Few musicians can claim to have influenced the history of their country. Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo is one. Born in 1945, he caught the wave of political and cultural change blowing through Africa in the mid-1970s, describing and influencing the political and social changes through his ‘chimurenga’ ('struggle') music.
At the time he came to prominence, Zimbabwe was still known by its English colonial name Rhodesia, and was ruled by Ian Smith's white minority Government with the support of British right-wing groups including the Conservative Monday Club. He staunchly opposed the idea of multi-racial elections, and denigrated the native black population and culture.
Just the fact that Mapfumo was drawing on the native musical tradition and singing in its Shona language was a political statement, but his lyrics also became overtly political, supporting the revolution that was developing in the rural areas. His songs called for the overthrow of the government, with lyrics like "Mothers, send your sons to war."
As the rebellion against Smith’s regime intensified, he became so influential that he was denied radio airplay, and in 1977 he was arrested and detained without trial and interrogated about his lyrics. Demonstrations forced the Government to release him without charge after 90 days, and when Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, Mapfumo and his band played alongside Bob Marley at the Independence Rally.
Shumba: Vital Hits of Zimbabwe was Mapfumo's first internationally released album in 1990, covering the period immediately before and after independence (1978-1985). The CD is the perfect starting point for newcomers to chimurenga music.
The songs deal with revolution and reconstruction, celebrating Zimbabwe’s strength and warning against post-revolutionary in-fighting. A highlight is Dangurangu, a model of the chimurenga style, simultaneously drawing on the spirituality of the past and anticipating a brighter future.
Throughout the album, the duelling guitar patterns imitate the harsh but melodic sound of the mbira, a hand-held piano with plucked iron keys; the pulsating rhythm section invokes the moves of dancers past; and out of the music soars Mapfumo' soulful and evocative voice, exhorting or pleading depending on the topic being addressed.
By the 1990s, Mapfumo had become an internationally renowned African star, but continued to perform in Zimbabwe as well as elsewhere. Disillusioned with Robert Mugabe's regime, Mapfumo alienated himself from Zimbabwe's ruling elite in 1989 when he released a CD that decried political sleaze. In an ironic twist, state radio briefly refused to play critical songs from his 1999 album, Chimurenga Explosion which criticised the country's predicament in no uncertain terms.
In April 2000, the Mugabe Government reacted to an electoral setback by making threats against Mapfumo, and a few months later, Mapfumo took his family to live in exile in the USA.
Mapfumo continues to record relevant music, to have it banned, and to return to Zimbabwe and play for his fans, risking arrest and harassment each time. Few bandleaders in Africa, or anywhere, have been so consistently relevant to the lives of their people as Thomas Mapfumo. And even fewer have found themselves so consistently in the position of the international spokesman for their country's voice of opposition.
An edited version of this article appeared in Issue 8 (March 2006) of Bulb Magazine.