“Kombi” as cultural symbol – Kombi Studio captures the key musical role of a cultural symbol “parked” by COVID-19
WORRIED that the cultural imagery of life prior to COVID-19 might fade completely into a monochromatic picture of the past, cultural blogger Plot Mhako decided to act.
During a visit home to Zimbabwe this winter, Mhako tapped into the symbolism of the iconic minibus “kombi” and its role as an organic popularizer of urban music. The creative director plugged microphones, lights, a gimbal-held phone, a mini sound desk, a camera and a laptop into the back of a kombi, fired it up and headed off across six provinces, spending his month-long stay interviewing 160 artists, in 12 locations.
Dortmund-based Mhako had come “home” with a clear idea of the things he missed most during his long absence. One was Zimbabwe’s ubiquitous kombi, the country’s (and in many ways, Africa’s) popular “peoples’ taxi” and the unofficial “radio station” of the country’s informal settlements. According to Mhako, BC (Before Covid)-era drivers and conductors were the pulse of informal settlements, as well as cutting-edge tastemakers, street linguists, dancehall heads and cultural connoisseurs, who kept passengers musically up-to-the-minute.
“Kombis were radio stations where music, videos were consumed, where music was curated and distributed to a mass market, creating hits and influencing what radio and DJs were playing,” the vlogger said, explaining the inspiration for his resulting visual podcast, Kombi Station.
Before Zimdancehall was deemed radio-appropriate, it was “ringing” loud from the kombis that moved Zimbabwe to and from work – and school – every day. The genre rose to prominence in the early 2010’s and has been the most listened-to form of music in the country since 2014.
“Zimdancehall gives much credit to kombis for its breakthrough and growth,” Mhako said, recalling the days he accompanied musicians to distribute CDs to commuter omnibus drivers.
“Kombis were a leading source of music distribution outside conventional radio, with the driver playing role of DJ and the conductor acting as the MC.”
Kombi conductors Killer T and Hwindi President emerged from mushikashika (kombi culture), to become pop A-listers. Endless songs taking the side of kombi drivers and street vendors in their permanent clashes with law enforcement consummated the dancehall-Kombi alliance. The kombi’s cultural trademarks also run through books like Petina Gappah’s Rotten Row, Spiwe Mahachi-Harper’s Kombi Tales, Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya’s Fifty Rand Note and Tinashe Muchuri’s Suicide Notebook.
But Mhako came back home to a different road network. Lockdown measures had taken kombis off the road, replacing them with state-run ZUPCO (Zimbabwe United Passenger Company) buses and other transport. To hold on to something of the “good old BC days”, Mhako assembled trusted fellow cultural “nerds” into a kombi crew, drove across the country to artists’ lockdown environments and sat them down for interviews. Mhako wanted to ensure that, through the interviews, the moment just prior to COVID-19 was not lost forever.
“Kombis transported culture, music, dressing and lifestyle, bridging the gap between the rural and the urban communities. They became the glue that kept society intact and moving, giving a lot of comic relief before social media provided a platform for skits and actors to share content,” he explained.
His Kombi Station not only tracked down off-grid underdogs and heavy-hitters gone quiet but rolled out a vastly diverting choice of on-the-road programmes including jam sessions, interviews, talk shows, rap battles, album launches and mini-documentaries.
“Radio stations have always been physical brick-and-mortar places where people visit. Kombi Station is targeting marginalized and disenfranchised societies. In the face of COVID-19 protective measures it has become necessary to be innovative and find ways of reaching out to talent most of them who do not have access to a good Internet connection,” Mhako added.
For the philosopher Hegel, philosophy is grey hindsight on a shape of life that has already grown old. “The owl of Minerva only begins its flight with the fall of dusk,” Hegel wrote as if anticipating the impact of the internet on culture.
In the return of vinyl and hardback after digital “erasure” of those analogue cultural phenomena – and in so many other examples – we see that the internet does not wantonly kill culture but kills it to reproduce it for itself. In that sense, Mhako’s has chosen to focus on the “ghost phase” of mushikashika – a point just before or just when, it is killed off, only to be brought back for internet consumption, later.
The highly regarded blogger had had the Kombi studio concept in mind for four years but, like the owl of Minerva, he had to get the timing right.
“I somehow doubted it until earlier this year when the government banned kombis, replacing them with the Zupco transport system,” he said, opening up to bird.
“The ban created a void for the music scene; artists lost an important distribution network for music but didn’t realise it. There was no hit for months and a lot of the odds were pointing at the absence of kombis.”
If Kombi Station was to be a life-like nod to mushikashika, then uncertainty and chaos would mark the beginning of the end. This is just what Mhako’s crew experienced with their trip, in the breakdowns, delays and running out of power and storage space that marked the journey. Happily, there was enough positive energy on the road to keep the initiative going, Mhako recalled.
“In Kwekwe, we reached a studio in Mbizo where we had planned to meet six artists but instead there were at least 50 artists and when we had interviewed 20 artists and decided to leave since there was a 6:30 pm curfew cutoff, the artists refused to let us leave until all of them had a chance. They literally blocked the car from leaving and we ended up working until 9 pm and we had to sleep in the city instead of the planned Gweru sleepover.
“There was always something amazing that encouraged us to keep going. One incident was on our way to Bulawayo when the tyre burst 40km before reaching the city. We did not have a working spare tyre and jack and had to get help from the nearby homes. The people we met went out of their way and walked a kilometre and half and back to assist us. The warmth and kindness refuelled our energy and drive to continue to Bulawayo,” added the visual storyteller.
Kombi’s feature in many of Mhako’s memories. He warmly remembers discovering music during a Kombi ride and only boarding kombis with the best radio systems and the coolest selections, as a teenager.
“The driver and conductor would know all the songs and would decide what could go on rotation but were flexible enough to allow the passengers requests. You could listen to a whole album or mixtape during a 30-40 minute journey and that was sufficient to convince you to buy the music.”
Artist experiences unearthed by Kombi Station include stories of lost hope, bogus promoters, industry abuse, working without electricity and marginalized minorities but the bigger picture paints a Zimbabwe bursting with music, dance, acting, poetry, comedy and other creative energies.