OREGON — The anger surges in Thomas Mapfumo’s voice as he poses a question at the end of a long interview: “What is America doing about Zimbabwe?”
“We hear today [President Robert] Mugabe wants his wife to be the next president,” Mapfumo said, speaking from his home in Eugene, Oregon in the United States.
“That’s, I mean, does the United States know about that? Our people are crying every day; they are under bondage.
“America is supposed to be a democratic country, and they, when they — we take them as the people who actually fight for democracy all over the world — but they are… doing nothing in Zimbabwe.”
The man known around the world as the Lion of Zimbabwe and founder of Chimurenga music has fought for his home country’s freedom his entire life.
His music — a combination of traditional African sounds and Western pop played on both African and Western instruments — provided the soundtrack to the country’s struggle against British colonial rule in the 1970s and its eventual independence in 1980.
As the years passed, he began criticising the country’s new government, aghast at its civil rights violations and economic oppression.
In 2004, he exiled himself from Zimbabwe to Oregon; he now lives with his wife and children in Eugene and continues to spread his message of unity through his music.
But after countless shows in the U.S. with his longtime band, the Blacks Unlimited, Mapfumo is worried his impassioned pleas are falling on deaf ears.
“I don’t think [American audiences are] paying an ear about it. If they were paying an ear to… the messages through my music, they would be doing something to help the Zimbabweans,” he said.
“Do you know, when we used to go to England to play for a mild racial audience, and mostly our audience were white.
“And today when we go to play music in England, it’s all about our people — you don’t see any white people now.
“A lot of [the Zimbabwean] people now are running away from home; they are refugees in England.
“A lot of people from Zimbabwe are living here in America now; they’re running away from those problems. And America doesn’t even notice that.”
Mapfumo isn’t about to give up his mission, though. “I stand with the poor people, and this is the reason why I’m not at home, back home, because I am against that government,” he said.
He perfomed in Oregon on Friday. After that, he’ll head back to Mozambique and South Africa for a tour at the end of November.
The tour could prove historic: Mapfumo and his band have plans to visit Zimbabwe for the first time in a decade.
Constant harassment from the Zimbabwean government put a halt to his visits to the country shortly after his move, but the time has come for his return, he said.
“When I go back there, my friend, it’s gonna be — well, I don’t know. It’s gonna be a very, very big day for people, especially for Zimbabweans,” Mapfumo said.
“They know who I am, they know I’m fighting against that government and I’m opposed to everything they are doing to our people.
“So last time when I went to Mozambique, a lot of them came across the border to come to Mozambique just to see my face and to listen to my music.
“I’ve never abandoned the poor people; they see me as their hero in some ways. Some even cried tears when they saw me in Mozambique.”
Mapfumo has carried on his work even in exile, continuing to release albums on a regular basis.
His most recent album, last year’s Danger Zone, coincided with a joint biography and career-spanning compilation album put together by longtime friend and bandmate Banning Eyre, Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe.
The biography recounts Mapfumo’s early years growing up in rural Marondera, Zimbabwe, under British colonial rule, where he absorbed the music and culture of his people.
By age 10, he was living in Mbare, where he got his first taste of Western music.
“I grew up in a country myself where there was no radio music, and my own parents were staying in the city and I was staying with my grandparents who were staying in the country,” Mapfumo said.
“My own parents relocated to the city, and the first time I started listening to radio music, I started listening to a lot of bigger names like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, every one of them.
“I went through a lot of music — The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Chicago Transit Authority, Blood, Sweat and Tears.”
As a teenager, he began playing these songs in groups such as the Hallelujah Chicken Band and Acid Band, but soon felt the urge to express his people’s struggles through his music.
He founded Blacks Unlimited in 1978, transposing the rhythms of the mbira, or thumb piano, on his guitar and creating Chimurenga (“struggle” in Shona).
“When I started writing Chimurenga, I was thinking of my own identity,” Mapfumo said.
“I wanted to identify my own self with my own people. When my people were fighting for their freedom in that country, that’s when I started seriously writing my own music, and I was supporting the struggle itself.”
The music’s revolutionary themes eventually landed Mapfumo in jail in 1979, after the colonial government deciphered the inflammatory messages in the Shona lyrics.
But he was released in time for the first free elections in Zimbabwe in 1980.
At the time he played a celebratory concert alongside reggae legend Bob Marley — an early and obvious influence on Mapfumo.