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African Legends

Thomas Mapfumo

By Chris Nickson
Published November 9, 2006

Mapfumo has endured the wrath of colonial powers and his country's current leader, Robert Mugabe. His music supported the revolutionaries who brought independence, and challenges its present despot.

Thomas Mapfumo, the Lion of Zimbabwe, has 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 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.

His first revolutionary songs appeared on Ho Koyo, an album that incensed the colonial authorities so much that they imprisoned him in 1977. 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), although it wasn’t until the late ’80s that the instrument became properly integrated with the band.

Mapfumo’s ’90s output was even more explicitly political, a series of running swipes at the government. They did their best to stifle his voice, but the people loved it, naming Mapfumo the country’s Arts, Literature, Culture Person of the Century.

Mapfumo released at least one new cassette every year, and played regularly. His lyrics continued to be outspoken and controversial, unafraid to berate the leaders he saw as selling out the people. After the government lost some ground in the 2000 elections, they made Mapfumo into a scapegoat, charging him with receiving stolen property for vehicles he’d bought. His reaction was to quietly move his family to the U.S.

The remarkable thing is that Mapfumo hasn’t lost his edge as he’s aged; instead, he’s sharper than ever. Mapfumo remains passionate and committed to his music and his people.