Demystifying Thomas Mapfumo: Part Two…popularised mbira in Chimurenga music


IN pre-independent Zimbabwe, at the height of the war of liberation (1977-1979), Thomas Mapfumo’s songs defiantly advocated the ouster of Rhodesia’s Ian Douglas Smith’s minority white Government.
Calling his music ‘Chimurenga music’, Mapfumo’s lyrics soon became overtly political, supporting the liberation movement rising from the countryside.
In his lyrics, Mapfumo called for an overthrow of the white minority Government – using weapons if necessary.
However, it was a while before they (the Rhodesians) understood how radical Mukanya’s lyrics had become.
An original urban musical style, buoyed by Zimbabwe’s national instrument the mbira (thumb piano) and embellished by electric guitars, indigenous drum beats and syncopated, soaring saxophone and trumpet blasts, Mapfumo’s musical style was instantly infectious.
The soundscape, styles and texture of African resistance songs do not come any savvier than Mapfumo’s Chimurenga music.
He used a three-piece mbira ensemble as his rhythm section, which formed the core of his ‘Chimurenga music’, the liberation war sound.
From his first hit ‘Tumirayi vana kuHondo’ (Send Your Children to War), ‘Chii Chati Gho-o?’ (What has sounded in the forest?), he was alluding to the sounds of AKs, grenades, bombs and landmines during Zimbabwe’s War of Liberation.
‘Makandiwa’ (Bone Throwing Diviner/Fortune-teller) alludes to his prophecy of the war and the troubles that later beset him as a result of his prophetic words.
The development of the Mapfumo’s Chimurenga sound can be attributed to him and a number of his principal session musicians, as the foremost proponents of Chimurenga music.
I was privileged to watch a few rehearsals by some of the seminal members of the Blacks Unlimited in the late 1980s in Waterfalls, Harare. The band was composed of the late Ashton ‘Sugar’ Chiweshe (his nickname Sugar was suggestive of his diabetic medical condition), who fronted as rhythm-lead guitarist; Chiyangwa, a guitarist and founding member, Sebastian ‘Saba’ Mbata, a drummer, Charles Mukokove on keyboard, the (then) young guitarist Zivayi Guveya (who joined the band as a teenager), trumpeter Chibhamuthe, Washington Kavhayi, Ephraim Karimaura together with Mapfumo’s brothers, William and Lancelot Mapfumo.
Our most visceral memories of the Liberation War are preserved in the liberation songs which also contain valuable insights for political discourse in post-colonial Zimbabwe.
On the song ‘Gunguwo’ (The Crow), Mapfumo sings in reference to Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Chief Jeremiah Chirau and Ndabaningi Sithole’s short-lived amalgamation with the farcical Government of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia in 1978-1979.
Mapfumo was always acutely aware of the counter-cultural disposition of most Zimbabwean musical bands of the 1960s who forewent their rich local cultural heritage by playing Rock, Soul and rhumba.
Yet as a herdboy, growing up in the rural areas with his grandparents, he had listened to and enjoyed traditional music, the drum and the mbira.
Recalling some of the songs he thought: “This music is not inferior to other forms of music. What it needs are instruments.”
From that point he began infusing into his music snippets of traditional songs.
During a musical event in 1974, while other bands played American and British music, Mapfumo and his band played local traditional music.
It was perhaps the first time people were genuinely excited about Zimbabwean music.
Some of the songs from this period are classics which include: ‘Pfumvu Paruzevha’, ‘Kuyaura’, ‘Chitima ­Cherusununguko’, ‘Bhutsu Mutandarika’, ‘Chauya Chiruzevha’, ‘Dangurangu’ and ‘Chipatapata’. Mapfumo, together with keyboard player Charles Makokove, then leading the Acid Band, ­collaborated on songs such as ‘Kupi’ and ‘Pamuromo Chete’; both became hit songs.
They bought instruments with a loan from Teal Records and began touring the country.
The 1974 single ‘Hoyo Murembu’, in the style of British Afro-pop band Osibisa, was recorded by Crispen Matema, a jazz drummer who was then working for Teal Records as a producer.
He made reference to the liberation war against minority rule that had began in earnest with such songs as: ‘Mhandu Musango’ (The Enemy in the Bush), ‘Kwayedza muZimbabwe’ (The Dawn Has Broken in Zimbabwe), ‘Pfumvu paRuzevha’ (Strife in the rural areas), ‘Tozvireva Kupiko’ (Who shall we share our oppression and frustrations with), ‘Nhamo Yapera’ (The Troubles Have Ended) – his forecasting of the end of suffering at independence.
Traditional orature and songs are recognised as major conduits for communication between the rank-and-file in Zimbabwean culture, through which free expression and criticism is openly received.
For the people of Zimbabwe whose culture had been disrupted by over a century of colonial suppression, repression and cultural depredation, and whose people had come to learn not to love their own culture, Mapfumo, with deference to his indigenous Zimbabwean culture, is the stalwart cultural crusader.
Inspired by indigenous musical tradition, Mapfumo composes and sings mostly in Shona.
He uses the mbira in conjunction with other Western instruments and has become Zimbabwean people’s artistic socio-political messenger, singing his dogmatic messages regarding socio-political issues.
The Shona mbira has become intrinsic to Zimbabwe’s Chimurenga sound. Some of Mapfumo’s players who have made the mbira an intrinsic part to Zimbabwe’s Chimurenga sound over the years have included Basil Makombe, Chaka Mhembere and Chartwell Dutiro.
With his band The Blacks Unlimited, he not only plays his trademark mbira-based Chimurenga music, but also casts his net to far-off Mali with ‘Ndiyani Waparadza Musha’ effortlessly mixing two African cultures, while ‘Set the People Free’ is an African Rock song interspersed with English language Rap.
His basic style and baritone voice forms the heartbeat on tracks like ‘Tinofara’ and ‘Wandiita Muroyi.’
Since his exile, Mapfumo has produced several albums including: Chimurenga Explosion 2000, Chimurenga Rebel 2002, Choice Chimurenga 2003, Danger Zone 2015 and Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, Live at Santuary for Independent Media in Troy, New York, 2016, among many more.
He is known by his many monikers; ‘Gandanga’, ‘Hurricane Hugo’, ‘Mukuru’, ‘Baba we Chimurenga Music’ and ‘The Lion of Zimbabwe’, the most permanent being his totem ‘Mukanya’; an address and symbol of respect and an acknowledgement of his ancestral lineage.
Mapfumo will always be part of the liberation history and cultural achievements of his country. As a purveyor of Chimurenga music, of black consciousness, human rights and entertainment, ‘Mukanya’ continues to preach universal peace and democracy through music.
Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo is still the peoples voice — an embodiment of Zimbabwe, ourselves, our culture and identity; hunhu wedu!
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and post-colonial heritage studies. He is a writer, 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. E-mail:



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