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Pirate Brickhill: 'An African in London' Pt 2 My Birthday vs. Zimbabwe Elections

Rather fed up with the whole boring prospect of turning 30 (which incidentally I have on good authority is the new 21), I decided to change the focus of the whole sorry mess by having an extended celebration spanning a little over a week. Having already racked up an impressive 3 hangovers, splitting up with my girlfriend, and working on a straight 8 film competition entry with awesome Big Red Button, I really felt like I was hitting the ground running as on the eve of my actual birthday a week ago I trundled off to the Legends of Zimbabwe Gig at the Stratford Rex. The Legends in question; Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi are actually the two biggest stars in Zimbabwean music and both have been around since I was a child growing up in Harare - in fact for a while I was constantly called Thomas Mapfumo at school by my rather unimaginative peers, although in retrospect the resemblance is uncanny.

Legends of Zimbabwe
Prior to the show - the last in their 'UK' tour, I should probably mention that there had been riot scenes in Birmingham when the venue had been changed last minute to a smaller capacity location meaning that many people could not get in. Anyway, there had been two well attended and by all accounts 'rocking' shows since then, so having filled my belly up with Nando's peri peri goodness and sneaked a little 'doobie' I was feeling pretty great about the whole thing.

10pm. There has not yet been a sound check by anyone and a phone call to 'sources' indicate that there are ongoing 'negotiations' between the organisers and the artistes. Hmmm

11.30pm. Still no sign of acts, although Oliver Mtukudzi's band arrive backstage. We head off to the hotel where everyone is staying in the hope of getting an interview with Thomas Mapfumo and sit around for a bit drinking beer in the hotel bar.

12.00am. Apparently Oliver is starting his set although we are still down the road at the hotel. With a stroke of luck we do manage to get to say hello to Thomas and have, what I shall refer to as: 'a nice cup of tea', with him and his entourage. I'm just savoring the moment - sitting with one of my musical icons in a sleazy hotel enjoying a 'nice cup of tea', when the negotiating team return and we have to make way.

12.30am. Arriving back at the gig we are thoroughly frisked by the rather abusive Stratford Rex bouncers who also confiscate my screwdrivers out of my camera assistant bag - I'm rather indignant at the suggestion that I might have come to cause trouble as the bag also contains lens cleaners, several different colours of camera tape and a can of air duster which I manage to retain after an explanation which I fear goes completely over the heads of this filmmaking illiterate rabble.

12.40am. Finally get back into the venue, and try to get some nice footage of Oliver on stage, but although some people are filming - I am rumbled (I think the camera is a little too pro looking), and Oliver gives me a look and shakes his head - not tonight - Ah well.

12.45am. Having put my camera away, I grab a beer and enjoy the rest of the show. The man IS a Zimbabwean musical legend, and he keeps the crowd well entertained. I think to myself how cool it is to be seeing him in front of such a small crowd, rather than having to push my way through the thronging masses. This really is turning out to be a special birthday.

1.00am. Oliver finishes his shortened set and the sound engineers come on to change the stage over for Thomas' set. After a few minutes, we notice that they are now just packing things up and some people wander up to the stage to try and find out what's going on.

1.05am. A bottle is thrown from the crowd and hits the drumkit. The crowd begins to transform into an angry mob. Worried that in any fracas something might happen to my camera I nip backstage just has the venue bouncers push for a stand off with the crowd.

1.15am. In the wings, backstage at the Stratford Rex, I chat briefly to Thomas Mapfumo's band - I'm sorry not to be seeing them and they're sorry not to be playing - it's a sad state of affairs and there are running battles between unhappy punters and venue security - the occasional glass bottle smashes on the stage - someone is apparently sprayed with mace by security.

2.00am. As I wait at Stratford bus station for a nightbus home, having sneaked out the side entrance (the fire escapes were all bolted shut which I'm pretty sure is illegal), I start to become angry at the whole thing. Earlier in the night, I had found out the rather pathetic amount of money that the acts were being paid for what should be the biggest Zimbabwean music gig outside Zimbabwe. By my calculations, Oliver and Thomas were played for fools by the promoters, who no doubt took the lions' share and then some of takings for the whole tour, and whilst I commend Oliver's commitment to his fans to still play, even under adverse conditions - I can completely understand why Thomas didn't play. In my opinion, having worked on live shows all over UK, these two icons of Zimbabwean music and culture were so badly paid and treated that I'm a little gob-smacked that they agreed to come on the tour in the first place. All this on the eve of possibly the most important Zimbabwean election since 1980 - little did I realise that Zimtownship. the promoter's treatment of the fans on that night was a rather depressing precursor for the treatment of the Zimbabwean Electorate as I write this just over a week later.

3.00am. I wake up at the wrong end of the N8 bus route and jump off and then back on the same bus to take me back home.

Tongue Tied
I decided to continue celebrating my birthday throughout the week, and but for a little paid work wandering around Shoreditch filming Jodie Kidd, I managed a very decadent and rock'n'roll and dare I say 'cool' week incorporating two more minor hangovers, a gig for Russian streetkids, buying weed in a London alleyway at sunset and turning the downstairs of the Kickbar into a Movie and Musical legends fancy dress party - I think to the somewhat alarm of the management. And so to the Tongue Tied Tumbuka fundraiser on Sunday 30th of March - the much needed antithesis of this Zimbabwean election fiasco. Tumbuka is an internationally acclaimed dance company from Zimbabwe that began life as a youth project trying to offer kids from under-privileged backgrounds a route into careers in dance. Indeed, even thousands of miles away in London at this modest fundraising event, 3 former Tumbuka dancers were playing their part in trying to help the dance company that had fostered their talents.

The evening began with a short film about Tumbuka which I had volunteered to put together as my contribution to the event. I'd like to say it was good, but then it was my film so you can watch it for yourself on the Paw Paw Jam youtube channel and decide. Handsen Chikowore then kicked off the performances with some of his poetry which he read, personally I think his material was better than his delivery, but top marks for the quote of the night; 'Prepare to be mouth-watered!' Mathias Julius, a former Tumbuka dancer who still works with the company in Zimbabwe had come over and especially choreographed a performance with 4 additional dancers which reflected snippets of most of the dances he had choreographed with Tumbuka over the years. I won't even pretend to have much of a vocabulary when it comes to describing dance - but as Mathias said to me after the gig, part of the magic of dance is that it exists often as a fairly abstract art-form and as such people can and will read things into it. Mashasha the Zimbabwean bassist who is rapidly making a name for himself on the London music scene as someone to watch carefully and he wowed the audience with a few songs from his eagerly anticipated forthcoming debut album. He appeared on stage with just his bass guitar plugged straight into the PA and a microphone and immediately had the crowd transfixed as in his first number he berated the portrayal of negative African stereotypes on television before being joined onstage by Iranian percussionist Ali Nourbakhsh for an experimental collaboration that spanned cultures and continents, fusing them into one. I think this might be one to keep an eye on in 2008 - watch this space -

Tugg S.T.A.R slammed (I believe this is the correct appreciative term nowadays) a couple of his poems, and Boy Blue entertainment filled the stage with their impressive piece - part of an award winning dance they performed at the end of last year, before Brian Chikwava, award winning Zimbabwean writer, lightened the mood with an excerpt from one of his stories about 'The Jazz Goblin'. However the finale really trumped the show in the end: Tavaziva dance company, choreographed by ex-Tumbuka member Bawren Tavaziva performed a piece from their current show 'Chatsva'. The troupe also features another ex-Tumbuka dancer, Samson Felo, in the six strong company and their vibrant performance hammered home the message that African contemporary dance is thriving within the greater contemporary dance world which brought us neatly back to the reason we were all there in the first place. Tumbuka: the reason the night took place, but also the company that has nurtured some of the most impressive talent on show on the night.

And so, just as I hope against hope that the company will survive it's current and ongoing financial crisis - I also hope against hope that the ongoing political shenanigans will come to and end, but not in the same fashion as recent events in Kenya. Even as I sit at my desk preparing to post this blog, the results of the election trickle in and Zimbabwe stands on the brink... of what, no-one is yet sure. It appears that in both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections, Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC party has secured overwhelming victories and yet as the results are drip-fed to the expectant masses, electoral officials would have us believe that the game is neck and neck. Next week will Zimbabwe be basking in a new found optimism, sulking as it settles down to another unwanted term with the old regime, or erupting into chaotic madness? I know not. I know what I hope for, but as the chance seems to slip away I'm too scared even to dream that it might be so.