Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo (born July 3, 1945) is a Zimbabwean musician known as “The Lion of Zimbabwe” and “Mukanya” (the praise name of his clan in the Shona language) for his immense popularity and for the political influence he wields through his music, including his sharp criticism of the government of President Robert Mugabe. He both created and made popular Chimurenga music and his slow-moving style and distinctive voice is instantly recognisable to Zimbabweans.
Mapfumo was imprisoned without charges under the white-dominated regime of Rhodesia. He now lives in exile in the United States, and although he has occasionally returned to Zimbabwe he has not returned since 2005.
Mapfumo was born in 1945 in Marondera, Mashonaland East, a town southeast of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, though at the time the capital was called Salisbury and the country was a colony of Great Britain called Southern Rhodesia (becoming Rhodesia in ordinary usage after Northern Rhodesia gained independence as Zambia). He lived a traditional, rural Shona lifestyle until the age of ten, when his family moved to the Harare township of Mbare. It was during these early years that he was exposed to the traditional music of the Shona, the influence of which would drive his later music to incorporate and/or reflect the sounds of the ngoma drum and the mbira, a metal-pronged instrument with spiritual importance.
He joined his first band, the Zutu Brothers (Encyclopædia Britannica says it was the Cyclones), as a singer at the age of 16. From then he was always in one band or another, sometimes doing odd jobs on the side as well, including chicken farming. Hence the name of his 1972 band, the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band.
He played mostly covers of American rock and soul tunes, such as Otis Redding or Elvis Presley, until he was in the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band. There he introduced the innovation of adapting traditional Shona music to modern rock instrumentation.
He worked with guitarist Joshua Dube (Leopard Man’s Africa Music Guide says Jonah Sithole) to transcribe the sounds of the chief instrument of traditional Shona music, the mbira to the electric guitar. He also started singing primarily in the Shona language, rather than in English.
Just the fact that he was drawing on the native musical tradition and singing in his native language was a political statement. Rhodesia was ruled by a minority of white individuals who derogated the native black population and culture. But more than that, his lyrics became overtly political, supporting the revolution that was developing in the rural areas, what Mapfumo calls “the communal lands”. He called his new style of music Chimurenga. In Shona it means “struggle”, and was the name of a previous revolutionary movement in the late 19th century. His songs openly called for the violent overthrow of the government, with lyrics like “Mothers, send your sons to war.”
Mapfumo’s music caught the attention of the Zimbabwean government with his song “Hokoyo!”, meaning “Watch out!” The government banned the record from the state-controlled radio and threw him into a prison camp without charges in 1979. They were unable stop his records from being played in discos or on radio stations they did not control, including the Voice of Mozambique. Large demonstrations in protest of his arrest and an inability to find charges against him forced the government to release him after three months.
Free elections were held in 1980, and a new government was installed. Mapfumo performed at a celebratory concert that also featured Bob Marley. In later years, he would come to criticize the same government he, in some ways, helped bring to power.
The PRI-syndicated radio program Afropop Worldwide ran a feature on Thomas Mapfumo in late 1988/early 1989. Host Georges Collinet describes Mapfumo as living in the low-density suburbs with his wife, who worked at a law office in downtown Harare, and his two children—a boy and a girl. And he drove a blue Ford with fake leopard-skin seat covers.
Most of his songs were still political, dealing with poverty and other social issues. Mapfumo comments on the fact that he doesn’t sing many love songs: “All you need if you wanna get into the bedroom… You’ve got a wife. You do it. You don’t have to sing a song about it.” Collinet also observes that Mapfumo can’t sing anything he wants: “Clearly he can’t sing ‘Down with President Mugabe’ – but he wouldn’t want to. He supports the present government.” However, that would soon change.
Recorded at Shed Studios Harare, by engineer Benny Miller, Mapfumo released the album Corruption in 1989. It criticised Mugabe and his government, with which Mapfumo was becoming more and more disillusioned. Mugabe wasn’t happy with Mapfumo, either, and Mapfumo became the target of government harassment. Mapfumo was accused of being involved with a stolen-car ring. Things got uncomfortable enough that Mapfumo moved to Eugene, Oregon in the late 1990s, where he continues to reside today.
Thomas Mapfumo tours internationally, and still sings and speaks out about the problems of Zimbabwe. His Chimurenga style of music influenced other Zimbabwean musicians, including the Bhundu Boys and Stella Chiweshe.
- Shumba (1990, Earthworks)
- Thomas Mapfumo & The Black Unlimited
- Gwindingwi Rine Shumba (1981, Chimurenga Music)
- Mabasa (1983, Chimurenga Music, Gramma Records)
- Ndangariro (1983, Afro Soul)
- Chimurenga For Justice (1985, Rough Trade)
- Mr Music (Africa) (1985, Afro Soul)
- Zimbabwe Mozambique (1988, Chimurenga Music)
- Chamunorwa (1989, Chimurenga Music)
- Varombo Kuvarombo (1989, Chimurenga Music)
- Corruption (1989, Mango)
- Chimurenga Masterpiece (1990, Chimurenga Music)
- Hondo (1991, Chimurenga Music)
- Chimurenga International (1993, Chimurenga Music)
- Roots Chimurenga (1996, Chimurenga Music)
- Chimurenga ’98 (1998, Anonymous Web Productions)
- Live at El Rey (1999, Anonymous Web Productions)
- Chimurenga Explosion (2000, Anonymous Web Productions)
- Rise Up (2006, Real World Records)
- Contributing artist
- The Rough Guide to the Music of Zimbabwe (1996, World Music Network)