Home » Arts & Culture » Bring Back Contract Musicians [opinion]

From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, unemployment among musicians was not heard of as the majority of musicians were employed on “contracts” either in beerhalls or hotels where they entertained patrons on a daily basis.

A good band would often be hired on a twelve month contract while an average group would get six months. Work for most musicians would begin at five in the evening when pub patrons are coming from work. In the afternoon, musicians would spend most of their time rehearsing so that they would give a good show in the evening. Musicians would often run from one band to another seeking greener pastures.

Most musicians were able to raise families, pay rentals or even buy their own cars using the money they earned from contract employment. Almost every beer garden in Harare and Bulawayo and smaller towns run by town councils had a band to entertain patrons. City councils believed that patrons stayed longer and paid more for drinking when there was live music at the venue, thus increasing their profits. The entertainers were paid weekly from the city council’s profits.

After Independence in 1980, a lot of blacks moved to plush suburbs in the low density areas. They discovered smarter places to drink from with clean toilets and began to shun the old township beer gardens. Even those who remained in the townships began to frequent these posh places too to the extent that the city councils’ beerhalls which were run by Rufaro Marketing became unpopular. Profits were therefore reduced. The first casualties of such losses were the bands which entertained patrons.

They were given their marching orders.

However, the demise of Rufaro Marketing which was a subsidiary group of city councils saw the end of beerhall entertainment. The bands that were comfortable working in one venue started to look for work elsewhere. Most of them began to tour the country and giving performances in municipality halls and at growth points where patrons would pay to see these performances. Some of them, who were used to contract employment in one venue and were settled with their families in one place, could not stomach the tough new experience of uncertainty in showbiz.

They chose to split up and dissolve their groups. That marked the beginning of the present day unemployment for musicians.

Most of today’s musicians are looking for venues which will give them work but the competition is stiff as the rate of unemployment rises.

Despite this, more and more school leavers are still seeking opportunities in the entertainment industry as the unemployment situation gets more and more desperate. Very few of them make real money from the industry as did their contract employment counterparts in the 1960’s.

How did most bands of the past end up on contract? It was easy, city councils believed that there was need for entertainment of their patrons in every beerhall.

When music was provided, the patrons tended to stay longer and spend more on their products. So there was demand for musical entertainers at every beer garden.

When the city councils began to call some of these singing groups to entertain patrons at their beerhalls, it was also their responsibility to buy them the musical instruments which they would use to play. Bands were put on “contract” which lasted for between six months and a year depending on the demand from the public.

With this revolution, everybody who thought they could play an instrument soon formed a band and sought a municipality contract as this was the answer to their unemployment problem. Although the musicians were only paid a pittance, the security of a “contract”, a regular wage and sometimes free accommodation, attracted so many bands to such an extent that by 1959, there were over 200 well-known bands in the cities of Salisbury (Harare) and Bulawayo.

With all sorts of external influences on the type of music the bands chose to lure audiences, names such as Capital City Dixies, De-Black Evening Follies, The Harare Mambos, The Pop Settlers, The Springfields, Tuttenkhamein, Jazz Crooners, The Echoes, and The Melody Makers began to emerge in the late sixties.

It wasn’t only the city councils that sponsored the bands. As more and more township boys from Highfield, Harare, Mabvuku, Mufakose, Mpopoma, Mzilikazi, Sakubva, Mucheke, Mkoba, and Amaveni began to learn how to play musical instruments at the youth centres, they began to form bands and started looking for work on “contracts”. Firms such as B.A.T. (British-American Tobacco) saw the need to use these youths to promote their products in the township ghettos.

The Harare Mambo Band, The Pop Settlers, The Soul and Blues Union were some of the bands which emerged in the early sixties supported by such firms. Even the small town councils began to buy musical equipment for bands. Some musicians would leave their homes to settle in other towns where there were musical equipment owners willing to employ them as more and more private club owners, hoteliers, fashion shops owners and even missionaries began to buy equipment for groups to promote their respective interests. As a result, the early sixties saw over 500 bands on contracts employed in the country. One significant band which emerged during this time was the Jiri Kwela Kings sponsored by the late Jairos Jiri, founder of the Jairos Jiri Association, a charitable organisation looking after people with disabilities.

They toured the whole country playing to large audiences in municipality halls in the townships. Blind people and people with physical disabilities formed the membership of this band and it was the sympathy coupled with the ability to play when so disaantaged that drew the audiences. Other bands included the Broadway Quartet, The All Blacks Limited, The Springfields, Otis Waygood (the only significant white band at the time), The St Paul’s Musami Mission Band, Eye of Liberty and the King Messengers’ Quartet.

Some of these bands ventured into recording and were given further recording company contracts by Gallo Records (now known as ZMC) and Teal Record Company (now Gramma). Most of their debut singles were a success as they sold thousands of copies.

Gallo scored its major success with a band which had been around for quite some time, The Green Arrows. The album “Chipo Chiroorwa” (Chipo, it’s time to get married) sold in large quantities. Before that they had only concentrated on releasing singles and around 1971 a group called The Great Sounds which was based at Magaba Beerhall in Mbare found itself in one of Harare’s commercial 4-track studios where they recorded a national hit ” Anopenga Ane Waya” (She is mad, She has a loose wire in her head) which also sold large quantities. Songs around this time were centred mainly around social themes, excluding politics. The Harare Mambos who were housed at Elizabeth Hotel in Harare on contract were singing songs such as “Tamba Suzana” (Dance Susan Dance) and the Tuttenkhamen Band which was based at Mushandirapamwe Hotel in Highfield recorded “Itayi Cent Cent Vakomana, Ini Ndachona” (Please boys chip in a cent each so that I can survive too) which is a song about unemployment and the Springfields who had a contract with Mutanga Night Club were playing copyrights of 12 bar blues but sung in Shona such as ” Bhutsu Yangu Yapera Hiri” (The heel of my shoe is worn out).. The St. Paul’s Musami Band recorded “Mvura Ngayinaye” (Let the Rain Fall) around 1972.

It was not unusual for a band with a hit in the charts to pick up $60,000 in royalties every three months. This, coupled with the band’s residency on contract at a prestigious hotel made the then musician everyone’s envy. If this could be repeated, unemployment among musicians would significantly be reduced.

The author is a professor at the University of Zimbabwe. He is also a musician and an author of several books on music.nbsp

Source : The Herald