Brief union sealed by fate
By some strange coincidence, Oliver Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo both found themselves in Johannesburg at the same time and weren’t going to miss the opportunity to share a stage.
Mtukudzi was performing in the city and Mapfumo, the chimurenga (struggle/revolution) music maestro based in the United States, was here for meetings with his local record label, Sheer Sound, which has just released his latest album, Exile. The two musicians first shared a stage in the 1970s.
Instead of the extended 20 minutes or so that their publicists had tantalisingly suggested we might get, the two legends collaborated for only one song, although Mapfumo followed it with another, with a hastily assembled band.
Although both sets were far from accomplished, those assembled weren’t going to allow the rather small matter of aesthetics spoil a historic collaboration.
Before this, I sat down backstage to talk to them about the role of the artist in times of crisis, Zimbabwe and its democratic prospects, and where they intended to take their music, now in its third decade.
“All artists are above politics,” Mtukudzi says, “because they represent the nation. Politics and politicians by their very nature are factional. Parties come and go but the artists remain.
“Let’s consider this event, One Night in Africa [at Carnival City on the East Rand], the organisers don’t say we have Mtukudzi from Zanu-PF or MDC [Movement for Democratic Change]. They say we have an artist from Zimbabwe. Even our leaders operate under the flag.”
Mapfumo adds: “Music is there to unite people but at the same time we must point out the wrong the government is doing. It doesn’t mean taking sides,” the exiled musician says.
When I ask Mapfumo about the influences on his new album, he says he refuses to concern himself only with the situation in his homeland—to take liberties with Che Guevara’s maxim, the whole world is his country.
“The CD looks at the state of the world. Look at Libya, Afghanistan and Palestine. We are trying to bring peace to the world through our music because hondo inouraya varombo kwete vane mari [war kills the poor and not the rich]”.
But Zimbabwe is never far from his mind. “They [Zimbabwe’s nationalists] say we fought the liberation struggle [against the racist Ian Smith regime] but our children, who never saw this war, will say to us that was our war and what they want is democracy and freedom.
Powerful nationalist elite
“We can’t have a situation in which insulting the president is a crime. Don’t we sometimes abuse God? What we have in Zimbabwe was one dictatorship replacing another,” Mapfumo says.
It is ironic that the man who began the genre and is most closely associated with it and its spiritual and ancestral sound lives in Eugene in Oregon. Is this an egregious instance of the revolution banishing its first-born?
The powerful nationalist elite who run Zimbabwe conceive the nation as in a perpetual state of revolution. The initial struggle against Cecil Rhodes’ occupation forces is regarded as segueing into the second chimurenga against Smith’s regime, which then morphed into the current land battles with the white farming community.
“But some of the dispossessed white farmers were born in Zimbabwe. And when they say they should leave, where are they supposed to go?” Mapfumo asks.
His chimurenga music has travelled on sinuous, tortuous tracks at home, in the US and in Europe. That has involved collaborations with artists such as avant-garde trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith on the uninhibited, jazz-accented and wildly expressive Manhungetunge (2000) and the sparse and experimental Live at Elrey, on which he features only two mbiras, a bass guitar and drums.
The best of his more “Zimbabwean” work isn’t to be taken lightly.
Noteworthy is his percussive and confrontational offering Chimurenga Rebel (which a close friend of the musician says is Mapfumo’s personal favourite), and the pan-African and atmospheric 1994 CD Zimbabwe-Mozambique.
In his struggle-music oeuvre, Mapfumo’s prophetic 1999 CD, Chimurenga Explosion, stands out. It was the muse (or fuse) to the discontent that resulted in the “no” vote to a Zanu-PF-sponsored constitution in February 2000 and, a few months later, to the historic defeat of the party by the MDC in the April 2000 elections.
Last weekend when Mapfumo went on stage to perform a song about hwahwa (beer), the gathered emigrés, refugees, immigrants or exiles (take your pick) exploded with festive applause and nationalistic fervour, one even hoisting Zimbabwe’s flag.
When in a later telephone interview Mapfumo spoke about missing his homeland, his friends and relatives, he was voicing the sentiments of the hundreds of people gathered there.
“We want to go back to Zimbabwe, but how can we go back when things are like this?” he asks, referring to the conflicted marriage between the ruling Zanu-PF and the two MDC parties.
Indeed in the song, Ndangariro (Memories), on the album Exile, he enumerates Zimbabwe’s towns. And on the upbeat Rugerero (Forgiveness), he wails about forgiveness, suggesting that there will have to be a truth and reconciliation process for the country at some point.
The traditional Karigamombe (He Who Fells the Bull) is laid over a mbira-inflected template. Other notable tracks include Ruvengo (Hatred), Ndambakuudzwa (The Person Who Refuses to Take Advice) and Vagere Kunaka (They Are Sitting Pretty). In fact most of the songs on the CD are outstanding.
The overriding emotion that runs through Mapfumo’s 11-track album is nostalgia for a far-off homeland and the mood is captured by militant declarations of patriotism and considered examinations of what exactly Zimbabwean nationhood means.
The CD nods at Mapfumo’s influences—jazz, rock, traditional Zimbabwean music and Afro fusion. In many ways Exile is a classic chimurenga album, simmering without the volcanic ash, nostalgic without being mawkish, an album in which the seasoned musician is at his most assured and serene self.