For four decades Thomas Mapfumo has been at the heart of the evolution of a music style that put Zimbabwean sounds on the map.
“Chimurenga”—the Zimbabwean word for revolutionary struggle popularised by musician Thomas Mapfumo—comes from the name of a mythical late 19th-century priest, Murenga (or Mulenga).
The priest told the fighters squaring up to Cecil John Rhodes’s occupation forces not to wilt in fear. The bullets from the white man’s Maxim gun would turn into water, he said.
Not that Zimbabweans needed a priest to tell them to resist. The devastating rinderpest epidemic of 1896 and the various taxes introduced by Rhodes’s administration were causing unrest among the people.
The word “chimurenga”—never forgotten in the quiet decades in which colonial rule was entrenched—became part of everyday parlance when the Second Chimurenga resumed in the 1960s, this time against Ian Smith’s regime.
Chimurenga, true to its mythical origins, refuses to be constrained in a mono-narrative. It refers to connected phenomena that are sometimes contradictory. This is to be expected of a word with a meaning that is central to how both nationalists and ordinary Zimbabweans see themselves.
Which might explain why the foremost proponent of chimurenga music, Mapfumo, lives in exile in Oregon in the United States.
The monotheistic interpretation of chimurenga is perhaps best exhibited by an episode dating from the late 1980s. The sheen of Zanu-PF’s revolution was already showing signs of dulling when an eccentric nationalist politician, Edgar Tekere, started talking about the need for another revolution. It was, of course, dangerous talk and Robert Mugabe wanted to put an end to it swiftly. “There will not be another revolution in this country. The only revolution was the Zanu-PF revolution,” said Mugabe.
On Mapfumo’s last visit to Johannesburg, in July, I sat down with him to understand his personal journey and, by extension, the evolution of chimurenga music, the most Zimbabwean of sounds.
A shrinking place in the world
Mapfumo was born in 1945 as the world was trying to rouse itself from the nightmares of the World War II. He spent the first few years of his life as a herd boy in a rural idyll that was being disrupted by successive land laws, which were disenfranchising black Zimbabweans.
“I went to Salisbury after I had finished what was then known as Sub A. I was going to live with my parents.”
After finishing school Mapfumo started playing guitar at Mutanga Night Club in Highfields, a township in Salisbury, as Harare was then known. Mutanga was probably “the first nightclub to be owned by a black Zimbabwean”.
Mapfumo and his band, Springfields, were not playing struggle music. They were jamming cover versions of Western music—the Beatles, Rolling Stones—and occasionally playing rhumba.
“The club owner had given us contracts in which you played throughout the week and got paid at the end of that week,” Mapfumo said.
Because there were few places where black bands could play, the nightclub scene in Salisbury was intensely competitive.
“We used to be in competition with a rhumba band called Lipopo Jazz that had a guitarist with three fingers but who was so good —” Mapfumo could not remember the Congolese musician’s name but a Wikipedia entry suggests it could be one Franco Luambo.
To trump their competition Mapfumo was always looking for good musicians—artists who could improve the band’s sound. In this way he got Manu Kambani, one of Zimbabwe’s nimblest guitarists who is eulogised by some as the country’s Jimi Hendrix, from a band called Sound Effects. “We taught him how to play rhumba.”
Sometimes the musicians resorted to subterfuge. Having failed to properly inculcate into Kambani’s rhumba the necessary intricate and voluble patterns they deployed him, like a spy, to learn from the three-fingered master himself.
“We said to him ‘Go and learn to play like them’. He was with them, copied all their skills.” After this apprenticeship, achieved under false pretenses, Kambani came back to rejoin the band. By then he was “even better than the old man himself”, Mapfumo said.
One could not stay still in a town for long and Mapfumo’s band was always on the move, shedding members and acquiring others. In this way they played in Bulawayo, the eastern city of Mutare, the northern copper-mining town of Mhangura and many other small places.
“And then one day I sat down and said to myself: ‘We’ve played all this music—rock, soul, rhumba. Yet when I grew up in the rural areas with my grandparents I was listening to traditional music—the drum, the mbira.’
“And then I remembered some of the songs we used to sing as children and I thought: ‘This music is not inferior to other forms of music. What it needs is instruments.’ And from this point I started infusing snatches of traditional songs into my music.”
Slogans like “local is lekker” were not in vogue in the countercultural 1960s. Amnesia about the rich local cultural heritage extended to everyone around Mapfumo.
“I had an uncle who used to play in a band called City Dicks. He had a Shona folk song that went ‘I had cattle but now I have nothing’. And then I said to myself: ‘Does uncle realise how powerful that song is?’ Then one of my friends, Dominic Mandizha, took the song and recorded it.”
The Springfields had several other incarnations, including the Cosmic Four and the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band—a moniker with rather strange evangelical and agricultural overtones. The name’s origins tickle but also show the music industry’s humble origins.
Finding the Salisbury nightclub scene suffocating, the band moved to Mhangura. By day they were working as labourers on a poultry farm and over weekends jamming in the smoky community halls built to entertain mine and farm workers.
Starting to speak out
“One day our boss [a certain Mr Walker] came to us and asked: ‘What is the name of your band?’ I told him our band is called the Hallelujah Band. And then he said: ‘Why don’t you call it the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band?’”
This was also the time that they started to pay close attention to what Osibisa, a British Afro-pop band, was doing. “We said we want to play like them.” And they found a supporter in Crispen Matema, a jazz drummer who was then working for Teal Records as a producer. Hoyo Murembu, the 1974 single they recorded with Matema, made reference to the war against minority rule that had begun in earnest.
When the band was invited to play at a small festival with other bands, some of these groups played rock. “When it was our turn we played our local stuff. This was perhaps the first time people were genuinely excited about Zimbabwean music.”
After a few more years in which they battled to make a living from music, Mapfumo got in touch with keyboard player Charles Makokove, then leading a formation called the Acid Band.
“I talked to Makokove about collaborating. The result of this was Tozvireva Kupi and Pamuromo Chete; both songs were hits.” Using a loan from Teal Records they bought instruments and hit the road.
The Acid Band preceded an ensemble called Black Men Unlimited. At the suggestion of one of their patrons, a certain Murape, the name was changed.
He asked what the band was called.
“Black Men Unlimited,” Mapfumo replied. “Why don’t you call it Blacks Unlimited?” the patron suggested. And Blacks Unlimited it has been ever since. The name might appear cheesy, especially viewed through today’s lens, but in dark Rhodesia it was revolutionary. “This was around 1976, or ‘77.”
It was a crucial period, one in which the liberation ethos and the ancestral Shona folksy sound of the band took root.
Some of the dirges from this period are classics, including Pfumvu Paruzevha, Kuyaura, Chitima Cherusununguko, Bhutsu Mutandarika, Chauya Chiruzevha, Dangurangu and Chipatapata.
Introducing the band
In many ways Mapfumo’s musical soulmate was the bass player Jonah Sithole, a peripatetic yet constant presence around him. Whereas in the early years of Blacks Unlimited Sithole had strummed the guitar in a style that imitated the mbira, from the mid-1980s the band actually incorporated the instrument. Other band members from then include Leonard Chiyangwa, Enock Manda, trumpeter Bobby Mtukwa and Everson Chibhamu.
The way Chibhamu joined the group shows that they were always looking for talent—anywhere they could find it. Even in church. Accordingly, Chibhamu used to play trumpet in the Salvation Army church.
The fabulously talented Sithole first played with Mapfumo in the mid-1970s. He would stay with the band for a season, wander off to start his own thing and then return, ad infinitum. He died in 1997.
Another influential member of the group was Ashton “Sugar” Chiweshe—you guessed it; he was diabetic—who joined the group in the early 1980s. “He [Chiweshe] could play the mbira and he tried to transfer the mbira sound to the guitar. He was very versatile,” said Mapfumo.
Looking through internet forums I saw that four of the guitarists who had played with Mapfumo were included as some of the best guitarists ever to come out of Zimbabwe. The list included Sithole, Joshua Dube, Chiweshe and Chiyangwa.
Dube was important for more than his adept guitar work; he could also play the mbira. When I asked Mapfumo the names of his mbira players from the 1980s, he could only remember the eccentric detail that it was “someone who used to bring his mbira on a bicycle”.
Putting the truth on record
Some of Mapfumo’s best albums came out in the 1980s. Outstanding albums include Varombo Kuvarombo, a 1989 release that included the hit single Corruption, a song that bemoaned the pervasiveness of graft in society. The album was, in effect, saying that Zanu-PF’s socialist doctrine was a charade and that true liberation was yet to come.
Varombo Kuvarombo was a different offering to Zimbabwe-Mozambique, Mapfumo’s 1987 album that is easily one of the most important albums ever to come out of Zimbabwe. The album, the first one on which the mbira was used, is dark and brooding. The embittered ghost of Mozambique’s founding president, Samora Machel, whose plane had just crashed to his death, seems to lurk in the vicinity.
The title track, Zimbabwe-Mozambique, is a triptych that begins as a rock-steady tune (a reggae genre), then picks up speed as it is fired up by ska-like horn sounds before speeding up in a drum-based jit sound.
The song Ndave Kuenda, as chimurenga music scholar Banning Eyre wrote, “provides a powerful example of Jonah Sithole’s passionate mbira guitar playing”.
The 2000 CD Manhungetunge (Troubles), recorded together with American avant-garde trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, exists in that sonic void in which the otherworldly strains of jazz merges with the cadences of chimurenga music.
When one interviewer asked him about the inspiration for the album Mapfumo deadpanned: “Each time you reminisce about the way the motherland used to be, and what it has become, you feel pain in your stomach. That is manhungetunge.”
Mapfumo is, to be sure, not the only proponent of the mbira sound. Over the decades other musicians have played the instrument. The list includes the late Ephat Mujuru, a group called Mbira DzeNharira and soulful diva Chiwoniso Maraire, whose father, Dumisani Maraire, was teaching Americans how to play the instrument in the 1960s.
Some, especially Mujuru and Mbira, stuck close to the template of the spiritual roots of the music.
They did not stray far from the work and war songs that have little to do with the daily pressures of the colony and its sibling, the post-colony.
Music from the man
Zanu-PF itself is an active player in the nationalist musicography. Its oeuvre, including songs from the 1970s, trumpet the perpetual Zanu-PF revolution as is evidenced by the CD Chimurenga Songs: Music of the Revolutionary People’s War in Zimbabwe.
The CD is complete with Zanu-PF slogans; primeval claims to the Earth (nyika yemadzibaba—Shona for fatherland); deification of central protagonists in the various struggles, especially Mugabe and Mbuya Nehanda (a female hero of the First Chimurenga); and connectedness to the continent’s other liberation movements.
Mapfumo is regarded as an abrasive and arrogant personality; anecdotes abound to support this. One, probably apocryphal, features him being interviewed abroad.
What is the biggest football team in Zimbabwe? asks the interviewer. Dynamos Football Club, Mapfumo replies. What is the biggest political party? Zanu-PF, of course. Who is the best musician? Thomas Mapfumo, comes the answer.
Yet in this interview Mapfumo was keenly aware of others’ contributions to his sound. He was particularly effusive about Edson Nonusi—a virtuoso pianist and guitarist who died suddenly in the 1960s.
“Vakomana hatisati tamboona zvakadaro (We hadn’t seen anything like that). He was so good on the piano and guitar. And whenever I got my notes wrong Nonusi would say to me: ‘Aiwa, mukoma (brother) Thomas, play like this.’ And then he would show me.”
In the evolution of the chimurenga sound Mapfumo specifically mentioned keyboardist Charles Makokove, drummer Sebastian Mbata and trumpeter Chibhamu. He also singled out guitarist Zivayi Guveya, who joined the band as a teenager; the late Dube and Sithole; founding member and guitarist Chiyangwa; Ephraim Karimaura; the late Chiweshe; and Washington Kavhayi. The musician also mentioned his brothers, William and Lancelot Mapfumo.
The mbira has become intrinsic to the chimurenga sound and some of Mapfumo’s players over the years have included Basil Makombe, Chaka Mhembere and Chartwell Dutiro.
“These are the people who played a big role, who made chimurenga music what it is,” Mapfumo said.
The priest Murenga was all about social justice.
So does the music that bears his name.
Thomas Mapfumo will play at the Macufe Festival in the Free State with Chiwoniso Maraire on October 8 and at the Standard Bank Arena, Johannesburg, on October 9