“Music has been my life. It knows no colour, racial or religious boundaries. As long as it touches your soul, you will flow with it. I hope that all who hear my music will become one with me. I thank my African forefathers for bringing me up in music.”
These powerful words come from none other than Thomas Mapfumo.
By Fred Zindi
Do you remember him? Well, he willbe back in Zimbabwe with his Blacks Unlimited Band on April 28 when the Big Bira Concert, which will be supported by another Zimbabwean superstar Oliver Mtukudzi at the Glamis Arena (The HICC would be a better venue) will take place.
Although Entertainment Republic — the promoters of this show — confirmed his appearance, I decided to re-confirm this happening with the man himself. I rang his Oregon number and he assured me that he is definitely coming. “I hope you will be waiting at the airport with a lot of my fans to welcome me,” he said. I told him that this will indeed happen. I am still yet to confirm his travel itinerary with his spokesperson, Blessing Ivan Vava.
Mapfumo, also known as Gandanga, Mukanya or Hurricane Hugo, was born in Marondera on July 3 1945. He was brought up by his grandparents, the Munhumumwes up to the age of 10 years before moving to Mabvuku and later to Mbare where he attended Chitsere Primary School. It was not until 1962 that he seriously considered taking up music as a career. This was not an easy move because his father, who was a co-leader in the church and his mother, who was a chairwoman in the church were very strict and very much against their son becoming a musician since musicians at that time were regarded as vagrants and persons who were up to no good. However, on leaving school, Mapfumo was adamant and made the decision to be involved in a band.
At the age of 17, Mapfumo went to join his brother who lived in Lilanda, Zambia. He came back to Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia) a year later with more determination to become a musician.
For the first 10 years of his career as a musician, he was singing copyright material from the likes of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Wilson Pickett, Mick Jagger and Otis Redding. From the Zutu Brothers, Mapfumo joined the Cosmic Four Dots in 1964 and the Springfields in 1966. It wasn’t until 1972 that he went to Mhangura where he formed Hallelujah Chicken Run Band with Joshua Dube. This band decided to sing some traditional Shona songs in order to please the mine workers and rural people from nearby farms. Their first adapted songs such as Shungu Dzinondibaya, Ini Ndofa Zvangu Amai and Murembo came from here. The popularity of the Shona songs marked the beginning of a new era as all folklore songs and future compositions at the mine were sung in Shona. The band even adapted some Rock ‘n’ Roll songs and sung them in Shona, with the most popular being Ndati Bhutsu Yangu Yapera Hiri.
After Mhangura, Mukanya formed The Acid Band, which was based at Jamaica Inn near Ruwa where he enjoyed popularity with his Shona songs.
His interest in music, as much as his conviction to the link music and politics, has a well-documented base in his entire song writing career.
Mukanya’s early hits such as Pfumvu Paruzevha, Hokoyo, Gwindingwi Rine Shumba, Pamuromo Chete, Nyoka Musango, Butsu Mutandarika, Corruption, Pidigori Waenda and Zimbabwe YeVatema have a historical connection with the Zimbabwean politics of the pre-independence and post-independence era. These songs illustrate his controversial link with the politics of Zimbabwe. His song — Corruption — became a subject of debate in the Zimbabwean cabinet as ministers debated whether it should be banned from airplay because it was making a political statement.
Before independence, Mukanya championed the plight of the rural masses by singing protest songs which criticised the Smith regime. Hokoyo, released by Teal Record Company in 1977 sent shock waves throughout the country, while Pfumvu Paruzevha released the following year, depicted the deplorable plight of the rural people at a time when freedom fighters were in battle with Ian Smith’s soldiers all over Zimbabwe. As a result of these releases, his music was banned from airplay and he was arrested and jailed for 90 days at Chikurubi without trial.
With the advent of independence in 1980, Mapfumo received official recognition when he was asked to perform at a Zanu PF rally in front of Zimbabwe’s future Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. This was followed by the release of Congress, a song which was written in anticipation of Zanu PF’s first annual congress. After Independence, Mapfumo was beginning to enjoy recognition from the new black government led by Robert Mugabe. After several Chimurenga singles, the album Hondo was released next.
Mapfumo’s first European tour was co-ordinated by Peter Reich, a Germany national who had fallen in love with mbira music and who later married Zimbabwean mbira queen, Stella Chiweshe.
On November 10 1984 Mapfumo performed at a sold-out concert at Markthalle Theatre, Klosterwell in Hamburg, Germany. The next day, the November 11, he held a double bill where he performed with Chiweshe at — The Pavillion in Hannover, Germany. On November 15, he was at the Melkweg in Amsterdam, Holland. The audiences in Amsterdam were enthralled and bewildered by what they described as a new sound from Africa. They had seen the likes of Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela, Osibisa, Jabula and Manu Dibango before, but they had never heard a sound similar to this one before. Thus, Mapfumo became an instant hit.
After Holland, Mapfumo left for Britain where concerts were hurriedly organised. It seems the promoters in London had underestimated his popularity as on November 18, The London 100 Club in Oxford Street which takes a maximum of 300 people was sold out while hundreds more of Mapfumo’s fans jostled outside the venue trying to force their way in. Mapfumo was overwhelmed by this reception and became very nervous. It took him a long time to go on the stage as he had not expected such a huge reception. The crowd kept asking him to play the song Pidigori Waenda which was an instant hit.
The promoters, on realising how much revenue they had lost by staging his first London show at such a small venue, rushed to organise another concert at a much bigger venue. On November 25 1984, The Forum Ballroom (later known as The Town & Country Club) in Kentish Town, London became the host to over 1 000 music punters, mainly Zimbabweans who had now heard about Mapfumo’s presence in London.
Mukanya was to repeat European tours over and over again as he gained popularity overseas over the years. In 1985, he went back for more concerts in Europe and US. The media became very interested in Mapfumo’s music to the extent that he received great coverage from Capital Radio in London, BBC Network Africa, the Melody Maker, The Voice, Musical Express and Black Echoes.
With this popularity, major Record companies in London began to take an interest in Mapfumo’s music and in no time at all, he had been signed by Earthworks, one of Britain’s major independent record labels. Earthworks with the assistance of Stern’s African Records became the major distributors of Mapfumo’s music throughout Europe and the United States.
Regionally, Mukanya was also doing reasonably well as evidenced by his crowd-pulling concerts in Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania between 1985 and 1986.
Between 1990 and 2001, Mapfumo released five albums, which included Chimurenga Hits Volume 1 and 2, Chimurenga Explosion and Chimurenga Rebel. In the year 2000, the Chimurenga Explosion album became an instant hit, especially with the singles Mamvemve and Disaster, which according to reports that circulated, did not go down well with the Zanu PF government and the songs were consequently banned from airplay by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. The general rhetoric in these two songs is the argument that today’s leaders have become corrupt, self-serving, and intolerant of dissention and as such have abandoned the interests of ordinary people.
After the release of this album, Mukanya claimed that he was being harassed by state agents. He lost three of his cars which he said were confiscated by the government on what he claimed were botched-up charges of him having received stolen property. After this incident, Mapfumo decided to relocate to Eugene, Oregon in the United States where he still lives up to now.
In 1999 Mapfumo was awarded an honorary Masters Degree by the University of Zimbabwe together with other celebrities who included the late Joshua Nkomo.
He came back to Zimbabwe briefly at Christmas 2001 to stage some concerts with one concert at Boka Tobacco Auction Hall having been attended by over 8 000 music fans.
In 2001 he was conferred with yet another honorary degree by the University of Ohio, hence the title Dr Thomas Mapfumo.
He comes back to Harare to a new dispensation which tolerates dissention in two months’ time. Will he deliver? Let’s wait and see! We are all excited.
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