Late last year, Zimbabwe's most noted graphic designer, Saki Mafundikwa (he currently lives in Seattle and teaches at Cornish College of the Arts), sent me a link to a 50-minute video he made of a musical performance by Tonga villagers in the Victoria Falls region of Zimbabwe. Saki sent the link because I exposed, during a session of heavy drinking at the Quarter Lounge, my complete ignorance of the Tonga people and their culture. He was certain that their music and dancing would blow my fucking mind and, in the process, totally crash my whole understanding of Africanness.
Four minutes after opening the link, my mind was indeed blown and my ideas about what made an African African were in shambles. The old and young villagers moved to a rhythm that was completely alien to my sense of rhythm, even though I was raised in Zimbabwe. The closest thing to their furious blowing and drumming that I could find in my mind was late-1970s punk, or early-20th-century dodecaphonic experiments, or that final free-jazz stage of John Coltrane's career.
On another occasion, a Zimbabwean named Marcus Gora said to me: "I manage Mokoomba. Have you heard of them?" The year was 2013. We were drinking in an art gallery in Berlin, the S A V V Y Contemporary. I was in the city for a conference at the House of World Cultures. He was in town on business that concerned the gallery he ran in Harare, Zimbabwe, First Floor Gallery. I told him I had never heard of this Zimbabwean band. He told me Mokoomba were the next big thing and pulled out his smartphone and sent me a link to their music.
I opened it the following morning in my room in Motel One Berlin-Mitte. Now, I expected this band of young-looking men to be Harare-hip—meaning their music would be a mix of that high-tech Caribbean beat with a Zim twist. But it was nothing of the kind.
I was completely caught by surprise by Mokoomba's 2012 album Rising Tide. Each of its tracks dismantled, piece by piece, my whole notion of contemporary African pop. Mokoomba's music had the freedom of a spaceship that can make quantum leaps. One minute, it's close to ska; another, it's close to soul; and then they're letting it rip with rock-hard intensity. I was totally confused, not unlike the time I was totally confused watching the Tonga villagers dancing. Why was this kind of music the biggest thing coming out of Zimbabwe? Why was it so wonderfully weird?
Mokoomba happen to be from the Victoria Falls area, just like those Tonga villagers. The name Mokoomba is a Tonga word for the river that has the waterfall, which is named after the queen of the 19th century, Victoria. Mokoomba's website describes the band's music as a blend of "Afro-fusion with... traditional Tonga rhythms." I'm not an ethnomusicologist, but I find it interesting that this band has roots in a region and culture that, according to my obviously limited understanding of black Africa and its music, is completely out of this world. They don't seem to fit easily into any category.
Tonga people have something going on. I don't know what it is.