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World Music Legends

Thomas Mapfumo

By Chris Nickson
Published October 9, 2005


Some artists talk a good game, spouting a progressive line. But talk is cheap, as the saying goes. The ones who put themselves on the line, enduring prison and exile for what they see as the truth are much fewer and farther between.

            Meet Thomas Mapfumo.

            The Lion of Zimbabwe, as he’s called, has been through those things and still keeps his defiance strong. He’s endured the wrath of both Ian Smith and the colonial powers, when Zimbabwe was still called Rhodesia, and its current leader, Robert Mugabe. His Chimurenga (literally, struggle) music supported the revolutionaries who brought independence, and holds the flame to the feet of its present despot.

            After starting out as an Elvis fan and learning his trade playing covers in a rock ’n’ roll band, Mapfumo’s first moment of revelation came in 1973. Joining forces with the wonderfully named Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, he began singing in his native Shona language, a major act of liberation in a land where people had been taught to look down on their own culture.

            It was the first step on the path that led him to founding his band, Blacks Unlimited, and writing his first revolutionary songs, which appeared on Ho Koyo, an album that incensed the colonial authorities so much that they imprisoned.

            However, he had the last laugh. Telling the authorities he’d had no chance to write new material in jail, he performed the same songs they’d locked him up for in the first place. Independence came the following year, with Mapfumo hailed as a hero, sharing a stage in Harare (the renamed Salisbury) with one of his idols: Bob Marley.

            Perhaps the biggest leap in Mapfumo’s sound came when he began using the native mbira (or thumb piano) as the base for his “electric mbira” music, although it wasn’t until the late ’80s that the instrument became properly integrated with the band (initially he had guitars playing mbira lines); now the three mbiras, with their tight, interlocking lines, are what he calls the band’s rhythm section.

Recommended Recordings


Shumba (Earthworks)

Chimurenga Explosion (Anonymous)

Chimurenga Rebel/Manhungetunge (Anonymous)