Thomas Mapfumo on Music, Politics and Unity: New Frame


“Home is home. And that’s where the heart is always. You always think of home, where your roots are… where you come from. Your friends, your loved ones, that’s where they are.

For Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo, this place will always be Zimbabwe. It is a reciprocal love, considering the large number of Zimbabweans who show up for his recent South African tour. Mapfumo has been living in voluntary exile in Eugene, Oregon, United States since 2002. “I like it there, but it’s not my home,” he says.

Mukanya – as he is respectfully called, denoting his family totemic name meaning baboon – is one of the most innovative African musicians of our time. He defended the chimurenga (revolutionary struggle) music in sound and political philosophy.

July 19, 1992: Thomas Mapfumo performs chimurenga music with his band The Blacks Unlimited at the SummerStage festival in Central Park, New York City, USA. (Photograph by Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images)

Mapfumo has performed with his signature band The Blacks Unlimited in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Hundreds of people gathered at the Schotsche Kloof Civic Center in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, on November 20 to watch the singer and guitarist perform, clapping as the 76-year-old took the stage.

The crowd danced and sang to every word, as he performed for nearly two hours – a short set for Mapfumo, who is known to perform at times until five. That he was brutally cut to adhere to the Covid-19 curfew didn’t faze his cheerful fans, whose love and reverence for Mapfumo was palpable.

Pivotal moments

On a windy afternoon before the concert, Mapfumo is in a good mood. His baritone voice deep at first glance, his warm and friendly demeanor. This is Mapfumo’s first international tour since the start of the pandemic. With a smile, he says it’s good to be back on stage after the long break.

Despite the tour, his retirement is looming. He is scheduled to celebrate the 77th birthday in the UK in July 2022. This will mark his retirement from live performances, although he will continue with studio recordings.

Mapfumo reflects on his journey towards music. His beginnings are humble, growing up in the rural region of Marondera. He learned to play the guitar on his own and enjoyed rock and roll in his early years, playing mostly covers, as was the norm in Zimbabwe at the time. That would change after a pivotal moment during a battle of the bands competition in Harare in the late 1960s, when he performed in one of his first groups, The Springfields.

April 24, 2018: Thomas Mapfumo during an interview in Harare, Zimbabwe, with the AFP news agency. He had moved to the United States 16 years earlier, after being targeted by Robert Mugabe’s regime. (Photograph by Jekesai Njikizana / AFP)

“So we were up there on stage and we were playing copyrighted music. The last song we played was The last time by the Rolling Stones, ”he said as he began to sing. “There was this white guy in the audience. And he started yelling at us, “Shut up, idiots!” It made me very, very angry. I thought well, if these people can’t afford us to sing in their language, don’t we have our own language to sing in? It made me change my mind. From there, I stopped playing copyrighted music.

This moment was essential to nourish the political conscience of Mapfumo. “I thought to myself… if we don’t play our own music, how are we going to promote our own culture? He began to sing in his native language, Shona, from that day forward.

Throughout the interview, Mapfumo is captivated by descriptive accounts of his early groups and adventures in various towns in Zimbabwe. This includes the story behind the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band formed in 1972, when members worked on a chicken farm in the Mhangura copper mining area.

Wrestling songs

Mapfumo’s contribution to music is to tune the mbira – the spiritual sound of the Shona – to the electric guitar. “As a child, I grew up in rural areas, where there was a lot of traditional music. I was a shepherd who tended cattle and goats. I listened to a lot of mbira music as well as drums and vocals. I thought, isn’t this music danceable? … All we have to do is change the music and promote it. This combination of mbira, rattles and drums originally played at ancestral gatherings has been adapted to modern electric instruments, to create a dancing sound.

His first words contained messages against the colonial regime and the promotion of the Zanu-PF revolution. The electrification of the mbira, coupled with the protest lyrics embedded in the music, soon became known as chimurenga music. “We decided to call it chimurenga music when the liberation war broke out in our country… We made our first success by supporting the struggle.

Among many singles, one was immensely popular at the time. It was a song about the war that encouraged people to fight, called Tumira Vana Kuhondo, which translates to “sending children to war”.

At first it was broadcast on the radio because the authorities could not decipher what it was – a common thread in chimurenga music had coded meanings. When the regime understood this, Mapfumo was arrested for supporting the struggle. He has been arrested, detained and harassed several times throughout his career.

Associated article:

  • Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo performs with his band The Blacks Unlimited on stage at SOB's nightclub, New York, New York on September 27, 1989 (Photo by Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images) What remains of Zimbabwe? Part V: The dreams of wrestling in mbira

Mapfumo wears a T-shirt with reggae icon Bob Marley printed on it during the interview. “In Jamaica, I even photographed myself sitting on the Bob Marley statue. I love him because every song he made was really great with great messages.

The two artists are linked in many ways, most closely in their messages of revolution and unification of Africa. They are also bound by the independence of Zimbabwe, which was marked by a midnight concert with Bob Marley and the Wailers on April 17, 1980. It was an electrifying moment in history, at Rufaro Stadium in Harare.

Mapfumo played at the same concert. “We were the last group to play. It was very good… but the way we were treated at that time was not good for us. They [the government] despised us as if we had never done anything for them. However, my group played a very big role during the liberation struggle. There is no other group that has done this.

Stay away

The messages in Mapfumo’s music quickly changed to talk about corruption in Robert Mugabe’s regime. “I wrote this song Corruption (1989) against them. I supported them yesterday and found out that I was supporting the wrong cause. So you can’t change me, I’m a man of the people. And if you do something bad to people, we’ll sing it.

Mapfumo’s music is reportedly still banned in Zimbabwe. “That’s right… They don’t play my music on the radio over there. Yet during what they called the liberation struggle my music played a huge role. I supported them while they were still in the bush. And when they came back [into power], I thought, we are a great government and we have a great president. I thought things were going to be rosy. Then after eight years, I noticed that there was a lot of corruption and that made me write this song.

Mapfumo has always been a fierce critic of the Zimbabwean government. While he would like to return home, he says it will only happen “when things are good for my people.”

“We are not in the same boat with the Zimbabwean government. I don’t like the way they treat people. They claim to have fought the war of liberation for the people. These people are not released… they are still living in bondage. There is no freedom of expression… freedom of movement… freedom of expression.

There is a certain sadness in his voice when he says, “Today they don’t want to hear from me. They don’t even want to hear what I’m saying or telling people. But it’s the truth. You can’t run away from the truth… I don’t have to be rich. If I had supported these people to the end, I would have had a mansion, a farm, whatever I wanted …

“But I am a man of the people. And I am with the poor. This is where I belong. Money is nothing to me. The poor are the ones who put me where I am today. So why should I give them up? Just for the money? I will not do that.

A spirit of hope

One of the recurring points of Mapfumo is that Africa must unite in order to prosper and develop. “If we were united, we wouldn’t have all these problems. We are dividing ourselves. That’s why you hear Bob Marley singing, “Break Free From Mental Slavery.”

Mapfumo laments the lack of good African leaders, mentioning Nelson Mandela and saying: “We need leaders who unite people, rather than dividing people.

Thomas Mapfumo. (Photographs by Banning Eyre)

Refreshingly, he places the hope of leadership in the “new energy” of youth. “Now is the time for the younger generation to rule the world. They know what they need today… I think the world would be a great place to be.

Of the many Zimbabweans who have fled their country, he says: “Today we learn that approximately seven million of us live in the diaspora. It is not very good. Because most of them are young people. It is important for these young people to return home with their skills and knowledge and to help further develop the country. “They think positively. They know what it takes today in these modern times… We are ancient times and our time is over. So let’s give young people a chance to show us exactly what we need in this world. He is very, very important.”

June 18, 2018: Collection of fans of Thomas Mapfumo cassettes. (Photograph by Jekesai Njikizana)
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