The Queen’s Hotel (1984)
We were a hodgepodge of nationalities at the rundown Harare Youth Hostel but two blokes stood out—Ian, an English South African, and Graham a supposed ‘Rhodie’, both were long-term residents. Ian, with his many suits, ties, and coifed hair looked like a businessman whereas Graham with his long hair, tie dye shirts and groovy potato sack pants looked like a hippie. I found it remarkable that they were both allegedly doing business in Harare. I had a sneaky suspicion that what they were really doing was trying to avoid being conscripted for the South African Defense Forces (the SADF). I think they were draft dodgers, maybe to their credit.
In conversations with these two chaps, I casually mentioned that I was interested in the music of a native son named Thomas Mapfumo. He was still one of the top singers in Zimbabwe at that time and founder of a style of music peculiar to the Shona tribe called Chimurenga. His music represented the struggle for liberty that had taken place earlier in Rhodesia and in the guerilla camps of neighbouring Frontline States. At the core of this music was the traditional Shona instrument—the mbira (thumb piano) that Mapfumo incorporated into the heart of his music—chimurenga.
The mbira was a hand-held slab of hardwood, sometimes with a resonator, and usually with six to ten pieces of metal that looked like the handles of spoons on which the thumbs plucked. The other end of these metal pieces were narrow and pointed and they all went over one cross bar that acted as a fret and under another one that was fixed to the base. The differing lengths of each tine produced different notes and the musician would need to tune the instrument before performing. The wooden base often had four bottle tops loosely nailed onto it to give it a rattling sound. In concert, the mbira, which did not produce a great sound, was mounted inside a huge gourd with a mike shoved inside. Mapfumo complemented the traditional mbira sounds with drums, bass, rattles, and introduced guitarists who tried to imitate the mbira’s sound.
The music and messages of Chimurenga were highly political and after Rhodesia declared UDI, Mapfumo’s music landed him in prison. For the most part, the mbira plays the same arrangement of sounds, which have a trance-inducing feel to it, hypnotic perhaps. I found his music particularly addictive. I could care less what Mapfumo was ranting on about or for that matter, what any of the Zimbabwean musicians were singing about—it just sounded right and this sound was my rhythm for travelling through Zimbabwe.
* * *
‘So you like African music, hey,’ chided Ian, the smartly dressed business guy.
Ian and Graham probably thought I had gone native or potty or both. I could imagine them laughing amongst—Why would a ‘whitey’ like anything African, hey? My answer caught Graham off guard, ‘Yes, I like it very much.'
I had not grown up in Africa and I did not share their hesitations or presumptions about ‘black Africa’—I was open to anything and anyone (or at least I thought I was).
‘Where did you hear about Mapfumo?’ Ian asked in his eloquent Rhodie accent.
‘I just bought a cassette of his—Mr. Music’
‘Jah man,’ Graham said, ‘he plays every night at the Queen’s Hotel, hey.’
‘Where’s that?’ I asked, thinking I might get a chance to see him live.
‘Ach man! It’s far from here,’ he answered quickly as if to put me off.
‘Can I go there?’ I asked.
‘Ach sus man—are you penga?’ Graham asked.
Ian just laughed.
‘What did he just call me?’
‘He thinks you’re mad,’ replied Ian.
‘It’s in a rough part of town.’ Graham warned. ‘Full of munts.’
'I don't give a toss what its full of,' I added.
‘If we go,’ Ian added, ‘a few of us will have to go with you.’
‘Because you can’t go by yourself, you puss,’ squawked Graham. ‘Besides, it might be too dangerous, hey.’
‘What’s dangerous?’ I added. ‘I walk around here all day.’
‘Jah maneer but that is during the day,’ Graham pointed out. ‘It’s a different country here at night, hey.’
‘Struze bob,’ Ian chimed in. ‘It’s in a rough neighbourhood and ‘whites’ don’t go there that’s why.’ As an afterthought, he added, ‘Besides, if the Africans are on the piss, there may be trouble.’
‘Hmm, I see,’ I said. ‘You might have a point.’
The hippie Graham then conferred briefly with Ian.
‘Look here man,’ said Ian, ‘if we go, you have to promise me one thing.’
‘If a fight breaks out—we have to leave.’
‘Why would there be a fight?’ I asked innocently, ‘Because we are white?’
Then Ian rolled his eyes and exhaled deeply on his cigarette.
‘Who knows man?’ He said, ‘If they are on the piss, anything can happen with these feckin’ munts.’
‘Struze bob,’ nodded Graham.
I had not heard the word munt in a while and I thought I had just left South Africa—maybe he was a racialist or maybe he was just telling the truth. Munt was a derogatory term for an African. They eyed each other then caught my eye. They probably wondered what the hell was wrong with me.
‘Look,’ said Ian. ‘If a fight starts, for whatever reason, and they see a whitey in the crowd,’ He punctuated his statement between dramatic drags on his cigarette, ‘they’ll pick on you and for no reason at all except that you’re a whitey.’
I was still keen on the venue but now I was feeling a bit of trepidation.
‘Would it be alright to take my tape recorder with me?’
‘Are you feckin’ crazy man?’ Graham yelled. ‘They’ll steal it from you, hey.’
‘And for god sakes don’t carry any extra cash,’ added Ian.
‘Don’t even carry your passport,’ Graham said. ‘Just in case you get rolled.’
I guess this was going to be another of my little adventures in Africa. This was all part of my 'African experience'—never a dull moment.
Originally, the Queen’s Hotel had been a hangout for the coloureds, a place where ‘Rhodies’ and blacks used to go to pick up girls. But after independence, it became a blacks only hangout with blacks only prostitutes.
Anyways, we threw caution to the wind and went to the Queen’s Hotel one night. We looked a scary lot: the Rhodesian hippie in his batik cotton baggy pants, the Canadian freak who liked African music, the South African businessman in a suit, and another burly-looking Yank from the hostel with mango fly blisters all over his face. I did not think we would have any trouble, as Graham and Ian spoke some of the local lingo.
What struck me as odd was that we took a taxi to the far side of downtown then walked through the Kopje area to the Queen’s Hotel. I confess, it did feel eerie as we were the only ‘whites’ out at this time of night in this rough area. It did not help matters that there was a blackout in this area and the only light came from a few roadside kiosk guys with candles burning in the kiosk and on the curb.
Ian had been right—the area was a bit rundown, with drunken Zimbabweans by the side of the road—probably from the cheap local brew of chibuku. Chibuku was a drinking yogurt-type of beverage with a thick grainy texture that you needed to sieve through your front teeth, but it did have a pleasant taste and a powerful kick. It was sold in half litre and one-litre milk cartons. After frequent visits to Zimbabwe, I acquired a taste for it.
We finally got to the infamous Queen’s Hotel and it still looked quite nice in spite of its proximity to the rough neighbourhood. It must have been a fancy place for the ‘whites’ during Rhodesia’s former heyday. There was a minimal entrance fee as Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited would be the only band and would play all night. I was glad I had remembered one piece of advice Ian had given me beforehand: ‘Make sure you don’t wear your bloody sandals.’
‘Why? Is it far to walk?’
‘No,’ Graham said. ‘Because of the broken glass, hey.’
I never gave it another thought as we had walked through the night. However, once inside the notorious hotel, it was another story. We walked down a dark corridor, past a chicken scratch wire fence on our right where they sold quart bottles of ice cold Castle beer. As in other places of ill-repute like the infamous Green Hotel in Nairobi, the wire protected the bartender from wayward empties that might be hurled his way whilst serving customers. Past the barman, we walked out into an open area at the back of which was a small makeshift stage.
As we had walked in, we crunched on broken glass underfoot. I looked around the dancing area; broken glass was everywhere. It was as if the Africans went out of their way to break their beer bottles. Perhaps they used the other ends for fighting. I was indeed glad I was wearing my covered shoes or my feet would have been cut to shreds in sandals.
* * *
Mapfumo’s bands, “The Blacks Unlimited”, were all from the Shona tribe. The first was a tall guy who walked out from the back of the stage, sat down and started playing his mbira inside a gourd that was amplified. It sounded amazing. He played solo for ten minutes, then one by one other musicians came out to join him: a drummer, another guy shaking a rattle for rhythm, some guy banging a steel bar with a spike keeping the beat, a guitarist, a bass player, and two well endowed female dancers who were shaking their thing.
Whilst this hypnotic music was playing, the dance floor—if that is what you can call it— quickly filled up with drunken couples holding each other up much like they used to do in dance marathons from the 1930s. Some single African guys danced alone while holding their beer bottle by its neck, and some hip-shaking office girls were feigning disinterest. Mapfumo soon stumbled out on stage to a big hurrah. He looked plastered but I think he had been smoking dagga, the local weed. He looked like he was already in a trance from his own hypnotic music. His huge dreadlocks covering his face bounced and swayed as he sang and danced. The audience erupted and the night took off. It was unforgettable and worth both the walk and the wait.
Mapfumo’s songs go on forever and I like them just the same: quite repetitive with African polyrhythms to keep you entranced. The mbira starts the sound going with the guitarist trying his best to imitate or mimic it and with the bass player doing his best to keep up. The drummer has a steady beat going and the dancers supply the vocal backing to Mapfumo’s throaty wailing.
While I was dancing and drinking, out of the corner of my eye I caught movement from an upstairs window of the hotel, which faced the patio. Through the window frame, I saw the nude upper body of a fit African guy, moving in time with the music. At first, I thought he was getting off on the music but then realized that he was having sex in syncopation with it. Mapfumo’s music seemed to hit the spot for me and I suppose for his lady friend too. I hoped she enjoyed both performances.
Many of songs he played were from his chimurenga period, revolutionary songs that rallied the insurgent forces during the ‘Bush War’ against the Rhodesian army. Considering what the Africans in Zimbabwe had been put through in Rhodesia’s former police state, I was amazed at the music they had created out of all that untold suffering. Although it could be argued that they have suffered more under Mugabe’s subsequent insufferable rule rule.
* * *
Blaring music, raunchy sex, day old sweat, the smell of stale beer, glass shards underfoot combined to create the unique ambience of the Queen’s Hotel and heightened yet another ‘African experience’. I think the other guys in our troupe just came for the beers as they eventually tired and wanted to leave. It was probably the first and last time that Ian and Graham would ever go to an African concert—a Zimbabwean musician no less.
However, the night was still young. I was on holiday, and the other guys had to get up early for work the following morning. I wanted to stay but then, as predicted, a fight broke out and Ian and Graham grabbed me.
‘Manji-manji! Graham yelled waving his hands at me.
‘Let’s get the fuck out of here now!’ Ian yelled.
I did not put up any argument.
‘Why is there a fight?’ I asked as we moved gingerly over the broken shards of Castle beer bottles.
‘Who cares?’ said Ian tugging at my arm.
‘Probably over a feckin’ mawhori (prostitute) swore Graham, gritting his teeth.
Sure enough, as we stumbled down the corridor I passed two Africans who were bleeding, one guy profusely from a head gash. There was blood all over the floor and it looked like it was from a broken bottle slash. Luckily, the Africans did not pick on us poor ‘whiteys’ and we got the hell out of there in the nick of time.
We walked through the darkness back to our shabby hostel. Being a dumb Canuck I had no fear, as I had not grown up in this tense racial atmosphere but perhaps if I was a ‘Rhodie’ or South African I would have had a different, if not, more appreciative perspective. Just the same, it was too dangerous to be walking around a poor ‘black’ neighbourhood at one in the morning. We laughed at our folly on the way home but it was a bit of a harrowing experience—be it a dangerous ‘African experience’. Just the same, I would not have missed it for anything. It was magic!