The Lion of Zimbabwe
Thomas Mapfumo has been a witness to and participant in history in his native Zimbabwe.
From the bloody years of the country's liberation war in the 1970s, right through the
present economic and political crises, Mapfumo has used his revolutionary, spiritually
charged music to decry injustice and highlight the historical and cultural issues that
underlie the news headlines. Mapfumo is a musical visionary and a fearless social critic,
and certainly one of the greatest African bandleaders of the past century.
Mapfumo was born in 1945 in Marondera, a small town south of the Rhodesian capital of
Salisbury. He spent his first 10 years living in the countryside with his grandparents,
tending cattle herds, and waking up before sunrise to do chores before school. As Rhodesia
edged toward racial civil war, Mapfumo lived a traditional life, mostly removed from the
bitterness building in the cities and townships. One of his greatest pleasures was the
music of his people, the Shona-music he experienced in family and clan gatherings not
unlike those his ancestors had held 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. Traditional music is the foundation of Mapfumo's
musical personality, a force that continues to shape the history and spiritual life of his
When Mapfumo was 10, he moved to Mbare, the poorest and toughest black township of Harare
(then called 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 a Christian church and in Shona traditional
religious circles. He taught his children a highly moral world view 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 10 years, while the liberation war that would eventually transform Rhodesia
into Zimbabwe roiled through 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 Darin,
Wilson Pickett, and Mick Jagger. When the police came through his neighborhood one day
demanding that everyone line up outside of their houses, Mapfumo turned up in the shiny,
Beatles-style silver jacket he wore on stage. This playful show of disrespect nearly landed
him in jail, where he'd have been lucky to escape with a beating. But a cop who was a
Springfields fan stepped in to save him.
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 workers' families, 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-the hardships of rural life, 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
Mapfumo's chimurenga singles captured the imagination of blacks nationwide.
Near the end of the war, the out-maneuvered Rhodesians arrested Mapfumo 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, Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited shared the stage with Bob Marley
and the Wailers at the national celebration of Zimbabwean independence.
As Zimbabwe took its first hopeful steps, Mapfumo sang rallying songs for the new leaders.
But if the new leaders imagined him a loyal praise singer, 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 social justice and 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 corrupt and lacking in vision for the nation, they found
themselves in Mapfumo's artistic crosshairs. In 1989, Mapfumo decried sleaze and graft in
the song "Corruption." The next year in "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 the core of
The Blacks Unlimited sound. He challenged his guitarists, horn players, and keyboard
players to accommodate 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 1990s, 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 set of new songs every year and playing as often as five nights a week during
peak season. A Blacks Unlimited concert in Zimbabwe is an extraordinary communal
experience. It begins at 8 o'clock in the evening and can last until daylight. It includes
deep mbira anthems, rollicking township dance grooves, and refracted glimmers
of reggae, R&B, and African jazz. The songs decry alcoholism, AIDS, domestic violence,
and people's devotion to foreign things-all prices Zimbabweans have paid for abandoning
their ancient culture, in Mapfumo's view.
By the summer of 2000, conditions in Zimbabwe had deteriorated badly, in part as a result
of President Mugabe's aggressive and violent program of seizing white-owned farms. Mapfumo
songs perceived as critical of the government were unofficially banned from
state-controlled airwaves (effectively all airwaves). Feeling pressure on many sides,
Mapfumo moved his family to the United States that year, and since then, he and the band
have been spending much of the year based in Eugene, Oregon. As the situation in Zimbabwe
has declined steadily, virtually all Mapfumo's recent music has now been banned, and
government-controlled press outlets have for the first time begun to write negatively about
him. Despite growing risks, Mapfumo continued to return to Zimbabwe with the band to play
traditional year-end concerts for as long as he felt safe doing so. However, he has not
returned to Zimbabwe since 2004.
Mapfumo released a CD called Exile in 2010, and is now finishing a new CD to
be titled World on Fire.
-Banning Eyre, Senior Editor, afropop.org