The Lion in Winter

Zimbabwe’s greatest living musician in a minor key

Thomas Mapfumo in New York, December 2004. / Photo by Gwendolen Cates

I reached the Lion of Zimbabwe by cellphone in his car, parked along Fourteenth Street near Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. “It’s a grey Toyota Tercel,” said Thomas Mapfumo, his smooth baritone unmistakable despite the crackle of a bad connection. “We can talk here.” Mapfumo was on a brief swing through New York in December 2004, four-and-a-half years after he moved his family from the house he owns in Harare to one he rents in Eugene, Oregon. He was conducting business from a rented car rather than spending scarce dollars on a hotel room. Such thriftiness on the part of Zimbabwe’s greatest living musician, a man with a catalogue of recordings to rival Bob Dylan’s both in size and cultural impact, might seem puzzling. But having witnessed Mapfumo’s spectacularly unconventional career at close range for almost seventeen years, I took it in stride.

We were meeting to discuss Mapfumo’s just-completed album, Rise Up, a set of songs scheduled for release online at on April 1, 2005, but guaranteed to be banned from Zimbabwean state radio the moment it aired in Harare’s record bars and flea markets. Having music banned is an experience Mapfumo associates with the late 1970s, the twilight years of the Ian Smith regime, when Rhodesia’s cultural minders belatedly tweaked to the sly messages of rebellion couched in Mapfumo’s Shona proverbs and allegorical poetry—food for the souls of guerrilla fighters in the bush.

The Rhodesians briefly jailed Mapfumo in 1979, a late gesture on behalf of a lost cause. For nearly two decades after independence, Zimbabwean deejays lived and breathed Mapfumo. Any new song or album from him and his band, The Blacks Unlimited, was promptly broadcast on state radio to every farm, village, and beer hall in the country. But when we met in New York this year, the only stations broadcasting Mapfumo’s chimurenga songs were SW Radio Africa out of London and Voice of the People from the Netherlands. In Zimbabwe, his music has gone underground once more, to short-wave outfits, just as it had in the late seventies. Zimbabweans fought a bloody war for freedom; now they are suffering a new strain of tyranny under Robert Mugabe.

It was a cold day, but Mapfumo, fifty-nine, wore only a hooded Los Angeles Hall of Fame sweat jacket and a Nike baseball cap covering his recently shaven head. Only a few months earlier, massive, asymmetrical dreadlocks—the singer’s signature for decades—would have bulged beneath his hat, but no more. Mapfumo’s receding hairline had begun to make his dreads look more like extraterrestrial appendages than emblems of roots hipness. In yet another return to the past, the new look was also the old look, for the scrappy young man, who taunted Prime Minister Ian Smith in the seventies, also wore his hair short. Mapfumo resisted any suggestion of a deeper meaning in his shedding of locks, saying only, “We are feeling a lot of breezes now.”

Mapfumo slid an unmarked CD into the dashboard disc drive and the first song of Rise Up began to play. Strummed electric chords launch the band into a poised, relaxed groove—no rhythmic razzle-dazzle, no fiery ranting, no obvious Africanisms. Deep in the mix, one can discern the metallic plink of the iron-pronged mbira, a sound known to invite ancestor spirits to possess the living during religious ceremonies among the Shona people. Shona sacred music has long been Mapfumo’s most potent musical source, but this song sounds more like a gospel lullaby with a hint of reggae bounce, a shimmer of organ answering the singer’s gently descending vocal line. Mapfumo’s parents raised him to see no conflict between ancestor spirits, Jesus Christ, and the Almighty. He was lucky there, for many Zimbabweans of his generation became ensnared in an ugly, Christian-versus-animist culture war. With both the Lord and the ancestors on his side, Mapfumo was free to concentrate on earthly evils, and Christian and animist idioms—organs and mbiras—cohabit his music.

The song’s title, “Kuvarira Mukati,” means, roughly, “suffering in silence,” and its weary sweetness belies a tough message. “Somebody is holding onto the power,” Mapfumo told me, speaking over the music. “He has been there for over twenty-five years now, clinging to power. And we are saying, ‘Do you want this guy to destroy the country, or do you want to do something about it?’” High, women’s voices join in the refrain, tempering the song’s hymn-like solemnity with a clipped pop swing. “It is up to you, mothers,” said Mapfumo, translating now, “up to you, fathers; up to you, boys and girls to stand up and say something.” The song is a call to arms completely devoid of anger, its mournful militancy delivered by a man intimate with the human cost of war.

That listing of people—mothers, fathers, boys, and girls—is a constant in Mapfumo lyrics. In the heat of the 1970s liberation war, he sang “Pfumvu Pa Ruzevha” (hardships in the rural areas), listing family members killed by the war and its attendant privations. After independence, he sang “Nyoka Musango” (snake in the forest), warning about dissidents and rogue elements: “Hey, mothers, sisters, brothers, daughters, grandmothers, grandfathers, fathers, and sons, there are snakes in the forest. They must be eliminated.” Mapfumo songs decrying the travails of more recent times often begin by addressing his vakomana, meaning “boys” or “brothers.” Mapfumo has always spoken as a man of the people, rallying a street-level community. This makes exile artistically awkward and personally distressing.

During the liberation war, Mapfumo gave up a successful career singing rock’n’roll covers by the likes of Bobby Darrin, Carl Perkins, the Rolling Stones, and his favourite, Elvis, to sing instead in Shona and embrace the chimurenga, the “struggle,” for which his music takes its name. Guerrilla leaders were so appreciative that they had Mapfumo escorted to one of their secret camps so they could thank him face to face. When fighters he met that day (with noms de guerre like Chairman Mao and Jimi Hendrix) later turned up as corrupt government officials, Mapfumo chided them—most notably in his 1989 song “Corruption”—but he did so in a spirit of patriotism. “Corruption” was wildly popular, and many in the government found its condemnation of “something for something, nothing for nothing” culture both apt and welcome. Little if any of that reciprocal respect survives today.

Mapfumo draws on such a broad array of genres—Shona spirit music, African jazz, classic R&B, rock, reggae, and a variety of local Zimbabwean genres—that he sometimes settles on peculiar hybrids. He tirelessly rehearses his band, shaping each track by singing parts to individual musicians as they stretch out songs, often for hours on end. Although The Blacks Unlimited has changed steadily over the years—no fewer than ten key members have died, many from aids, since 1990—there is a striking consistency to the sound. Mapfumo recorded Rise Up in Oregon using a mostly young, stripped-down lineup of eleven musicians that included a white, non-Zimbabwean brass section and few veteran collaborators. Many great musicians have contributed to Mapfumo’s music, but it all bears his unique stamp. After meticulous rehearsing, he is notoriously brisk in the studio, recording most songs in one take, and allowing minimal overdubbing or fixing. The end result is at times flawed, but always vigorously free of the stale gloss of fussy production.

Since his first single in 1974, Mapfumo has shown an unfailing ear for a hook, for reaching his people. His voice, once described as a “bass whisper,” endures, its defiant moral authority transferred gracefully now from a brash youthfulness to the intonations of a serene elder. “Dogura Masango” (I’m going away) sputters with the bustle of village celebration, culminating in an off-beat chant that is instantly familiar. “Zvakuana” (you have made problems for yourself) adopts the earthy, loping rhythm and haunting vocal mannerisms of Shona spirit music to deliver a stern rebuke to girls who get pregnant out of wedlock. Another song rife with Shona tradition, “Pasi Ari Gute” (the earth is hungry), works around a repeating, harmonized refrain as it reflects dispassionately on death: “Some are being born, and some are dying. Some are sick in hospitals, waiting to die. . . . Don’t cry for him. He has gone.”

Rise Up includes a remake of an early classic, “Mukadzi Wangu” (my wife). The original was raw and dangerous, featuring a spare tangle of darkly insistent guitar lines, the sound of The Blacks Unlimited before keyboards or actual mbiras. The new version is grander, cushioned in sonorous mbira lines and adorned with blankets of vocal harmony. Mapfumo often reprises old songs to demonstrate Zimbabwe’s return to struggle, its ongoing chimurenga. In this song, a man explains to his wife that he must leave the country to support their family. No changes to the lyrics were required.

When Mapfumo sings or talks about his music, he seems every bit the man who knows where he is coming from and where he is going. When we met, however, his life was in limbo. He was between managers, between record companies, between homes—his wife and three children living in one house in Eugene, his band in another—and most of all, between countries, wanting desperately to go back to Zimbabwe and reconnect with his public, but knowing that the risk was too great. Since he began singing publicly in 1962, last year was the first time that Mapfumo did not perform his traditional year-end shows in his homeland.

I lived in Harare in 1997 and 1998, a time when Mapfumo and his seventeen-member band performed as often as five nights a week. Shows would begin at around 8:30 with The Blacks Unlimited playing instrumentals as the crowd gathered. Mapfumo would saunter onstage at around ten o’clock for an initial two-hour set. The second set would begin at 1 a.m. and finish by around 4 a.m. For special shows, like Christmas, New Year’s, or Easter, there would be a third set, ending after sunrise to make the show officially a pungwe—named for the all-night singing sessions the guerrillas used to hold to stiffen the spines of villagers during the war. By the end of every Mapfumo show, the entire crowd would be in a trance, swaying, and stomping out traditional rhythms. Songs warned against drinking—which Mapfumo quit in 1978—but nearly everyone would be drunk. They warned against infidelity, but the room would be full of guys on the make, prostitutes at work, and countless aids ghosts. They warned against abandoning the council of the ancestors, against the manipulations of politicians who pay the young to do their dirty work, against evils and misdeeds that were part of the lives of everyone present. Like sinners in the grip of Pentecostal catharsis, Mapfumo’s public revelled within the ecstatic, spiritually charged space that only his music could generate. A new generation of Zimbabweans is now coming of age without access to this experience. Meanwhile, Mapfumo ekes out a living as a world-music exotic.

The only Mapfumo music released in Zimbabwe last year was a poorly produced, illegal bootleg recorded at a concert in Milton Keynes, England, last May. On it is a song called “Masoja Nemapurisa,” which ridicules a leader who calls on soldiers to beat his critics. Explaining it, Mapfumo told me, “Maybe one day the soldiers and the police will say, ‘No, we don’t want to go out there and beat up the people for nothing.’” The song hit such a nerve that when the CD was released in Harare in November, youth gangs organized by Mugabe’s zanu-pf party descended on the flea markets and tried to destroy every copy.

“That song made them very, very angry,” said Mapfumo, mildly amused at the brouhaha he had caused, “but we were not mentioning names. We were just trying to give advice.” Back in 1979, Mapfumo faced Rhodesian interrogators who insisted he was singing politics. “No,” he replied with similar indirection. “These are just traditional songs. This is our culture.” The Rhodesians sent him to Chikurubi Prison anyway. Today, Mapfumo’s prison is a rental car in New York City.

Banning Eyre