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Zimbabwean singer packs protest punch

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Viomak's velvety voice drifts through the air like a lullaby on a gentle breeze. But her protest songs pack a punch which could mean jail for anyone caught listening to them in her native Zimbabwe.

The tunes bluntly demand an end to President Robert Mugabe's rule and belong to Zimbabwe's tradition of protest music that her fans say give hope and comfort to the country's suffering masses.

"Voices are saying 'Mugabe it is time to leave office'. Everyone is calling: 'leave now, the time is up'," 41-year-old Viomak and a chorus of young Zimbabwean women sang at a recent protest outside Zimbabwe's embassy in London.

But Viomak -- who declines to give her real name, for fear of reprisals against her family in Zimbabwe -- said her message must be delivered gently. "I'll be asking God to come in and intervene in our situation in Zimbabwe. ... That's why it's sort of quiet or soft," she adds.

A former teacher in Zimbabwe who has gained political asylum in Britain, Viomak is among a handful of Zimbabwean protest musicians like Thomas Mapfumo, Raymond Majongwe, Leonard Zhakata, Hosiah Chipanga, and Paul Madzore.

"She is my favourite," said Bridget Tapuwa, a Belgium-based Zimbabwean activist and writer who promotes and distributes Viomak's work.

Tapuwa said that Viomak knows how to reach Zimbabweans, most of whom are devout Christians, by articulating a political message with biblical undertones.

"They really feel God is with her. They feel hope," Tapuwa said when contacted by telephone in Brussels.

Itai Mushekwe of the Zimbabwe Independent weekly newspaper, who is staying in Germany as he fears reprisals back home, said Viomak and Mapfumo are probably Zimbabwe's leading protest artists. Mapfumo lives in the United States.

"Protest music is increasingly becoming the only weapon to confront the Mugabe regime's abuse of power following the fragmentation of the opposition in Zimbabwe, believed to have been engineered by the country's intelligence service," the arts and political journalist said in an email.

Ephraim Tapa, chairperson of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the United Kingdom, the umbrella opposition force, said protest music is as important now as it was during the struggle against white rule in the 1970s.

"To those who were in the bush, fighting for the liberation of the country, it motivated them, it energised them," Tapa said in London.

"Music in Zimbabwe is part and parcel of the social fabric."

Tapa said musicians like Viomak -- a pseudonym forged from her first name Violah and part of her surname -- should be "saluted" for their courage in challenging the Mugabe regime.

Viomak has indeed skirted danger.

After spending five years in Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada, she and her husband sneaked back into Zimbabwe from Botswana in August 2006 by bribing Zimbabwean security guards and a bus conductor.

For four months she lived on the outskirts of Harare and travelled clandestinely into the capital to record two of her albums at a studio before finally fleeing permanently to England.

"I would travel by day and put on sunglasses and put on a hat," Viomak recalled.

Viomak said her husband, who joined her with their two sons in May in the central English city of Birmingham, sold 7 000 CDs from the albums Happy 82nd Birthday President RG Mugabe and Happy 83rd President RG Mugabe.

She also distributed her work through the offices of the sympathetic MDC in Zimbabwe, but does not know how many were sold. "I didn't even bother to check because I was risking my life," she said.

Her experience highlights the enormous odds in selling her music to Zimbabweans at home or even in exile, particularly the many in South Africa and Botswana. Half of the proceeds go to charity.

Zimbabweans can only listen to her music furtively as they all fear the omnipresent agents of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO).

The air waves are state-run, radio stations in exile are jammed, internet cafés are monitored, shops are banned from selling her music and borders are so tight it is hard to smuggle in large numbers of compact discs, they say.

"The CIOs are also in fact now scattered over in all countries especially in South Africa and they wear sheep's clothing, making it very difficult for anyone to easily recognise them," Tapuwa added.

George Murevesi, an opposition writer who is seeking asylum in Britain, believes the best strategy is to vastly increase her listeners among exiles in South Africa who could then smuggle in her music one by one.

The more Viomak CDs in the country the more difficult it will be to crack down on everyone, he said from the Scottish city of Glasgow.

Now collaborating with Viomak to release a new album on February 21 2008, for Mugabe's 84th birthday, Murevesi suggests that Viomak inject an urban beat into some of her songs to attract a younger audience.

He is thrilled to work with her.

"She is a pioneer in the protest movement in Zimbabwe. Before her, or even at this date, there is no other musician who is so critical of the status quo on the ground in Zimbabwe," Murevesi said.

"We do have some male counterparts who are doing the same but they're not as blunt as she is," he said.

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