindy Munyavi, Kudzai Sevenzo, Edith WeUtonga, Claire Nyakujara, Plaxedes Wenyika, Jean Masters and Patience Musa.

It does not have to be like that. A woman can do most of the jobs that a man can do. Music is not such a complicated job that a woman fails to do. As Stella Chiweshe one of Zimbabwe's leading female mbira players put it: "I counted the number of fingers on a man's hand, and saw five. I counted the fingers on my hand, they also came to five. So I said to myself, what the hell, if man can play mbira, I can too'. She stood her ground and became one of Zimbabwe's leading mbira players competing with the likes of Dumisani Maraire and Ephat Mujuru on the international platform. Confidence and an independent mind helped Stella to achieve this.

What most women need is the determination to break through the old ideas that some work is for women and other for men only. Those who show this determination have a great advantage such as the lady who started employment as a stewardess on Air Zimbabwe but ended up as the pilot of the plane.

Because there are only a few women doing those jobs, any woman who applies herself is bound to be noticed, straight away.

This is why all the women who have had the guts to take up the microphone in Zimbabwe are noticed straight away.

They might not want to be thought any different just because they are women, but this is inevitable in a world which is still patriarchial, and having been noticed more than their male counterparts, they are bound to excel. Is it not ridiculous that even today some people still think music is a job for vagrants only?

For as long as women are not willing to take up the mike and show the world what they are capable of, the debate on gender inequality in music will remain unsolved.

Zimbabwean women are still at the beginning of their popular music careers but many are making strides to achieve this goal.

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