Thomas Mapfumo, Zimbabwe’s musical ambassador to the world, is set to perform at Bassline Newtown, Johannesburg, South Africa, on October 5, 2008 at 7.00 pm. More than any other artist, a press release from AFRICAN SYNERGY TRUST, Mapfumo remains a massive, iconic figure in the history of Zimbabwean music “the only Zimbabwean musician to receive an honorary doctorate, the founder of “chimurenga” music that came to dominate Zimbabwean musical identity and development to an astonishing degree.
Few band-leaders anywhere in Africa have been as consistently relevant to the lives of their people as Mapfumo or have made such momentous impact, artistically and politically, on the music of their people and country.
“Chimurenga,” the Shona word Mapfumo has adopted to refer to his work, means “struggle,” and it’s as accurate as any to describe his socially and politically conscious music. But it also masks the joy and celebration inherent in his swaying choruses, lilting rhythms, and hip-moving grooves. You don’t have to struggle one bit to get into this stuff.
The chimurenga singles of Mapfumo, whose Shona name means ‘spears’, captured the imagination of Zimbabweans in the anti-colonial liberation war. He was, and is remembered as a national hero who sang of people’s hearts and hopes for freedom. He was arrested near the end of the war but the tide of history had turned, and in 1980 Zimbabwe became independent. That year, Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited shared the stage in Harare with Bob Marley and the Wailers at the now historic Independence Celebrations.
Mapfumo had become a national hero by singing songs for a revolution, though his deeper message was about culture and 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 his chimurenga music.
In 1989, Mapfumo decried corrupt leaders in the song “Corruption.” The next year, in the song “Jojo,” he warned young people not to let themselves be used by dirty politicians.
In the late 1980s, Mapfumo introduced first one, then two, then three mbira (traditional Shona thumb piano) to the band line-up and challenged his guitarists, horn players and keyboard players to accommodate themselves to the mbira. He also challenged his mbira players to learn the African jazz, and “jit” songs that were also key elements in the chimurenga sound.
Mapfumo’s 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 home, releasing a new album every year, and playing as often as five nights a week during peak season.
A Blacks Unlimited concert during this period was an extraordinary experience. It began at 8:00 in the evening, and could last until daylight, ‘pungwe’. 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.
The mbira being a fundamentally important instrument associated with healing and poetry, is a natural component of Mapfumo’s music. Not just in a literal sense(because Mapfumo’s music features expert mbira playing)but also in translation through guitars and other instruments, whose interlocking patterns incorporate an intuitive polyphony.
In the late 1990s, Mapfumo increasingly focused on the country’s leaders, who he felt had failed the people. The state radio refused to play critical songs, notably “Disaster,” which stated the country’s predicament in no uncertain terms. There were threats against Mapfumo, and trumped up charges that he bought stolen cars. A few months later, Mapfumo quietly moved his family out of the country to Oregon, USA.
Mapfumo continues to record incendiary music, to have it banned, and until recently, to return to and play for his loyal fans, risking arrest and harassment each time. In 2005, Mapfumo concluded it was no longer safe to go to Zimbabwe. Now in exile, he remains engaged, and passionately creative. His 2005 release, Rise Up, is a tour de force musically, and full of enough political barbs that it has, once again, earned the honour of being banned on Zimbabwean state radio.
Article used with the courtesy of African Synergy Trust