Thomas Mapfumo On Music, Politics, Unity

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“HOME is home. And that’s where the heart is always. You’re always thinking of home, where your roots are … where you’re coming from. Your friends, your relatives, that’s where they are.”

For Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo, that place will always be Zimbabwe. It’s a love that is reciprocated, going by the huge number of Zimbabweans who turn up for his recent South African tour. Mapfumo has lived in self-imposed exile in Eugene, Oregon, in the United States since 2002. “I like it there, but that’s not my home,” he says.

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

Mapfumo performed with his signature band The Blacks Unlimited in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Hundreds packed into the Schotsche Kloof Civic Centre in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, on 20 November to watch the vocalist and guitarist perform, cheering as the 76-year-old elder came out on stage.

The crowd danced and sang along to every word, as he performed for nearly two hours – a short set for Mapfumo, who has been known to perform for up to five hours at times. That he was cut off abruptly to comply with the Covid-19 curfew did not perturb his joyful fans, whose love and reverence for Mapfumo were palpable.

Pivotal moments

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

Despite the tour, his retirement is looming. There are plans for a 77th birthday celebration in the United Kingdom in July 2022. It will mark his retirement from live performances, although he will continue with studio recordings.

Mapfumo reflects on his path into music. His beginnings are humble, growing up in rural Marondera. He taught himself to play the guitar and loved rock and roll in his early years, playing mostly covers, as was the norm in Zimbabwe at the time.

This would change after a pivotal moment during a battle of the bands contest in Harare in the late 1960s, while playing in one of his first bands, The Springfields.

“So we were up there on the stage and we were playing copyrighted music. The last song that we were playing was The Last Time by The Rolling Stones,” he says, breaking into song.

“There was this white guy in the audience. And he started shouting at us, ‘Shut up, you k****rs!’ It made me very, very angry. I thought well, if these people can’t allow us to sing in their language, don’t we have our own language to sing? That made me change my mind. From there on, I stopped playing copyrighted music.”

This moment was essential in nurturing Mapfumo’s political consciousness. “I thought … if we don’t play our own music, how are we going to promote our own culture?” He began singing in his mother tongue, Shona, from that day onwards.

Throughout the interview, Mapfumo enthrals with descriptive tales of his early bands and adventures in different Zimbabwean cities. This includes the story behind the Hallelujah Chicken Run Ban formed in 1972, while members worked on a chicken farm in the copper mining area of Mhangura.

Struggle songs

Mapfumo’s contribution to music involves tuning the mbira – the spiritual sound of the Shona – to the electric guitar.  “As a boy I grew up in the rural areas, where there was a lot of traditional music. I was a herdboy herding cattle and goats.

I listened to a lot of mbira music and also drumming and singing. I thought, is this music not danceable? … All we have to do is change the music and promote it.” This combination of mbira, rattles and drums originally played at gatherings for the ancestors was tweaked to modern electrical instruments, to create a danceable sound.

His early lyrics contained messages against the colonial regime and promoting 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 name it chimurenga music when the liberation war broke out in our country … We made our first hit through 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 as “send children to war”.

At first, it was played on the radio because the authorities could not decipher what it was about – a common thread in chimurenga music was having coded meanings. When the regime figured it out, Mapfumo was arrested for supporting the struggle. He has been arrested, detained and harassed repeatedly throughout his career.

Mapfumo is wearing a T-shirt with reggae icon Bob Marley printed on it during the interview. “In Jamaica, I even took a picture of myself sitting on the statue of Bob Marley. I like him because every song that he created was really great with great messages.”

The two artists are connected in many ways, most closely in their messages of revolution and uniting Africa.

They are also connected through Zimbabwe’s independence, which was marked by a massive midnight concert featuring Bob Marley and the Wailers on 17 April 1980. It was an electrifying moment in history, at the Rufaro Stadium in Harare.

Mapfumo performed at the same concert. “We were the last band to play. It was very good … but the way we were treated that time wasn’t good for us.

They [the government] looked down on us like we never did anything for them. Yet my band played a very big part during the liberation struggle. There is no other band that did that.”

Staying away

The messages in Mapfumo’s music soon changed to speak about the corruption in Robert Mugabe’s regime. “I wrote that song Corruption (1989) against them. I supported them yesterday and I 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 wrong to the people, we’ll sing about it.”

Mapfumo’s music is allegedly still banned in Zimbabwe. “It is true … They don’t play my music on the radio there. Yet during what they called the Liberation Struggle, my music played a very big 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 that song.”

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

“We’re not in the same boat with the Zimbabwean government. I don’t like the way they treat the people. They claim to have fought the Liberation War for the people. Those people are not liberated … they are still living under bondage. There’s no freedom of speech … freedom of movement … freedom of expression.”

There is some sadness in his voice as he says, “Today they don’t want to hear about me. They don’t even want to hear what I’m saying or telling the people. But that’s the truth. You cannot run away from the truth … I don’t need to be rich. If I supported these people all the way, I would have had a mansion, a farm, whatever I wanted…

“But I’m a man of the people. And I stand with the poor people. That’s where I belong. Money is nothing to me. The poor people are the ones who put me where I am today. So why should I abandon them? Just for the sake of money? I won’t do that.”

A spirit of hope

One of Mapfumo’s recurring points is that Africa must unite if it is to prosper and develop. “If we were united, we wouldn’t have all these problems. We divide ourselves. That’s why you hear Bob Marley sing, ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.’”

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

Refreshingly, he places hope for leadership in the “new energy” of the youth. “This is the time for the young generation to rule the world. They know what is needed today … I think the world would be a very good place to be.”

On the many Zimbabweans who have fled home, he says, “We hear today that about seven million of us are living in diaspora. That’s not very good. Because most of them are youngsters.” It’s important for these youth to go home with their skills and knowledge and help develop the country further. “They think positively. They know what is needed today in these modern times … We are of the old times and our time has passed. So let’s give the youngsters a chance to show us exactly what we need in this world. It’s very, very important.”