Success Story from Zimbabwe: Thomas Mapfumo’s Revolutionary Music

Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo was born in Marondera in 1945, a town southeast of the capital city of Salisbury (now Harare) in what was then the British colony of Rhodesia. He was raised surrounded by farms, forests, and markets for timber, tobacco, corn, dairy products, and beef. When Thomas was just ten years old, his family moved to a high-density suburb of Salisbury where he was introduced to traditional Shona music based on the ngoma drum and the mbira.

By the age of 16 Mr. Mapfumo was singing in a band. Throughout his late teens and early 20s, he sang, led, and wrote songs for bands, while doing odd jobs including chicken farming. Although his early career involved playing covers of rock and soul music coming out of the USA, by 1972 as the leader of the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, he began to introduce traditional Shona music to rock instrumentation. He also started singing primarily in Shona, rather than in English.

To the British colonizers, drawing on traditional music and singing in Shona was in itself a political statement, but Mr. Mapfuno also started singing lyrics that were overtly political. Some lyrics overtly supported the struggle or revolution (Chimurenga in the Shona language) against the British that was beginning to take hold in the country.

In 1979, the colonial government banned Mr. Mapfuno’s Chimurenga music from being played on state-controlled radio and threw him into a prison camp without charges. There were large demonstrations protesting Mapfuno’s incarceration and the government released him after three months. Nonetheless, even from prison Mapfuno was having an impact. His songs, such as “Hokoyo!” or “Watch out!” continued to be played in many bars and informal clubs as well as on radio stations that the government did not control, such as the Voice of Mozambique.

In 1980 the country transitioned to majority rule and Mr. Mapfumo performed at a celebratory concert that also featured Bob Marley. Robert Mugabe, a former freedom fighter against British colonial rule led independent Zimbabwe and initially all was well. By the late 1980s however, Zimbabwe’s economy was declining as was, at least in some circles, President Mugabe’s popularity.

Mr. Mapfumo, by then married and with two children, was still writing political songs, but now they dealt with poverty and other social issues. In 1989, Mr. Mapfumo released an album called Corruption that was critical of Mugabe’s government. With President Mugabe still leading the country in 2000, Mr. Mapfumo moved to the US state of Oregon, which continues to serve as his home base. Mr. Mapfumo’s band members also left the country. He tours with them internationally and continues to speak out about social problems in Zimbabwe. Mr. Mapfuno’s Chimurenga style of music has influenced other Zimbabwean musicians, including the Bhundu Boys and Stella Chiweshe and his music remains immensely popular in his country of birth. Mr. Mapfumo is known as “The Lion of Zimbabwe” and “Mukanya” (a praise name in the Shona language) for the political influence he has wielded through his music, including the creation and popularization of Chimurenga music.

In May 2015, a book called Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe, was published by Duke University Press. It is an authoritative biography written by Banning Eyre, a freelance writer, author of several books, and guitarist. Mr. Eyre has known Mr. Mapfuno’s for over 25 years as well as recorded with and performed with him. The book explores the artistic practices and interpersonal relationships among the members of Mr. Mapfuno’s bands and the dancers that have accompanied them. It demonstrates the ways in which music reflects the history of societies and the challenges that they have faced. Lion Songs is an essential read for anyone who loves Mr. Mapfuno’s music and would like to know more about his life.

By Heidi G. Frontani

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