Guitar in hand, reverberating enchanting rhythms and metaphors -morphed into catchy melodies- completes Victor Kunonga’s act.
His signature sound, led by the acoustic guitar is an unmistakable work of a genius, often underrated and overlooked on the local music circles.
Driven by the love of African rhythms, Kunonga who first picked up a guitar in the early 2000s at the Zimbabwe College of Music has morphed into one of the country’s finest acts. But he has a story to tell.
Inside a garage studio in Belvedere- where he is working on a new album, Kunonga tells The NewsReport on his musical journey -a gripping story of determination.
A Bulawayo boy in Harare
Having lived in Bulawayo for years, Kunonga decided to move to Harare.
Working as a graphics designer for a local advertising agency, Kunonga like any other young man in Zimbabwe worked hard to eke out a living.
But his love for music soon caught up with him.
“I had a small radio where I would dub old cassettes with my music. I always recorded whenever I practiced guitar. I would carry this radio to work and playback, but nobody really understood what I was doing,” Kunonga said.
“The more I continued to play the music, I felt the urge to record.”
During those days the Zimbabwean music industry was dominated by two major recording companies, Zimbabwe Music Corporation (ZMC) and Gramma Records while other smaller studios also sprouted.
Kunonga admits that it was tough to convince producers that his music was worth the listen.
“During our days it was more difficult than it is now. We had recording companies which were running the show. I didn’t know who to approach but I had a workmate who was friends with Kelly Rusike. I took the cassette to Shed Studios, but they could not understand what I really wanted to produce,” recounted Kunonga.
“I was distraught and disappointed that my music was not good enough. I dropped the music for years. After some time, I raised enough to do a demo tape in a proper studio.”
Even local bands and session musicians failed to understand his sound, he said.
“I remember trying to get a band to play on my demo, but no one was interested. It was very discouraging that no one wanted to be associated with me. I remember everyone walking away, even the sound engineer was not interested in recording me. That is when I met Blessing Muparutsa who said let us just do it and another guy who played the saxophone who helped play the bass.”
It was not until, Kelly Rusike broke away from Shed Studios to start Shed Productions that Kunonga got his debut recording slot.
“When the album came out in 2003, the musicians who had snubbed me were shocked to hear my album,” Kunonga said.
“I think the judgement was based on perceptions that were wrong. Those days you would have to come up from somewhere, I was coming from Bulawayo, and no one knew me,” he added.
Mistaken for Tuku
Listening to Kunonga’s music, one cannot fail to pick how yesteryear musicians such as the late Oliver Mtukudzi, Chimurenga legend, Thomas Mapfumo and Louis Mhlanga among others have influenced his sound.
His sound is a melting pot of African rhythms, with a taste of mbaqanga on some tracks.
Despite the influence of such legends, Kunonga strived to produce his own unique sound.
“I am fortunate to have been exposed to all these musicians. I believe I was just born a creative. It is a matter of being myself and create something new,” he said.
His debut album Such Is Life that carried tracks such as Maidarirei was widely accepted on the local music scene, but critics said he was a Mtukudzi wannabe.
“When we launched the first album, I could hear people say you emulate Oliver Mtukudzi. I told myself I could never be Oliver Mtukudzi, but you could hear a difference somehow. People grew out of it when they noticed the difference. I believed I was creating my own identity,” Kunonga said.
He however credits Mtukudzi for giving him sound advice during his early days.
“I want to credit him for grounding me. When you are starting as a young musician and ambitious, but he told me to take things slow. So, Oliver Mtukudzi sat me down and we had a chat, he told me of the ups and downs of the music industry. I credit him for grounding me,” the Handinete singer said.
Of paltry crowds and uncouth managers
Kunonga recalls his days at Jazz 105, a local hideout for music and drink run by music promoter Josh Hozheri.
His early shows were attended by sympathisers.
“We did a couple of shows there when we just had a few believers who would come and just sit. The difficult part was that I was playing my own music. I was a non-believer in playing copyrights. I had five songs which I would repeat each time,” Kunonga said.
“They would take us off the roaster because of that. I argued that we should continue creating new music.”
Kunonga believes performing his own compositions has kept him longer in the music.
“I believe identity will stem out of the inner-being of one’s creation. You will always have something original. Never mind the influences you get from outside. It keeps you in the game longer.”
“I have so much to give”
With five albums to his credit, Such is Life 2003, Uyo 2006, Hatineti 2011, Kwedu 2014 and Ndatsva 2019, Kunonga believes he still has so much to offer.
“I have so much in me that I would want people to hear but it is taking so much time for people to hear that. My wish is for people to experience what a Zimbabwean can be able to achieve in terms of putting Zimbabwean music together,” he said.
“Because of bread-and-butter issues in the country, I feel I don’t dedicate enough time to get to that stage. But with enough resources, I don’t think I have even started and focus,” Kunonga added.
After two decades on the music scene, Kunonga prefers living a quiet life, seldom appearing on social media and does not participate in many musical shows.
“I hate being known; I don’t want to be famous. I want my music to reach out to people,” he said.