A social activist and founder of chimurenga music, Thomas Tafirenyika “Mukayana” Mapfumo is often referred to as “the Lion of Zimbabwe.” For almost 30 years he and his Blacks Unlimited band have musically supported his people, the Shona, in their struggle for social and economic justice and for the preservation of their culture. Mapfumo dubbed his music chimurenga after the Shona word meaning “struggle,” a concept he and his people are familiar with. The artist became associated with politics and social justice when his music spoke of his people’s difficulties during Rhodesia’s quest for independence from Britain. He took part in the creation of a new nation as Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, a transition that was marked by the 1980 election of President Robert Mugabe. Chimurenga blends traditional Shona music with Western instruments and features social and political messages about colonialism, poverty, government corruption, and the loss of the Shona culture. Mapfumo introduced the mbira, a traditional Shona instrument used in religious ceremonies, to music that had a more Western popular flavor. Some of his songs have been banned by both the Rhodesian and Zimbabwean regimes under which he has lived, and he has endured jail and self-imposed political exile in his fight for justice.
Born on July 3, 1945, in the small town of Marondera near the Rhodesian capital of Salisbury—now called Harare—Mapfumo was raised in the countryside with his grandparents until the age of ten. He lived the life of a farm boy, all the while immersed in the traditions and music of the Shona people, sharing in gatherings and rituals like the ones his clan had participated in for centuries. Music always played an integral role in these rituals and meetings. There were the ngoma drums that came out for celebration songs, and there was the mbira, a metal-pronged instrument used in sacred music. The melodies of the mbira were meant to call forth the spirits of ancestors, and Mapfumo later made the sounds of this thumb piano a major part of his own music with his Blacks Un- limited band.
At ten years old, Mapfumo moved to Mbare, a rough, poverty-stricken township of Salisbury. He lived in this urban environment with his mother, stepfather, two brothers, and two sisters. For years, Rhodesia had been on its way towards a racial civil war, and Mbare was a hot spot of black protest against the oppressive white Rhodesian government. Random police violence was a common tactic used to intimidate citizens inclined towards rebellion. Mapfumo’s stepfather was a good role model and important figure in the young boy’s life. He was a dedicated member of the Christian church as well as of the traditional Shona religious circles. He demonstrated that these traditions could be integrated as a moral and spiritual guide for life.
It was in Mbare that Mapfumo listened to the radio for the first time. He was entranced and impressed by
For the Record…
Born Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo on July 3, 1945, in Marondera, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
Formed Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, 1972; formed the Acid Band, 1977; released song “Hokoya,” banned by government, 1977; jailed for three months for rebellious music, 1977; Acid Band became Blacks Unlimited, 1978; shared stage in Harare, Zimbabwe, with Bob Marley and the Wailers, 1980; released Corruption on Mango Records, 1989; songs from Chimurenga Explosion banned in Zimbabwe, 1999; moved to Eugene, OR, 2000; released Chimurenga Rebel on Gramma label, 2001.
Awards: AFIM Indie Award for Chimurenga Explosion, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Gramma Records, P.O. Box ST 21, Southerton, Harare, Zimbabwe.
African jazz from South Africa’s Johannesburg, big band rumba from the Congo, and R&B and soul from the United States and England. He started singing and joined his first band, the Zutu Brothers, in high school. For ten years, as the war for liberation that would finally change Rhodesia into Zimbabwe burned through the country, Mapfumo made his way as a rock ‘n’ roll singer. Mapfumo did covers of Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley, and Wilson Picket, and he still carries the music of the 1960s inside him, though his style has changed drastically.
His early bands included the Cosmic Four Dots, in which he acquired basic musical skills, and the more popular Springfields. The band was successful enough that Mapfumo’s identity as its singer actually saved him from going to jail one day. As the story goes, the police came through his neighborhood, requiring residents to line up outside their houses. The young rebel showed up in his sparkling silver performance jacket. This display would have been enough to earn Mapfumo a beating and jailing if a police officer fan had not intervened on his behalf.
Mapfumo created the Afro-rock-playing Hallelujuah Chicken Run Band in 1972, in a mining town that he had just moved to. There, the musicians played for the miners while holding down day jobs as well. Their temporary employment as tenders in a chicken run was the inspiration for the band’s quirky name. In this band, Mapfumo worked with guitarist Joshua Dube to adapt ancient mbira songs which he then performed in the Shona language. Against the backdrop of rising political tensions and war, Mapfumo’s dedication to traditional music was politically charged.
In 1977 Mapfumo began performing with the Acid Band, which became Blacks Unlimited in 1978. With guitarists Jonah Sithole and Leonard “Picket” Chiyangawa and bassist Charles Makokova, in addition to other creative, young musicians, Mapfumo formulated his unique mbira pop sound. At first, the bands replaced mbiras with guitars that imitated the mbira’s entrancing cyclical melodies and the subtle poly-rhythms that came from plucking its keys. Mapfumo’s songs were about young guerillas fighting in the bush, the destructive impact of white rulers devaluing Shona culture for generations, and hard times in rural areas. Mapfumo dubbed his new sound “chimurenga music” after the guerilla fighters who called themselves “chimurenga” He and his band went from township to township, frequently playing in the convoys of the guerillas they supported. Mapfumo was truly becoming a rebel singer. He told Jane Cornwell of London’s Guardian, “As a young man I was aware that we were oppressed people in our own land. When civil war came I found a focus for who I was and what I should be doing. I composed a lot of militant songs.”
The success of Mapfumo’s chimurenga singles was extraordinary. With Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X as his inspirations, he became a symbol of traditional black culture, hope for the future, and resistance. So much so that in 1977, spurred on by the song, “Hokoya”—meaning “watch out”—the government, then led by Ian Smith, banned his music from radio. In a desperate attempt to squelch rebellion, the government ordered that Mapfumo be arrested. He was jailed for 90 days, after which time the government tried to use him as a way of gaining support. He told Cornwell, “They thought my music was encouraging youngsters to leave the country and to train and come back fighting the government…. I kept telling them it was the traditional music of the people of Zimbabwe. There was no way I wasn’t going to sing it.” Mapfumo was released from jail and ordered to play with Blacks Unlimited at a rally for a government-backed leader. They proudly played their songs about freedom, justice, and revolution. The good-humored Mapfumo said, “I told [the government] afterwards that I’d been put in detention and didn’t have time to compose any [new songs] for the occasion.”
In 1980 Robert Mugabe was elected president of the new nation of Zimbabwe. In the same year Mapfumo and Blacks Unlimited shared the stage in Harare with Bob Marley and the Wailers. In the first blooms of Zimbabwe, Mapfumo sang songs of support for the new leaders whom he had helped into power. He had no particular political allegiances, however, and was never blinded by an agenda to keep any one politician in power. He worked toward the larger goal of preserving traditional ways and culture. It soon became apparent that Mugabe and his new leadership were deeply flawed. Black rule alone was not going to undo the cultural damage that the Shona had endured, and the new rulers proved themselves to be corrupt and self-serving. In the Cornwell article Mapfumo said, “We supported them when they were fighting in the bush. When they came into power they promised us many things, but the people are still suffering and the country is a mess. So what did we fight for?” Mapfumo aimed his chimurenga music at the new government and took fire. In 1989 he spoke out with the song “Corruption” and the following year he sent a message to young people to avoid becoming pawns of sleazy politicians in “Jojo.”
Up until the late 1980s, no mbiras had actually been introduced into the Blacks Unlimited music. Gradually they appeared, and eventually three mbiras formed the core of the band’s sound. All the guitarists, horn players, and keyboardists had to learn to work with these new instruments, and the mbira players needed to learn the African jazz songs that were essential to the chimurenga sound. Mapfumo’s music influenced other local stars such as Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi. The Blacks Unlimited received international recognition and began touring around the world. They recorded the groundbreaking album Chamunorwa (which means “corruption”) in 1989; this album was quickly banned from being played on state-owned media. The band’s dance marathons crying out against domestic violence and alcoholism, among other things, have become as legendary as Mapfumo himself, routinely seen wearing his trademark straw hat and dreadlocks.
During the 1990s, as before, Mapfumo committed him-self to focusing on Zimbabwe—touring and releasing music abroad when he could, but always putting energy into his homeland and releasing a cassette of new music each year. He would play up to five nights a week during busy times, offering extraordinary shows that combined hints of R&B, African jazz, reggae, dance music, and mbira anthems. Performances would often begin in the evening and go until dawn, transmitting messages about serious and relevant subjects such as AIDS, domestic violence, and the tragedy of the loss of black traditional culture. In 1999, Mapfumo was given an honorary master’s degree from the University of Zimbabwe for lifetime contribution to history and tradition of African music.
During the hottest part of the violent election campaign in 2000, Mapfumo released a song called “Disaster,” decrying the hardships faced by the people of Zimbabwe and the bloodshed resulting from political violence; 37 people had died as a result of election-related strife. That song and another from the album Chimurenga Explosion, “Mamvemve”—which means “tatters”—were banned from state radio. Regardless of government attempts at suppression, Mapfumo’s music has dealt some damaging blows to Mugabe’s popularity. In 1999 Mapfumo stopped slightly short of calling for Mugabe’s resignation in an interview with London’s Daily Telegraph. Band members were harassed by the police following the interview, including guitarist Joshua Dube, whose house was searched. Zimbabwean officials confiscated Mapfumo’s prize-winning automobiles.
In 2000 the Zimbabwean legend left his country of origin for a new life in the United States. He moved to Eugene, Oregon, where his then 13- and 14-year-old daughters and 17-year-old son began school. Although Mapfumo had been declared a national hero by Mugabe when he became president in 1980, the musician’s outspoken criticism of the ruler’s corrupt regime ultimately put his life and family in danger. The poverty, unemployment, and suffering of his people have always been a focus for Mapfumo’s music, and Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party did not appreciate the criticism. On the eve of his departure Mapfumo told David Blair of Daily Telegraph, “If there is good government, there is no need for me to stay in a foreign country. But this government is keeping me away. I cannot live here while they are in power.”
Not long after his move, Mapfumo released the wildly successful Chimurenga Rebel, which was banned by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). Regardless of the ban, many people bought the album. His arrival in America coincided with the recognition by a major institution of his many contributions: on June 9, 2001, Mapfumo received an honorary doctorate of music from Ohio University. He was honored for his musical achievements as well as his accomplishments as a freedom fighter and activist in African society.
Despite the ferocity of his activism and the serious impact it has had on his life, Mapfumo remains full of good humor and a lust for life. Although Mapfumo has lost many band members to AIDS and other tragedies, new and talented musicians are always eager to join the ranks of the great and legendary Blacks Unlimited. Chimurenga Unlimited Hits Volume 2, released by Gramma Records and Chimurenga Music Company in 2002, features ten classic songs to which headded new lyrics and female vocals. He also has undertaken the major task of releasing CD versions of 16 of his albums currently available only on tape and vinyl. To this day, despite a growing interest in reggae, hip-hop, and less traditional genres of music, Mapfumo’s message of struggle and freedom resonates with and inspires many young Africans. Despite its specific focus, Mapfumo’s music has universal appeal as well, conveying meaning through its rhythms and sounds even to those who do not understand the Shona language.
With Blacks Unlimited
Ndangariro, Gramma, 1983.
Mabasa, Gramma, 1984.
Mr. Music (Africa), Gramma, 1985.
Varomba Kuvaromba, Gramma, 1988; reissued as Corruption, Mango, 1989.
Chamunorwa, Gramma, 1989; reissued, Mango, 1991.
Shumba, Earthworks, 1990.
Hondo, Gramma, 1992.
Chimurenga Explosion, Chimurenga Music Co., 1999; reissued aNOnym ReCOrds, 2000.
Chimurenga Rebel, Chimurenga Music Co., 2000; reissued, Gramma, 2001; reissued, aNOnym ReCOrds, 2002.
Chimurenga Unlimited Hits Volume 2, Gramma/Chimurenga Music Co., 2002.
(With the Acid Band) Hokoyo, Gramma, 1978.
(With the Acid Band and Blacks Unlimited) Chimurenga Singles (1976-1980), Shanachie, 1992; reissued as Greatest Hits, Gramma, 1992.
(With Blacks Unlimited, Wadada Leo Smith, and N’Da Kulture) Dreams and Secrets, aNOnym ReCOrds, 2001.
Boston Globe, May 10, 1991.
Daily Telegraph, January 28, 2001.
Guardian, March 13, 2000.
Village Voice, November 21, 2000, p. 65.
“Thomas Mapfumo,” African Music Encyclopedia, http://www.africanmusic.org/artists/mapfumo.html (July 1, 2002).
“Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited Bio,” Anonymous Web Productions, http://www.anonymousweb.com/bio.html (July 1, 2002).
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