Close your eyes. Picture a Zimbabwean. What do you see? Downcast heads in a somberly snaking line? A border jumper pulling free from clutching barbs of wire? A jackboot falling upon a woebegone protester? Or perhaps a sullen face blurred behind the tumbling digits of a trillion-dollar note? See this: a sungura guitarist totally enraptured in the cathartic joy of his music.
Hard Times Never Kill, the first international release from Zimbabwean sungura outfit Gonora Sounds, is a musical expression of survival through hardship, a lustral soliloquy that fortifies the spirit and energizes the body to a joyful, irresistible cabriole. You must feel it and you must dance, because this album exhibits a defiant elation in nine beautiful songs that soar celestial on their feverish musicality—even as their lyrics keep you bouncing back to street level.
It could not be otherwise: Gonora Sounds were, for well over a decade, a two-piece family street band who found fame of a sort through viral videos of their busking performances. This was Gonora Sounds at its most elemental, with Daniel Gonora’s unmiked, mournful voice and battered old guitar shredding through a jerry-rigged, solar-powered amp, punctuated by the rolling fills of his son Isaac’s DIY, scrapyard drum kit.
The first thing you will notice about the elder Gonora in these videos is his nimble-fingered guitar style. The second is that he is blind. “I lost my sight when I was in seventh grade,” he explains in the Hard Times Never Kill liner notes. “I don’t know how it happened. One day I just woke up blind.”
By then, music had already found him. Gonora had learned to play guitar at the age of seven, making his own instruments out of gallon jugs and tree branches. Refusing to allow the loss of his sight to hold him back, he was a member of the famous Jairos Jiri Band before the group was decimated by Zimbabwe’s AIDS crisis in the 1990s. Gonora had no option but to take his music directly to the streets. His son Isaac joined him, aged just four, and together they supported their family, even as Zimbabwe’s economic crisis turned the hard times even harder. Despite their tenuous and extremely limited access to the means of musical production, they nevertheless found a way to survive.
Fast forward a couple of years, and their remarkable story of resilience caught the attention of filmmaker A.a.V. Amasi, who produced an award-winning documentary: You Can’t Hide from the Truth. That, in turn, put Gonora Sounds on the radar of The Vital Record, an independent record label whose team traveled from New York to Zimbabwe to record this album.
The result is a remarkable addition to the sungura canon, one that embodies vital elements of this uniquely Zimbabwean music while simultaneously reaching out beyond the boundaries of genre to shake hands warmly with the likes of gospel, folk, rock, and reggae.
A couple of the album’s songs were recorded using Gonora Sounds’ iconic street setup, while another features Daniel Gonora alone on an acoustic guitar, playing in an empty rural classroom with cows grazing in the fields outside. There are collaborations with singer Vimbai Zimuto and popular gospel group Vabati Vajehova. There are also several songs featuring the band’s full setup in all its glory, with Malizani Mbewe on bass, Nelson “Mr. Longman” Mutanda joining Gonora on guitar, and Isabel Piyo and Sehlapi Mthombeni providing backup vocals. With David Aglow and the legendary Bothwell Nyamhondera providing production, this is sungura brewed at its most potent, an intoxicating mix that warms the ear and moves the feet—from the opening notes of the anthemic football war cry of “Go Bhora” to the divine acapella closer “Kuna Mambo.”
Making friends wherever they go, Gonora Sounds have even bounded exuberantly into a crossover with London-based electronic duo The Busy Twist to produce “The Journey of Life,” a song it is literally impossible not to dance to—and an embodiment of Zimbabweans’ right to joy, despite it all. This is music that plays well with others, and that is indicative of sungura’s border-crossing, genre-hopping history.
Arising in the late 1960s, sungura drew from elements of East and Central African soukous, benga, kanindo, and rhumba, fusing them with the distinctively Zimbabwean musical idioms of masiganda, mhande, shangara, jiti, and tsavatsava. Early sungura artists brought all of these together into a genre that grew exponentially in popularity after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.
That heritage is clearly apparent on Hard Times Never Kill. But for all the musical twists and turns this album takes, both joy and sadness follow, leading ultimately to catharsis. There is a therapeutic element to Gonora’s lyrics, providing psychological release for the anger, humiliation, and frustration that so many Zimbabweans bear.
“My fans here follow me because of the way I write songs,” Gonora says. “People can relate to them because I write about real-life issues.” Giving voice to these things brings comfort both to the singer and to his audience. It is the same with the blues, with country music, with punk rock.
Platitudes to the resilience and resourcefulness of Zimbabweans, admirable though those traits are, eventually assume a bitter taste in the mouth for the simple reason that things need not be this hard for so many. That invites the question: how do we honor Zimbabwean resilience without glorifying or sanitizing the reality of poverty? Gonora Sounds provides the answer.
Through the course of this album, Daniel Gonora emerges as a sort of blind preacher nevertheless blessed with a different sort of vision, leading his congregation to a place of abreaction and release where hardship can, at least, be survived. As he says in the intro to the song “MaZimbabweans,” which laments the forced economic migration endured by so many Zimbabweans in the diaspora for the last two decades: “Let me tell you one thing, ladies and gentlemen: hard times never kill, but it pushes you where you don’t want to go.”
Through it all, Gonora Sounds’ music holds space for joy amidst the pain, allowing complexity to suffuse the mental image of what it means to be a Zimbabwean. We might be crying, but we are also dancing.
Daniel Gonora’s lyrics are parables, and his is both a spiritual and a musical mission. Among the many lessons and learnings offered by this album, perhaps the most powerful of all is that which is unspoken, but implied: if Gonora Sounds survived all this, then whatever you, dear listener, are going through, you too can survive. And maybe even find a little joy and catharsis along the way.