The career of Thomas Mapfumo has more political intrigue, fascinating contradictions and plot twists than a Tom Clancy novel. Known at home as “Mukanya” (“Baboon”) and to the rest of the world as “the Lion of Zimbabwe," Mapfumo has been many things over the years: He’s a country boy and a savvy urchin raised in the city; he’s the artist who merged rock ’n’ roll with traditional Shona music and the figure who emerged as the voice (and conscience) of his beloved Zimbabwe. This made him a star during one of Southern Africa’s most convulsive independence struggles and, consequently, he’s also an iconoclast who fell afoul of both Rhodesia’s old colonialist government and its successor, Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF regime.
But more than anything, Thomas Mapfumo is one of the few undisputed legends of African music. Through all the twists and turns he’s remained stubbornly true to his own musical vision—a vision that has won him the enmity of the Mugabe government and turned him into Africa’s most famous musical exile since Hugh Masekela. And while his exile in Eugene, Oregon is anything but easy, it at least allows Mapfumo to do what he loves the most: record his music on his own terms.
His latest release, Rise Up, is a somber and reflective disc, but less of an exile’s lament than a summing up and reckoning with the world. Mapfumo’s distinctive chimurenga music has always held a certain gravity—the word itself means “struggle” in the Shona language—and in Mapfumo’s hands it has borne the weight of both Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence, and his own personal struggle to balance modernity with tradition, his deeply-held Christian faith with the ancestor spirits called forth by his mbira (thumb piano.) Rise Up is both world-weary and resilient, a strident call to arms for the people of Zimbabwe (“I’m Mad As Hell,” “It’s Payback Time,” “Suffer In Silence”) and a thoughtful meditation on the realities of violence, politics and poverty (“Let’s Go Father,” “What Are They Dying For”), all topped by a harrowing memento mori, “The Earth’s Hunger Is Insatiable,” that transmutes all the wisdom and authority of Mapfumo’s 61 years into a powerful declaration of his Christian faith. It may not be easy listening, but it’s one of Mapfumo’s best records in years, which is saying a lot for such a prolific and long-lived artist.
“The lion is still roaring,” declares Mapfumo, his deep voice booming down the phone line from his home in Oregon. “That’s the first thing I want to tell my people in Zimbabwe. I am still with them and freedom is coming!”
But for Mapfumo, freedom is a complicated affair. “People think that freedom is coming from America or England. But we Zimbabweans have to take responsibility for our own freedom. We have to fight for our freedom, and nobody can do it for us. The world is watching us.”
If this seems like harsh criticism from an exile, Mapfumo makes it very clear that he understands what the people of Zimbabwe are up against.
“I know that people are very much afraid,” he says. “I don’t feel very good about the situation. I want to do more for the people. I want to see my people free. I’m here to tell the world what is happening to my country. Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan are in the news every night. But I want to tell people that they mustn’t forget Zimbabwe.”
“They [ZANU-PF] have destroyed a good country, a rich country,” he points out. “Mugabe only takes care of his own people and leaves the nation to rot. Everything is dying. Music is dying. Soccer is dying. The people are dying. Some want to wait until Mugabe dies, too. But who knows if his successor will be better or worse? It’s a mistake to trust only politicians. The people need to trust themselves. I still have hope that the people can unite and fight. I know that God is on our side and that the people can rule again. I know the fire is still burning.”
The danger for Map