Watching dreams come to life, go through their teething pains and ‘grow up’ to become movements is in itself a dream to watch. To have friendship, a love for local music and the need to create memorable family moments be the driving force behind the dream makes for an even more compelling story. Such is the story of Ellina Mtandwa and Chiedza Danha, childhood friends and the forces behind what is unquestionably Harare’s biggest cultural experience for the young crowd – Unplugged! If you’re young and in Harare, then chances are you’ve been to, have had friends who’ve been to, or have heard someone in your circle rave about Unplugged. Such is the power of the movement Ellina and Chiedza have created. By: Vimbayi Mudzengere
Where did the idea of starting Unplugged come from?
Unplugged came about primarily out of our love for music. When we returned to Zimbabwe, we were both really hyped about the talent that we were seeing, and we wanted to create a platform where others could share in this growing industry but also buy into the dream of arts becoming mainstream culture.The arts have such a huge role to play in how societies imagine and express themselves. There was also a clear business case – a clear gap in the market for family friendly entertainment centred around music.
You’re definitely a powerful duo. How did your personal relationship begin?
We had no choice, really! Our parents went to high school together so this is a relationship that goes beyond just the two of us. It just so happens we are great friends – but it’s really a friendship that we invest in and build on.
What complementary qualities do each of you bring to the table that make the Unplugged vision work as well as it has?
Ellinah is the operator! Chiedza is the strategist! Ellinah is amazing when it comes to detail; with a marketing and hospitality background, and a long history of managing events she really understands how to mesh moving parts. Chiedza is the creative and communications strategist so things like positioning ourselves in the market are her job – but like a typical creative, ideas are usually broad and so it’s a magical combination and it really works.We accept each other and recognise the strengths we each bring to the table.
How do you encourage creatives within your team to constantly make Unplugged different and hold its appeal with the masses?
The Unplugged team now consists of four – Tatenda who everyone calls Dwight and Tendai. Tendai is a creative, full of cool ideas and Dwight brings great balance because, like Ellinah, he’s an operator. Dwight calls us the Dwangels but we prefer ‘The Dream Team’. At the heart of the Unplugged team is a dream – We dream big and figure out ways to make our imaginings come to life.
Music lovers have really embraced Unplugged, what do you think gives it that edge that makes it so hugely popular with the urban market?
Unplugged benefits from the ‘first mover’ advantage – we don’t generally toot our own horn (too toot!) but we pioneered something that we truly believed in and people really got behind and supported it. So the passion is the edge. We are doing something we absolutely love and we put our hearts into it, every single day. That translates to uncompromising standards and consistency. We also built on the very basic idea that Zimbabweans do actually love local. We just took it to where they are…we have a clearly defined market and we speak to loyal and could-be Unpluggers in their own language. Our thinking was, ‘It’s not just music, let’s make it a lifestyle’ – people have embraced that!
What are your thoughts on the state of the music industry in Zimbabwe?
Boy, where to begin? We have endless discussions about this. What we know for sure is that there are bundles of talent out here. We see them on our own stage and other places where we go to watch live music. Something incredible happened to our music scene with that 100% local content regulation. It wasn’t fun at the time but it ultimately forced an acceleration in the consumption of local music and so what we see now, Zim Dancehall, Sungura, Zim afro-pop, the bubbling hip hop scene – these are all undeniable products of that, in a way. Ok, humble brag but, to be associated with acts that have taken their rightful place in terms of awe and attention is just incredible – people like Sylent Nqonqo – you cannot contest his ability. We had him on the Unplugged stage at the very first event we ever held and we still get giddy watching him stroke those guitar strings. Reverb 7 also joined us very early on and his star continues rising and rising. That other people get to see what we see and fall in love themselves, we feel like our job is done.
When Unplugged started, is this where you envisioned you would end up?
Goodness, no ways! Ok just one more humble brag….Unplugged has become this ‘lit’ thing, but truthfully we didn’t expect it. Our first event we had just 150 people. Now it’s anywhere between 1500 and 2500 people. We didn’t anticipate this growth rate at all. We are dreamers but we thought it would always be this strangely awesome combination of artsy lovers. That we’ve drawn and converted people outside of that space is amazing.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome since the birth of Unplugged?
Sponsorship is still the biggest challenge. To be honest, people look at Unplugged now and think we are printing money. What they don’t know is that this was a loss-making business for ages. But the strength of our belief in it and the encouragement we go from people who frequented Unplugged kept us going. But the model of the business relies on partnerships with similar lifestyle brands. Corporates have a lot to contend with in these harsh economic times. We get it – it’s all above the line spending at the moment. So arts and culture are at the bottom on their list of priorities. What we do know, though, is things will come right and hopefully we will be a step ahead, and the go to people in this space.
And the most rewarding accomplishment for you?
Without a doubt it is bringing new artists to the stage.
Secondly, the people we meet at our events – It’s so gratifying, so diverse and incredibly interesting. We love that we are able to bring these people together.
What can we expect from you guys in the future?
Being the dreamers that we are, our plans are huge. Zimbabwe should expect international artists at our events in the coming year. This is also a space in which you have to continually re-invent not to get stale. We won’t tell you everything, but 2017 is fitting to be the littest.
Any words of encouragement for the Divas out there who have dreams as big as yours?
Jeez. You know, it’s really about believing in your vision, meticulous planning and doing the slog to see it through. To all the Divas out there, take the time to dig deep in order to find your purpose, make sure it’s something that you love and stick to it, by Jove, stick to it!