Demystifying Thomas Mapfumo – Part One…defied oppression through song


IS Thomas Mapfumo still the Zimbabwean people’s voice?
“During the liberation war in the 1970s, we did not make the music for ourselves, but for the motivation of the people of Zimbabwe, for justice – kuzvitonga and Black majority rule. In fact, they (the people) made the music, we only sung it.
It’s a spiritual role. Ndiri mutumwa – I’m only a messenger of the people” – Mapfumo 1992. (Central Park, New York, US – July 1992)
The Zimbabwean doyen of Chimurenga liberation music – Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo is legendary in stature and talent in comparison to many other African musicians who stood up for social justice, liberation from colonial oppression and the emancipation of the people of the African continent through their music and lyrics.
Long before the Zimbabwean Diaspora communities had been established in the Americas, Europe and elsewhere, I was a student of the Arts and Humanities in the US in 1992.
I had the rare opportunity of meeting and interviewing Mapfumo on three occasions: in New York, Santa Fe, New Mexico (1992) and later again in New York in 2007.
My first encounter was in 1992 in Central Park in New York. It was the most decisive and insightful interview I was to have for a long time.
At that time, Mapfumo was invited regularly as a ‘guest artiste’ to New York’s Central Park Summer Concerts and Sounds of Brazil Club, where he performed with other ‘people of colour’ as they referred to us in those days in the US.
In fact, he was already performing in Europe and at international music festivals since the 1980s.
The interview took place after a mammoth, exciting, sweltering summer’s afternoon concert ‘live in central park New York City 92’, where I had been invited along with fellow pan-African arts students to attend the concert by the then Second Secretary Attaché to the Zimbabwean Embassy in the US.
Mapfumo was in an exuberant mood and forthcoming during the interview.
He signed autographs and posed for hundreds of photographs within the multi-racial crowd – predominantly Caucasian, with Latino, African-Americans, Hispanic, including Zimbabweans and southern Africans studying and living in the US who had thronged the concert.
The concerts in Central Park, during the 1990s, were particularly exhilarating.
Mapfumo’s performances were electrifying. Here, Mapfumo danced exuberantly across the entire stage with his backing singers supporting him; intermittently mesmerising his audiences with his mbira-inflected guitar riffs and frequent change of stage attire after each medley of songs.
His audiences of all persuasions were awestruck by his exhilarating shows and soon participated in the carousing, totally entranced and absorbed as if at an urban Shona bira.
Never before had I seen such well-choreographed dance sequences and energetic performances by Mapfumo, not even back home. My respect for his artistry has not waned since.
In retrospect: Who is Mapfumo and what does his music stand for?
The year 1976 brought about three significant events in Zimbabwe; these were the intensification of the liberation war and the resurgence of African popular music with the emergence of Mapfumo who made innovative transformations in Zimbabwe’s popular music panorama.
Mapfumo was one of the first Zimbabwean musicians to write his own music in the early 1970s; becoming increasingly popular during the war of liberation against Rhodesian white minority rule; his popularity prompted a colonial knee-jerk reaction, which caused his detention for inciting public unrest and subversion in 1977.
Known by his totem ‘Mukanya’, by his myriad of fans, Zimbabwean musician Mapfumo was born in 1945 in the Mashonaland East Province, 72km south-east of Harare, where he lived with his family.
He is alternatively known as ‘The Lion of Zimbabwe’ – an epithet suggestive of the status of a mhondoro – territorial spiritual leader — in respect of his mass-popularity and for the socio-political influence he wields through his music.
He spent the first few years of his life as a herdboy in a rural idyll in Marondera that was disrupted constantly by successive colonial land laws such as the 1941 Land Apportionment Act, which strengthened many of provisions of the 1930 Act, the 1951 Land Husbandry Act and the Land Tenure Act of 1969, which disenfranchised indigenous Zimbabweans.
In 1955, when Mapfumo was 10 years old, they moved to Harare (then Salisbury), after finishing what was then known as ‘Sub A’.
Mapfumo started his musical career in 1961 at 16 years of age.
Combining music with odd jobs, he joined Springfields Band as a singer, at Mutanga Night Club in Highfield, Salisbury, which is believed to be the first black Zimbabwean-owned nightclub.
After hearing music from the Beatles in the early 1960s, Mapfumo taught himself the guitar.
Although Mapfumo is known to sing in Shona, he also played English and American rock and soul covers of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Otis
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Redding, Percy Sledge while occasionally playing rhumba.
He began his career as a member of the Springfields Band which toured Mozambique while it was still Portuguese East Africa in 1967.
The band had several other incarnations, including the Cosmic Four and the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band; a moniker with rather strange evangelical and agricultural overtones.
Finding the city and township nightclub scene stifling, Mapfumo and his band moved to Mhangura where they performed in smokey district community halls, built to entertain and provide recreation for the mine and farm communities at weekends and by day the band worked as labourers on a poultry farm.
In the early 1970s, Mapfumo began fusing Western Rock with traditional Shona music with the Halleluiah Chicken Run Band and together, in a space of five years (1974-1979), they recorded 28 singles, most of which became popular hits in the Zimbabwean indigenous communities.
In 1976, aged 31, Mapfumo formed the Acid Band and began to record Zimbabwean revolutionary songs which made an invaluable contribution to the war of liberation by politically mobilising the people.
Hits such as ‘Chiruzevha Chapera’ and ‘Tumirai vana kuHondo’ gained him notoriety and socio-political credence.
With the Acid Band, he blended popular and traditional mbira music, coupled with highly emotive, politically-inspired lyrics engaging in politics, social injustices and poverty, which were the trend in many songs until our independence in 1980.
Although covertly expressed in his music, the songs rallied people to the cause of the liberation war and instilled a sense of national pride and civic responsibility in his audience.
Attendance to his shows in the 1970s rose noticeably to unprecedented levels.
As a result, in Mapfumo’s wake, many talented musicians and groups emerged in the late 1970s, including Tineyi Chikupo, Susan Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi, the Green Arrows, et al.
The Acid Band preceded Black Men Unlimited during the crucial period of 1976-1977; one in which the liberation ethos and the ancestral Shona folk-sound of the band took root.
In 1978, Mapfumo started the band The Blacks Unlimited which was initially called ‘Black Men Unlimited’ with whom he created and developed the Chimurenga sound.
Earlier in the history of The Blacks Unlimited, the superbly gifted mbira-guitar maestro, Jonah Sithole, played a pivotal role in establishing the signatory style of the band.
He died in 1997.
He first played with Mapfumo in the mid-1970s and is credited for being one of the innovators of transposing mbira music to electric guitar,
Their first album, Hokoyo, contained the songs that led to Mapfumo’s detention by the Rhodesian forces.
In order to obtain his release, Mapfumo agreed to perform for the Rhodesian ruling party.
However, at the concert he sang his most revolutionary songs only.
He said: “Since I’d been in detention, I didn’t have time to write new ones.”
The songs ‘Hokoyo’, and ‘Pfumvu Paruzevha’ describe the plight of the freedom fighters while they were battling the Rhodesian army.
The song ‘Tumira vana kuHondo’ was intended to mobilise the youth to join the liberation war.
Following Zimbabwe’s liberation in 1980, Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited released ‘Gwindingwi rineShumba’, a joyous celebration of his country’s independence.
He is the first Zimbabwean to have recorded The Greatest Hits album and in 1987, was voted chairman of the Zimbabwe Music Co-operative.
In essence, Mapfumo is a self-taught guitarist whose guitar style emulates the patterns of the traditional Shona mbira.
Mapfumo has liberated the conventional mbira and instrumentally hybridised and electrified the traditional sound of Zimbabwe without losing its soulful mbira quintessence.
As a musician, Mapfumo is an outstanding personality in the history of Zimbabwean music.
Mapfumo’s eclectic and hybridised renditions of mbira music may also underscore the long history of cultural intercourse between Zimbabwe, Africa and the Diaspora that extends through the era of our liberation war into the present.
Genuine musicians and artists are the barometers of our times; it is prudent for Zimbabwe to lend an ear, and support the artists and their arts.
Perhaps had our journalists been better trained to analyse music in its historical, socio-cultural and pedagogic implications, as opposed to fuelling rumours and sensationalism, Mukanya with his lion’s voice would be better understood and our local music scholars would be better musicians.
Through his music, Mapfumo has helped illuminate and preserve the values and ethos of the liberation war.
Mapfumo declared: “We would write songs that would encourage fighters, those who were fighting from the bush, fighting for freedom.
That type of music actually motivated them to fight fiercely.”
The history of popular African music in Zimbabwe is inextricably bound to the liberation history of this country.
This phenomenon represents only a part of the musical legacy of our history, yet music of this era has endured more than from any other period of our past.
Music is an important part of life in Zimbabwe, playing the role of an oral harbinger.
There was different music created for different occasions; music that encouraged people while working in fields; music for celebration and music for interment.
Mapfumo made his music part of the revolutionary struggle for self-determination and independence.
Like a mirror to our society, the music of Mapfumo resonates with the struggle and illuminates the socio-political stages of both pre and post-independent Zimbabwe.
Mapfumo contributed exponentially to the liberation of Zimbabwe from the former white Rhodesian regime.
For four decades, Mapfumo has been at the heart of the evolution of a musical style that set Zimbabwean Chimurenga sounds on the world map of music.
Given the need to re-organise their strategy and constantly re-access the stratagem and operational intelligence tactics to evade detection by the Rhodesian forces, freedom fighters held political meetings (pungwes) in villages at night.
The pungwes were also spiritual consultancies that allowed freedom fighters to rally spiritual guidance and forecast the future attacks of the Rhodesians.
Young men (mujibhas) and young women (chimbwidos) were recruited by freedom fighters to bring them information and supplies, and to warn them about the Rhodesian troops that would be approaching; while elderly men and women provided the guerillas with food and other supplies (clothes, shoes, medicines, water and cigarettes, among other provisions).
In an attempt to cut off the access of freedom fighters to the people of the rural areas, over one milllion peasants were forced to live in ‘Protected Villages’ (maKeep), surrounded by security wire and guarded by Rhodesian forces.
These villages offered only the most basic amenities and separated the people, not only from the freedom fighters, but also from their land and livestock.
In response to these restrictive measures, Mapfumo sang songs that enlightened the indigenous people regarding the circumstances created by the white regime. ‘Pfumvu Paruzevha’ is one such song; as is ‘Mhandu Musango’ and ‘Tozvireva Kupiko?’
Dr Tony Mhonda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and post-colonial heritage studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practicing artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher. Email:tonym.MONDA


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