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Rabble-rousing rebel
Percy Zvomuya, Mail & Guardian (SA)
October 03, 2008

Musician Thomas Mapfumo may well be the prophet in the aphorism: "Only in his hometown is a prophet without honour."

Mapfumo is feted in the West, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Ohio State University, and in Afro-pop music circles, where he is acknowledged as the leading exponent of Chimurenga music, Zimbabwe's unique popular sound and its most spiritual. Strangely, Mapfumo is virtually unknown in his home region. And in his native Zimbabwe some of his music is banned on local radio.

But his fans in South Africa will have a chance to see him this weekend -- if he can organise his way to planned gigs in Durban and Johannesburg. They will see him crouching like a lion and hear his deep voice belting out biting lyrics. Known to his fans by his totemic clan name of Mukanya and by others as the Lion of Zimbabwe, Mapfumo is characteristically scathing of the leadership in his homeland:"They are always saying pasi nan-hingi [down with this and down with that]. How does sloganeering help the country move forward?"

Referring to the standoff between Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change over government portfolios he says: "Now they are fighting over ministerial seats. The same people who destroyed the economy of the country want the finance portfolio. Why don't they give it to others and let them have a go at running the economy?"

Fighting comes as naturally to Mapfumo (whose name means spears in Shona) as singing -- he has been a fighter since the 1970s when he sang against Ian Smith's Rhodesia and encouraged youths to join the struggle. But his history of struggle involvement was somewhat blotted when he agreed to perform at the inauguration of Abel Muzorewa as co-president with Smith of the short-lived Zimbabwe-Rhodesia in 1979. Mapfumo says he was arrested for singing protest music and was let out of jail only on condition that he perform at that event.

Following independence in 1980, he was one of the artists who sang euphoric songs about the new political dispensation. But, crucially, Mukanya was one of the first artists to rail against the country's descent into autocracy and rot. His song, Corruption (1989), which bemoans the decadence setting in government and society, annoyed the ruling class.

But it was Chimurenga Explosion in 1999 that really irked the authorities. Most of the songs on the album are hard-hitting and speak of the people's disillusionment. Mamvemve (Rags) and Disaster, banned on national radio, talk about how the country was reduced to a shell. Other polemic albums that followed, such as Toyi Toyi and Rise Up, were equally critical.

Mapfumo lives in exile in Oregon in the United States. He was accused of having stolen cars in his possession. But he was not charged and it is thought that the government was targeting him for being too critical of its policies.

He is distrustful of party politics and politicians. "People shouldn't be divided because of politics. The people are bigger than the party." He is suspicious of the brand of politics in Zimbabwe that seems unable to move on from the warring 1970s. "We are tired of hearing this talk about 'I fought in the war'. Most people fought that war, whether using the gun or by providing other support. Our children are growing up; that nationalist history won't wash."

He says the war of independence has to be made relevant to those born after 1980. "They are growing up, they are going to school, yet there are those who don't want to vacate their seats after 28 years in office. Where are our children going to work?"

His identification with the underdog is at the heart of Chimurenga music. Mapfumo coined the word "Chimurenga" in the mid-1980s, taking it from the guerrillas who named the country's war of liberation Chimurenga, the Shona word for struggle.

A search on Wikipedia defines Chimurenga music as "a style of music based on traditional Shona mbira music but played with modern electric instrumentation, with lyrics characterised by social and political commentary".In the 1960s Mapfumo did cover versions of Elvis Presley and other rock stars and his decision to sing in a Shona language steeped in myth and allegory was a triumph and a political statement. It explains why American scholar Thomas Turino wrote that "his [Mapfumo's] style has come to define musical nationalism and the national music of Zimbabwe".

Mapfumo shies away from these rather scholarly definitions when I ask him what Chimurenga music is. "It's music for freedom," he says. "It's not about chaos. It's moralistic; we take sides and we say this is bad and this is good. Chimurenga music speaks for the poor, for the dispossessed and for the voiceless."

At the time of going to print Thomas Mapfumo was scheduled to perform at the Bat Centre in Durban on Saturday at 7.30pm and at the Bassline on Sunday from 7pm, though it was unclear whether he would be able to make it to the gigs.

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