Once he sang the soundtrack to the Zimbabwean revolution. Now he is the fiercest thorn in the revolutionary leader's side. A musical genius and a man of the people, Thomas Mapfumo towers in the world of African band leaders.
Thomas Mapfumo was born in 1945 in Marondera, a small town south of the Rhodesian capital, Salisbury. He spent his first ten years living in the countryside with his grandparents, tending cattle herds, and waking up long before sunrise to do chores before school. Though Rhodesia was moving inexorably toward racial civil war, Mapfumo was living an old-fashioned, traditional life, mostly removed from the bitterness building in the cities and townships. One of his greatest pleasures back then was the music of his people, the Shona, music he experienced in family and clan gatherings not unlike those his ancestors had been holding for centuries. Traditional children's tunes, songs of celebration accompanied by the drums called ngoma, and especially, the sacred music of the metal-pronged mbira, an instrument whose beautiful, cycling melodies could summon the presence of ancestor spirits--these things formed the basis of Mapfumo's musical personality, a force that continues to shape the history and spiritual life of his country.
When Mapfumo was ten, he moved to Mbare, the poorest and toughest black township of Salisbury. Life was different in the urban home of Mapfumo's mother, stepfather, two brothers and two sisters. Mbare was a center of black protest against the Rhodesian regime, and a scene of random police actions designed to intimidate would-be rebels. Mapfumo's stepfather was active both in the Christian church and in Shona traditional religious circles. He taught his children a highly moral worldview that saw no contradiction between the guidance of an almighty Christian God, and that of Shona ancestor spirits. In Mbare, Mapfumo also heard radio for the first time, and he was wowed by African jazz from Johannesburg and Bulawayo, classic big band Rumba from the Congo, and especially, R&B and soul from America and England.
Mapfumo began to sing, and in high school, he joined his first band, the Zutu Brothers. For the next ten years, while the liberation war that would eventually transform Rhodesia into Zimbabwe roiled though the country, Mapfumo made his way as an itinerant singer. Both in the Cosmic Four Dots, the band where he learned basic musical skills, and in the far more successful Springfields, Mapfumo was the rock 'n' roll singer, the man charged with reproducing vocal performances by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bobby Darrin, Wilson Picket, and Mick Jagger. (To this day, Mapfumo is a walking juke box of hits from the 1960s.) His identity as a singer made him something of a happy rebel. When the police came through his neighborhood one day demanding that everyone line up outside their houses, Mapfumo turned up in the shiny, silver jacket he wore on-stage. This playful show of disrespect nearly landed Mapfumo in jail, where he'd have been lucky to escape with a beating. But a cop who was a Springfields fan stepped in and let him go.
In 1972, Mapfumo moved to a mining town and started a band called the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band. The band got paid for entertaining the miners, but had to work day jobs as well, including tending chickens in a "chicken run," hence the name. It was here, working with guitarist Joshua Dube, that Mapfumo first adapted songs from the ancient mbira repertoire and worked them into the band's Afro-rock repertoire. To sing in Shona was unusual, and in the context of the escalating war, automatically political. So as Mapfumo continued to develop as a songwriter, his devotion to traditional music inevitably politicized him.
As Mapfumo moved on to work first with the Acid Band, and then with the Blacks Unlimited, everything came together. He developed his mbira pop sound with guitarists Jonah Sithole and Leonard "Picket" Chiyangwa, bassist Charles Makokova, and other innovative young players. Mapfumo's lyrics reflected the concerns of the people around him--hardships in the rural areas, young men heading into the bush to fight, and a rising sense of indignation at white rulers who had systematically devalued Shona culture for four generations. The guerilla fighters had taken the name chimurenga, Shona for struggle, and Mapfumo decided to call his new sound "chimurenga music."
Mapfumo means "spears" in Shona, and Mapfumo's early chimurenga singles, including "Mothers, Send Your Children to War" and "Trouble in the Communal Lands," lived up to his combative name. "People were being killed by soldiers," recalls Mapfumo. "They were running from their homes, and coming to live in town like squatters. Many used to cry when they listened to the lyrics of these songs." Mapfumo's chimurenga singles captured the imagination of blacks nation wide. Near the end of war, the out-maneuvered Rhodesians arrested Mapfumo briefly and attempted to use him to rally support for a last desperate attempt to hold onto some vestige of power. But the tide of history had turned, and in 1980, Robert Mugabe was elected president of a new nation. That year, Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited shared the stage in Salisbury (now called Harare) with Bob Marley and the Wailers.
As Zimbabwe took its first hopeful steps, Mapfumo sang rallying songs for the new leaders. But if they imagined him their stooge, they soon learned otherwise. For though Mapfumo had become a national hero by singing theme songs for a revolution, his deeper message was really about culture, not politics. Zimbabweans had been brainwashed by the Rhodesians, tricked into abandoning their ancestral ways. Black rule was only a first step toward the cultural renaissance Mapfumo envisioned. When leaders began to reveal themselves as venal and corrupt, they found themselves targets of chimurenga music. In 1989, Mapfumo decried sleaze and graft in the song "Corruption." The next year, in the song "Jojo," he warned young people not to let themselves be used by dirty politicians.
The music also evolved. In the late '80s, Mapfumo introduced first one, then two, then three mbiras to the band lineup, and he came to think of them as core of the Blacks Unlimited sound. He challenged his guitarists, horn players and keyboard players to accommodate themselves to the mbiras, and he challenged his mbira players to learn the African jazz, and "jit" songs that were also key elements in the chimurenga sound. The band began to tour internationally, and made landmark recordings for Chris Blackwell's Mango Records, Corruption (1989) and Chamunorwa (1990).
In the '90s, Mapfumo faced a choice between devoting himself to an international career and keeping the home fires burning. For him, this was no choice at all. He toured and released his music abroad when possible, but he kept his energies focused on Zimbabwe, releasing a cassette of new songs every year, and playing as often as five nights a week during peak season. A Blacks Unlimited concert in Zimbabwe during this period was an extraordinary communal experience. It began at 8:00 in the evening, and could last until daylight. It included deep mbira anthems, rollicking township dance grooves, and refracted glimmers of reggae, R&B, and African jazz. The songs decried alcoholism, AIDS, domestic violence, and people's devotion to foreign things--all prices that Mapfumo felt Zimbabweans had paid for abandoning their ancient culture.
In the late '90s, Mapfumo increasingly focused his ire on the country's leaders, who he felt had failed the people. Zimbabwe's state radio briefly refused to play critical songs from his 1999 album, Chimurenga Explosion, notably "Disaster," which stated the country's predicament in no uncertain terms. In April 2000, the government received an electoral setback with the election of a substantial number of opposition candidates to the parliament. Among their reactions to this were threats against Mapfumo, and trumped up charges that he had bought stolen cars. A few months later, Mapfumo quietly moved his family out of the country to Oregon, where they have based their lives ever since. Mapfumo continues to record incendiary music, to have it banned, and to return to Zimbabwe and play for his loyal fans, risking arrest and harassment each time. The move to Oregon has posed new challenges, and made it harder to play for the home audience who loves him. But neither his resolve nor his creative powers have suffered in the process. For all the darkness that surrounds him, Mapfumo remains peaceful, buoyant personality, in love with life, laughter, and music. He owns a soccer team, the Sporting Lions, all boys from Mbare, and scrappy on the field. Mapfumo has lost many great musicians to AIDS and other calamities, but his band remains as strong as ever, forever replenished with young musicians eager to contribute to the legend. Zimbabweans affectionately call him "Mukanya," a reference to his family totem, the baboon, and even as they are seduced by the latest hip-hop and ragga, they remain attuned to Mukanya's latest word. Few bandleaders in Africa, or anywhere, have been so consistently relevant to the lives of their people as Thomas Mapfumo.
Thomas Mapfumo review by Afropop.org -- Contributed by Banning Eyre