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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.
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
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
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
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