Abundance Mutovi was just 14 when he began playing with the other members of Mokoomba. It was in 2002, when they were at school together at Mosi-Oa-Tunya High in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and he remembers that their biggest problem was getting hold of instruments. "We didn't have our own, and even at school when we had a music class we didn't have any guitars or keyboards," he says. "But my dad used to play in church and had a bass guitar at home, and he first showed me how to play. From then on, I was practising by myself or jamming with the guys."
Now, in their mid-20s, Mokoomba are being feted as Africa's most internationally successful young band after a rise that is as deserved as it has been remarkable. After all, they come from a country with an international musical profile that has sadly declined since the glory days of the 80s, largely because of Aids. Even in Zimbabwe they were initially considered outsiders. They sing in Tonga, a language that most Shona and Ndebele speakers can't understand, and come from a tourist border town that's a 12-hour drive from the capital, Harare.
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The group are signed to a small Belgian label and were unknown in Britain until their second album, Rising Tide, was released here last August. But by the end of 2012, they were featuring in the annual "Best of" lists in publications from the Guardian to fRoots, and so it is no surprise that they should win Songlines magazine's newcomer award, announced yesterday. This summer they will be playing at major festivals across Europe, including Womad in Britain.
They succeeded thanks to a mixture of determination, skill and luck. As teenagers, they got most of their experience with the help of a local bandleader, the late Alfred Mjimba, who was "the only guy with musical instruments in the area. You'd go round to see him, and try to play this or that, and if he liked what you did, he'd say: 'There's a gig, come and play with us.'" He was no major star, but he played in local hotels and small clubs – though it was initially impossible for Mutovi to play in bars because he was the youngest member of the band, under-age, and his parents objected.
The would-be musicians lived in Chinotimba township, a "high-density" area that was first established in the pre-independence zone outside the smarter, affluent one reserved for white people and tourist hotels near the spectacular waterfall. As a border town, close to Zambia, Botswana and Namibia, Victoria Falls was a "melting pot", according to Mokoomba's young manager Marcus Gora. "When you were growing up there, you couldn't escape different cultures, languages and musical influences. There was music from the local Tonga tradition, Congolese rumba and soukous, funk, pop from the Beatles, and even country. That's what our parents played."
The band reflects these different cultures. Mutovi plays bass, and his bandmates include Trustworth Samende, an excellent guitarist, and the powerful, soulful singer Mathias Muzaza, who travelled widely in southern Africa as a boy with his Angolian and Zambian parents. The band played in restaurants, or busked for tourists, and developed their own distinctive style. "It's Afro-fusion," says Mutovi. "A mixture of Tonga rhythms, soca, soucous and the other things we listened to growing up."