After 14 long years in the U.S. state of Oregon, singer, composer and bandleader Thomas Mapfumo has come home to Zimbabwe. His recent performance, for some 20,000 ticket holders at the open-air Glamis Arena, only slowed down as the sun began to rise.
“I thought maybe I wasn’t going to be able to come back here while I was still alive,” Mapfumo confessed, “but by the grace of God, I’m here.”
After running afoul of former president Robert Mugabe, Mapfumo, known by his totem name Mukanya, made the painful decision to leave the country for the U.S., playing his last show in 2004.
“I didn’t fear for my life, all I wanted was for my children to be safe and my family,” said the 72 year old interpreter of Chimurenga – a word in the Shona language roughly meaning “revolutionary struggle.” The word entered the lexicon during the Rhodesian Bush War and was extended to describe a struggle for human rights, political dignity and social justice.
Professor Mhoze Chikowero of the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, commented on the musical icon.
“(Mapfumo) rose to prominence as a guerrilla artist during Africa’s liberation struggles. Composing military songs that utilized the mbira sound demonized by Christian missionaries and proscribed by the settler state.”
“Mapfumo helped propound the style called Chimurenga that attacked the colonial system and mobilized for the popular armed struggle that birthed Zimbabwe. His crusade against injustice saw him not only harassed by the colonial regime, but also the post-colonial state that inherited the same modes of governance as its predecessor.”
The 1988 song “Corruption” officially opened Mapfumo’s rift with the Mugabe regime. “Thomas bravely came forward and sang this song about corruption,” said Banning Eyre, author of the biography Lion Songs. Politicians were basically using their power to access limited resources, government subsidized industries, purchasing those vehicles to resell them for personal profits, added Chikowero.
In 2015 Mapfumo recorded “Danger Zone”, which was immediately pirated in Zimbabwe upon its release. Mapfumo responded by urging Zimbabweans to steal the pirated copies. “Once all those pirated copies flooded the market, the theft had been accomplished. So people might as well steal from, rather than reward, the thieves,” he said with a shrug.
“Mapfumo, the Lion of Zimbabwe, stands beside Fela Kuti, Youssou N’Dour and Franco as one of Africa’s greatest and most consequential composer/bandleaders,” wrote Ron Kadish of the online rockpaperscissors.biz.
“Songs from the 1990’s stress Mapfumo’s insistence that his fellow citizens not abandon their ancestral culture, but rather find ways to integrate it into their contemporary lives.”