What can we bring from the past into the future?
You know that saying – “History shapes the present and informs the future”? Probably not because it’s a remix of a quote from the novel, “Murder in the Bastille”. In the book, American mystery writer Cara Black writes, “The past informs the present. Memory makes the map we carry, no matter how hard we try to erase it”. While that quote is great, it doesn’t quite fit what I’m trying to say now to my imagined future readers. So I copied it, transformed it and combined it with other loose pieces of information floating in my head – to create something that I feel is truer to my experience now (but probably already exists somewhere on Google). That’s because I’m not the first person to remix the past and I won’t be the last. Another creative re-inventing the past to suit himself is contemporary artist, musician and producer, Joshua Mandalisto Chiundiza.
Joshua Chiundiza initially gained ‘exposure’ as the MC / producer of the alternative / experimental Hiphop trio, “The Monkey Nuts”. The band consisted of Impi Maphangs, Tino Tagwireyi and Joshua Chiundiza. They fused elements of Rap, Rock, electronic and African music and were signed to the British independent label, Barely Breaking Even (BBE Music). During their time together the trio performed alongside De La Soul, Oliver Mtukudzi, Natalie Stewart (from the Grammy nominated duo Floetry), Hope Masike, Akala (MOBO award winner) and Tumi and the Volume. Following on from “The Monkey Nuts”, Josh continued to use sound to explore the visual, sonic, social and spiritual elements of Chewa, Shona and Nguni culture – through Art. Over the years Josh’s recordings, performances, video art, poetry and installations have been featured in galleries, festivals and institutions that include: Videonale 18 and ZKM Center for Art & Media (Germany); The Overkill Festival (Netherlands); Antigel Festival (Switzerland); Festival Afropixel (Senegal); and the Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival, National Arts Festival (South Africa).
In Zimbabwe Josh runs “the Husikisiki Studio” in Harare. “The Husikisiki Studio” is an arts education agency that seeks to re-imagine concepts of traditional African storytelling by combing it with Art, Science, Technology, Virtual Reality, Film and Digital Audio Production. For me, this idea of telling our stories through VR, science, music and films initially sounded at odds with how Africa is seen in the West – yet so immersive and tangible. Therefore, I decided to pick the brain of the re-mixer who imagined it to understand where his coming from.
AG: Zimbabweans often commend each other for their resilience. But after so many years of surviving daily trauma do you think we can imagine a future beyond what we know now?
JMC: Yeah, so much has been said about our resilience. It’s a great trait to have, considering our current situation. But I think imagination is of upmost importance – now more than ever. Particularly for our generation! That element of hope is massive. It would be very difficult to want more or dream of something better without imagination. I’d say imagination is medicine for the trauma. Believing that things can be better and will get better. The future is an idea, so what ideas do we have for ourselves for tomorrow. There’s so much to deal with, so much to be fixed. It really requires a big imagination with serious intent. Who else will build the future for us?
AG: None but ourselves can build a better tomorrow. I agree with you. I think sound has a way of transporting people into another world. Similarly, virtual reality lets you observe and interact with imaginary worlds. Is this how you draw a connection between sonic landscapes and VR in your Art?
JMC: A little bit like that but different. I see Music and VR as modes and tools for storytelling. The connection lies in how I am always looking at new and interesting ways to tell stories.
JP: I read somewhere that your work is about “preserving culture without being conservative”. With “The Monkey Nuts” and your artistic performances you pushed African arts into new and innovative spaces. However, I am interested in knowing what elements of Zim culture do you think we should leave alone and preserve?
JMC: (laughs) Nothing is sacred except the planet! That’s the main and only element that I feel is important to preserve for the next generation. As for our culture, we can flip all our cultural ideas and traditions upside down if we have to. I believe that’s what it will take to preserve the earth we inherited.
AG: So your work is experimental by nature. An experiment is a controlled way to test out or investigate an idea. You’ve talked about flipping culture and creating new dreams of the future. So, I’m curious to know what results from your experiments are useful to the culture?
JMC: Sounds like there is quite a bit of responsibility placed on me in that question (laughs). To be honest, I don’t know how useful these experiments have been to “the culture” (laughs). But I will say its had quite an impact on how I see myself as an artist. Let me explain it this way. It has become very important for me as a Zimbabwean, as an African, to balance my view of Art with some historical and cultural context. Because artists actually are real contributors to society. For example, in the Shona culture ‘kusika’ means to make (to create). The word ‘kusika’ finds its philosophy in the Shona traditional religion of ‘Mwari’ (God) – ‘Musikavanhu’ (the creator of man) – ‘Musiki’ (The Creator). This belief informs the functional aspect of how Shona peoples view Art. Meaning, God is the supreme Artist and the artist is primary (being an essential or basic part of Creation). Therefore, all artists function as a healer, priest, scientist, farmer, engineer, architect, musician etc – informed by the fluidity of the nature of God (laughs). I know that was long but but that’s what I’ve been getting from the experiments. You must remember, we live in country shaped by that whole ‘if you become an artist you will be broke’ thinking. So, being experimental has really freed me of that type of mindset and the Art industry’s expectations. There are so many lessons to be learned from how our cultures perceived Art. Lessons that can help create meaningful and financially sustainable careers for artists today and influence how we live tomorrow.
JP: I like how you use our culture to shape your ideas. Often Zim artists borrow from American, European and even African sources and rarely tap into the wellspring of their own culture. It’s rare to hear Zimbos sampling James Chimombe or Stella Chiweshe or Bhundu Boys in their Art. Why is it?
JMC: I think it’s because we still believe foreign is cool and we don’t value our culture as much. We often watch all these foreign artists without realising that they are just expressing their own culture. I’m just hoping we get over it soon. We really have to begin to value our culture and start to innovate it.
AG: That reminds me. At one stage there was some controversy surrounding Tamy Moyo’s “Ndibereke” similarity to The Monkey Nuts’ “Tsoka Ndibereke”. With the desire keep African culture alive in mind, what is your take on sampling and inspiration in the age of creative commons?
JMC: Ah yes that! I think sampling is great. And I think if you want to use another persons song, then great! But there are procedures for that. And I think if those procedures are followed, then everybody wins.
AG: Each one feed one. I get it. Going back to that ‘broke artist mentality’ briefly. NGOs have become a lifeline for starving African artists. However, others accuse them of regurgitating harmful stereotypes about Africa. How can we make NGOs work for African interests?
JMC: This is an interesting scenario. If we look at some of these NGO projects that some artists get involved in, we can see how cheesy they are, and how they usually carry low creative input. They add little artistic value to our African narrative. Most NGO’s don’t care about depth of a culture. Nonetheless, I think the problem is when the artist becomes too dependant on NGO funding to sustain their career. That’s where the stereotyping begins. If an artist cannot build on their career practically, then those harmful stereotypes will continue. We need artists to professionalize and build value for their careers in order for NGO’s to buy into their agenda and not the other way round. Value is key, it turns the table in terms of who’s agenda we champion.
JP: In your “Fathers of the Nation” project you interrogated patriarchal and paternal traditions influence on leadership in Zimbabwe. And you championed respect for our elders. And you explored how this respect can be abused. How do you think this aspect of Shona culture can be re-imagined?
JMC: I think more emphasis needs to be put on accountability and really taking into account what is needed for our time. We need to be able to use new communication systems to get these traditional ideas across to our generation. Technology allows for this to happen. It’s only a matter of applying context. We have a great blueprint with the ‘Dare’ system of the Shona. This system was important for moral grounding and a pursuit of common good. It influenced a particular way of thinking and behaving. Its influence was mostly for the good of the community. And it built upon the foundations of Hunhu or Ubuntu.
AG: This brings us to the prevalence of “toxic masculinity,’’ not just in Africa but in the West, as evidenced by the #MeToo movement and the ongoing “crisis of masculinity”. As a dreamer and a man living through these times, how do you imagine the African man of tomorrow will be?
JMC: Oh yes, interesting times! I think we continually lie to our selves as men and that also stems from being lied to. Boys are taught early on that you don’t cry or show any affection or emotion – that they should be strong (physically / mentally) and not be weak – all to fit into this superficial industrialized definition of what a man should be. Masculinity isn’t about being a strong protector or a cold provider. Those ideas were formulated to turn men into these robotic figures. Historically – from the 1930’s into the 1960’s – our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers were forced to leave their families to seek work in towns and cities. That’s because their source of income and self worth had been eroded by colonialism. This rural to urban migration significantly shaped the image of what an Africa man should be. That’s why we need to learn more about our history. Understand how we got here. Then hopefully we can change things. Men are not machines. Our masculinity should be based on good character and not just on social or cultural functions. Being mentally, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually sound are human aspects that are grossly underrated, and yet these are the things that make us competent beings. A balance needs to be struck. I hope we take time to understand that as African men.
AG: Talking about rural to urban migration. Your band was named after “nyimo” and “nzungu” mostly found in the rural areas. So, my last question is when was the last time you did the urban to rural migration. And when you got “kumusha”, what did you enjoy the most about being there?
JMC: (laughs) Man, recently. Probably about a month ago. I honestly enjoy just waking through the brush and grasslands, it’s such a beautiful sight. Everything is so calm in that moment and it often makes me wonder why I am still living in the city. I genuinely want to spend more time out of bounds. Hopefully I make enough money to build a nice little hide out somewhere in the bundu.