I don’t think [Morgan] Tsvangirai is the number one enemy of the state, I think I am because I sing against the government,” says Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo, a rebel musician and African to the tip of his dreadlocks as we sit for a tête-à-tête in Newtown, Johannesburg, on one of his rare visits to the continent of his birth.
Famed author, musicologist and journalist, Banning Eyre, in his book Lion Songs, describes Mapfumo as the Lion of Zimbabwe who stands beside Fela Kuti, Youssou N’Dour and Franco as one of Africa’s greatest musicians.
“He is on par with some of the greatest musicians to come out Africa and what makes his music even more important is that it helped liberate Southern Rhodesia from [Ian] Smith’s racist rule. His music galvanized liberation forces. His interest has never been commercial but to raise consciousness, that is why he got into trouble when he sang Corruption, attacking Mugabe’s rule,” says African music expert, Richard Nwamba.
Mapfumo is as much a sharp social commentator as a musician. It is this dissent that forced one of Zimbabwe’s finest musicians to seek refuge in the United States (US) in 2005. He has even sung a song praising his hosts: We love America, everyone wants to be there. The feeling is mutual. In the US he received an honorary doctorate degree from Ohio University.
At the age of 70, Mapfumo looks frail but he hasn’t dropped the habits of his wild youth: smoking, cracking jokes and making condescending remarks about other musicians.
It’s been a full life for Mapfumo, who grew up with his grandparents in Marondera, Mashonaland East, about 72 kilometers east of Harare and a million miles from the rest of the world.
Mapfumo’s grandfather played the mbira, a metal keyed instrument, and hosho, a percussion instrument. The two instruments provide the beat to Mapfumo’s music.
“I was herding cattle at the age of seven while my parents stayed in the city. I joined them in the early sixties to attend school in Salisbury’s (now Harare) township of Mabvuku,” he recollects on a meandering walk through his music career.
“In the city I started listening to radio as we didn’t have that luxury in the countryside. I used to listen to Kwela Kwela, Jazz 9, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, Franco, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra,” he says.
“I think I was born a musician, it was within me.”
At the age of 16, Mapfumo joined a band called Zutu Brothers, who wanted him to sing rock and roll, like Otis Redding and Elvis Presley.
“I was a very good rock and roller, I used to rock,” he chuckles.
This clashed with his parents’ beliefs.
“My parents were church people, my father was a choir leader and my mother played a leading role in the women’s league.”
There was no stopping Mapfumo.
“From Mabvuku we moved to Mbare where I joined a music group called Cosmic Four Dots and I was still singing rock and roll music. However our music genre was not consistent as we changed with the times, partly due to the influence of the Beatles and John Lennon.”
Mapfumo says it was during this time he sang his first song in his mother tongue, called Shungu Dzinondibaya (Passion Kills Me). It was recorded in a house in Mbare by a passing producer who worked for the Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation.
“While visiting a grocery shop I heard the song being played on the radio. I never got a cent out of that song,” Mapfumo laughs.
“I then started asking myself questions… I realized that my identity was in singing the music of the people I grew up with. A lot of people thought I was losing my mind when I started mbira music with the band Acid.”
The band was named Acid because of its corrosive social commentary.
One of the songs was Pamuromo Chete (It’s Just Talk). Mapfumo says the song was an instant hit because its lyrics reflected dissent against Smith’s white minority rule in the then Rhodesia.
“We were responding to his utterances that Zimbabwe will never have a black government in his lifetime or in a thousand years.”
Mapfumo decided to form a group called Blackman Unlimited that transformed to the present day line-up called Blacks Unlimited. He started the group with his uncle and the musicians; Marshall Munhumumwe, Leonard Chiyangwa and Jonah Sithole.
By then, Mapfumo had moved from Salisbury to Mutare, then called Umtali, a small town of the eastern border with Mozambique. On Fridays, they would play at bus stops.
“We used to play music for people getting off the buses from the city. I was the highest paid person in the band earning eight pounds per week. In Mutare we worked for a businessman called Murapa but the group later disintegrated over payment issues,” he says.
The crunch came when Mapfumo asked Murapa for the band’s money.
“‘You haven’t yet played’, said Murapa when I asked for money after working for two weeks. The band members were disappointed and left for Harare.”
As his career progressed, Mapfumo realized he needed to sing in the language of his people.
In the 1970s, he met a musician who would become a big name in Africa. His name was Oliver Mtukudzi
“Oliver had his song called Red For Stop And Green For Go. I asked him, ‘why don’t you sing in Shona and do your lyrics in Shona?’” chuckles Mapfumo. Remember what we said about condescending?
As the liberation war came to a close, Smith accused Mapfumo of promoting insurgency with his music.
“In 1979, I was arrested by the Smith government and I was put into detention at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison for three months. I was released on condition that I went to sing at Muzorewa’s rally, this was during the internal settlement,” says Mapfumo.
The internal settlement, an agreement to end the civil war, was signed on March 3, 1978 by Smith and moderate nationalist leaders Abel Muzorewa; Ndabaningi Sithole and Jeremiah Chirau.
Mapfumo was opposed to it but was forced to compromise. As a bargain for his release he had to sing at Muzorewa’s rally. Muzorewa, a Methodist priest, was seen as a sell-out by liberation forces.
“Our weapon is our music, let’s go and sing what we have been singing all along,” he told his band. It was not that simple.
Mapfumo says the state-owned Herald newspaper pictured him next to Muzorewa and soon liberation fighters saw him as a sell-out too. Despite this, Mapfumo was asked to play at the birth of Zimbabwe on April 18, 1980 on the same bill as Bob Marley.
“On celebration day we were treated like enemies, we were made to perform last when all the dignitaries had gone. We played for the real people who fought the war.”
Mapfumo thought things would change when Robert Mugabe took over. He was wrong.
He sang against Mugabe’s administration in the late 1980s as corruption took root. He also sang in praise of Mozambique’s president, Samora Machel, for fighting apartheid. He sang against the then president of South Africa, P.W. Botha, a classic called Tongosienda. The apartheid era leader would have needed an interpreter as Mapfumo sang in Shona. Mapfumo became a persona non grata in South Africa.
“Back home I started singing against corruption, economic malaise and people getting land without knowledge of farming,” he says.
He sang that land reform was a flop in a hit called Maiti Kurima Hakunetsi (you thought farming was easy).
Thirty five years on from the birth of Zimbabwe, Mapfumo is adamant, despite threats from the Mugabe administration, he is not going to stop singing about social issues.
His music is banned on state radio stations back home and promoters fight shy of bringing him to perform for his people. He now keeps up the spirits of his fellow countrymen who left Zimbabwe for the same reasons as him by performing shows around the world.
“We haven’t looked back, we have been with the people and we will always be with them.”
After our hour-long interview, with endless insistence by his manager Austin Sibanda that I should wrap up to allow the old man to take a smoke before he talks to his relatives who have traveled from Zimbabwe, I asked when he is going to perform back home.
“I am ready to perform in Zimbabwe but there are no promoters prepared to be associated with me, I also have to be careful with the situation.”
Mapfumo fears for his life. He says intelligence operatives who are fans of his music keep him informed.
While frozen out at home, Mapfumo is taking his music to Africa. In October, he performed at the Defense and Security Forces celebrations of Mozambique in Chimoio, Beira and Tete. Clearly, he hasn’t yet upset the government of Mozambique.
Those gigs followed the two he played in Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa, where it’s believed more than a million Zimbabweans live. The Johannesburg gig was packed with Zimbabweans, both black and white, shoulder to shoulder with a few South Africans.
Throughout the show, most sang along, chanting ‘Mukanya’, the totem of Mapfumo. There were many familiar faces in the crowd. Dewa Mavhinga, a human rights lawyer and activist, looked as happy as a lawyer can be.
“The old man is still good, hey,” says Mavhinga as Mapfumo sang his last song of the night.
It’s unlikely to be the last for the 70-year-old Mapfumo, who has straddled Africa and the vast gap between Frank Sinatra and Bob Marley. Clearly the rebel with a cause is just getting started.