The evolving tapestry of Zimbabwean music

Screenshot of a man playing an mbira from YouTube video, ‘Mbira Music: Professor brings the music of Zimbabwe to Mizzou‘ by Mizzou. Fair use.

Zimbabwe, a land of cultural richness and diversity, is proud of its musical heritage that runs deep through its history. Music in Zimbabwe is a reflection of its people, traditions, and the ever-evolving society. 

Zimbabwean music has its roots deeply embedded in the ancient cultures and traditions of its diverse ethnic groups. These traditions have been passed down through generations, forming the foundation upon which modern Zimbabwean music is built. Indigenous instruments like the mbira, hosho, and ngoma play a significant role in the traditional music of Zimbabwe.

The mbira, in particular, is an essential instrument in Shona music, and has spiritual and healing significance, often associated with ancestral worship and cultural gatherings. The intricate polyrhythms produced by the mbira are a hallmark of traditional Zimbabwean music. Once believed to summon the spirits of dead ancestors, the mbira was traditionally played only by men; however, in contemporary times, there are prominent female performers as well, for instance, Diana Samkange, a 29-year-old mbira player. Several other Shona women performers of mbira were interviewed by scholar Claire Jones as part of her ethnomusicology research project. Here is an informational video on the mbira, demonstrated by a professor of folklore:

Although mbira is undoubtedly Zimbabwe's most iconic instrument, ngoma is the most commonly performed traditional musical instrument in Zimbabwe today, with a rich history across Southern Africa. At a basic level, ngoma simply means “drum.” At the same time, it is also commonly used to refer to specific musical styles that combine drumming, dance, and song. These drums, which share similar construction techniques, are crafted from cylindrical wooden bodies carved from whole tree trunks, and feature cow-skin heads secured firmly in place by a series of wooden pegs. To adjust the pitch of the drums, since the skin's tension isn't easily modifiable, ngoma are typically tuned before each performance by heating the drum head. They can be played using sticks, hands, or a combination of both techniques.

Ngoma drums vary in size and shape, ranging from tall, slender instruments played in a standing position to wide, short drums that produce resonant bass tones. They can be played individually or in pairs. Remarkably, within Zimbabwe, these drums bear a multitude of names that vary depending on the region, size, and musical genre. Here is a video of some Zimbabwe folklore drummers playing different kinds of ngomas:

Some genres of Zimbabwe music

In the 1960s and 1970s, Zimbabwe — then under colonial rule and known as Rhodesia — witnessed the birth of imbube, a captivating a cappella musical genre primarily composed of male voices. This style of singing originated from the mines in neighboring South Africa, where many Zimbabweans sought employment, and where there were no instruments to accompany the voices. These songs were composed by miners and provided entertainment and, later, contained social justice messages. To accompany the imbube singing, the men would stamp their feet in dance patterns wearing their rubber boots in what became known as gumboot dancing.

Chimurenga is a highly popular music style among the Shona people of Zimbabwe, pioneered by Thomas Mapfumo in the 1980s. This genre is deeply rooted in the sound of the mbira. The term ‘Chimurenga’ translates to ‘liberation struggle music,’ referring to the music's pivotal role during Zimbabwe's struggle for independence from colonial rule. This music served as a powerful tool in the nation's battle for freedom and empowerment, as it was one of the only weapons they had available to fight back with. These songs often narrated the hardships endured by the people and passionately called for resistance against the colonial oppressors, giving voice to the collective spirit of defiance and hope.

Zimbabwe jit, also known as “Harare beat,” is a vibrant music genre that combines various African influences, resulting in a pulsating rhythm reminiscent of South African township jive and Trinidadian soca, as highlighted in this article by All Around this World. Jit incorporates elements such as Tanzanian guitar, Congolese rhumba, and chimurenga mbira-guitar, creating a unique and energetic sound.
This musical style can be experienced through performances by renowned artists like the Bhundu Boys, Chazezesa Challengers and The Four Brothers,  who have contributed to the popularity and development of Zimbabwe jit and its related genre, “tuku music.”

Reggae music gained popularity in Zimbabwe during the 1980s after Bob Marley's visit. Marley performed the song “Zimbabwe” from his Survival album at Zimbabwe's independence celebration in 1980, immediately following the official declaration of the country's independence.  This song became an anthem for those who had fought for Zimbabwe's freedom, providing a sense of unity, motivation, and hope during their most challenging times. It serves as a reminder of the power of music in inspiring social and political change. Following Bob Marley, Misty in Roots, a UK-based reggae band, also played a pivotal role in popularizing reggae music in Zimbabwe, paving the way for numerous other reggae musicians to visit and perform in the country.

Evolution of Zimbabwean music

Over the years, Zimbabwean music has evolved, incorporating influences from various sources while preserving its traditional essence. The arrival of Europeans in Zimbabwe added new elements and instruments to the music. The fusion of Indigenous sounds with elements of Western, Afro-jazz, reggae, and gospel has given birth to a diverse and captivating musical landscape. 

Artists like Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi, and Stella Chiweshe have been instrumental in shaping the modern Zimbabwean music scene. They blended traditional rhythms with modern instruments and contemporary themes, appealing to a broader audience both within and beyond Zimbabwe.

The sounds of today

Contemporary Zimbabwean music is a dynamic blend of styles, reflecting the nation's multicultural society and the global influence on the arts. Genres such as Sungura, Zimdancehall, and Afro-jazz have gained immense popularity.

Sungura, a genre that emerged in the late 1980s, is characterized by its upbeat rhythms and poetic lyrics, often exploring social and political themes. Some notable Sungura musicians include Ephraim Joe and his band Sungura Boys, the Khiama Boys. Zimdancehall, on the other hand, is a vibrant and energetic genre with roots in Jamaican dancehall music. This music resonates strongly with the youth, addressing their realities and aspirations. Some notable Zimdancehall musicians are Freeman HKD, Judgement Yard, Killer T, Winky D, Soul Jah Love, Tocky Vibes and Levels Chillspot.

From its ancient roots to the contemporary sounds of today, music in Zimbabwe continues to be a vital part of the nation's identity, connecting people across generations and borders, carrying echoes of the past and the hopes of the future.

Find a playlist highlighting Zimbabwean music below, and for a full assortment of eclectic music from around the world, see Global Voices’ Spotify profile.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.