Album Review: Gonora Sounds – Hard Times Never Kill: Jump, jive, bounce and bite, direct from Harare.

The Breakdown

Music resounding with joy and hope, a rhythmic lift with serious stories to be told.
The Vital Source 8.9

Heard about ‘paying your dues’– well Gonora Sounds leader and inspiration Daniel Gonora’s back-story makes him a bone fide member of the dues-paying club. Twenty years ago the blind guitarist and song writer was a key player in Zimbabwe’s ground-breaking Jairos Jiri Band, a group that tragically imploded as successive members passed away. Forced to take his rootsy Sungura music onto the streets to make ends meet, with his precociously talented son Isaac on scrap yard drum kit at his side, Daniel’s dream of making more records never wavered.

A few years ago an electrifying video of the pair busking on a Harare sidewalk went YouTube viral and in 2017 they were the focus of an award winning short-doc ‘You Can’t Hide From The Truth’. That same year the street-released EP ‘Shoko Harivikwe’ began to make vibrations in their home country, the signals travelled to New York, got picked up on The Vital Record’s radar and now comes the international release of their stoically titled debut album, ‘Hard Times Never Kill’. Available from February 4th via The Vital Record and featuring an expanded band of Zimbabwe’s top players plus Isaac, now 18, on a more orthodox kit, it’s a record that inevitably has more of a studio sheen but which never loses the bustle and grit of Daniel Gonora’s sound. This is music resounding in joy and hope, born from real life experience.

As if to emphasise the album’s foundation, ‘Hard Times Never Kill’ opens with a trio of pared down songs that celebrate Gonora Sounds’ busking heritage. ‘Go Bhora’ features the street set up with Daniel Gonora’s addictive guitar patterns to the fore and Isaac, back on his trusted DIY kit, providing gymnastic flourishes alongside a pumping four-to the-floor. It’s a hot-stepping football song, Mr Gonora’s powerful vocal singing out for Zimbabwe’s national team with gutsy energy and a fan’s devotion- you can see the terrace conga now! ‘Mukoma Shadrek’ takes the same shape, as the jerry-rigged sustain guitar goes up a notch wrapping even more tightly around the tumbling fills from Gonora Jnr. For a breather in the triplet ‘Muchange Muripiko’ may dial down the pace but it doesn’t dilute the intensity. The song vibrates with a melodic flow and highlights Daniel Gonora’s assured acoustic work that mixes a folk-blues mindfulness with a traditional African cadence. This may be a song of faith but it has a universal touch.

It’s a testament to the sensitivity of Bothwell Nyamhondera production work on ‘Hard Times Never Kill’ that the album doesn’t get bent out of shape by the more densely presented full band tracks. ‘Madhiri’ captures the vibrant chaos of the modern city with a bustling Sungura beat to match the cautionary story of ‘Dirty Deals’ and wrong-doing. The addition of Nelson Mutanda’s lead guitar, braiding generously with Daniel Gonora’s more rhythmic approach, and Malizani Mbewe gorgeously harmonic bass, oils the whole commotion. Such contemporary twists and turns also add to the Jit-jumping ‘Kusaziva Kufa’ but it’s on ‘Ndasuruvara Senjiva’ that Gonora Sounds hit that complete magical stride. Translating as ‘Sad Like A Dove’, the song also underlines the stark realism and honesty behind Daniel Gonora’s lyrical impact. Lines like ‘I grew up with these hard times/I’m used to these hard times/But I still suffer’ are a reminder that underneath the rhythmic lift serious stories are being told.

Further evidence of the depth of ‘Hard Times Never Kill’ gets more reinforcement as the album unwinds. The samba leaning shimmy of ‘Wapindu Mazviri’ echoes the Pan-African fusion sound of that previously emergent Zimbabwean combo Mokoomba, weaving rock guitar with Daniel Gonora’s strident vocal and ramping up the tempo to an almost-disco workout. The poignant ‘MaZimbabwean’, which recalls the personal trials of forced migration, takes the rolling pace of the long walk and welcomes Vimbai Zimuto to add her own heartfelt experience with a yearning vocal clarity.

But maybe the closer ‘Kuna Mambo’, a collaboration with gospel choir Vabati Vajehova, best signals the integrity and significance of Gonora Sounds’ music. This song of protest starts gently with Daniel’s lone voice plus trademark chiming guitar before the swell of the choir’s throbbing harmonies and subtle percussive touches sweep it to an emotional close. It feels like the statement it was meant to be, forthright, moving and forward looking, the perfect conclusion to a record that Daniel Gonora has carried with him for a long time. ‘Hard Times Never Kill’ by Gonora Sounds now just needs to be shared, so let’s go….

Hard Times Never Kill by Gonora Sounds is available now from:

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