Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo’s insightful new biography

Lion Songs (Duke University Press), Banning Eyre’s biography of Zimbabwean musical innovator Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo, is an intensely detailed and lucid work. Eyre, a guitar-playing journalist, is also the author of Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali and producer of Afropop Worldwide, a New York radio show that is broadcast around the globe.

Eyre, who played with Mapfumo’s band, the Blacks Unlimited, in the United States, first interviewed the artist in 1988. The book was about 15 years in the making, with some chapters written as long ago as 2001.

Eyre is a musicologist, so when he explains the musical alchemy that went into creating Mapfumo’s mbira-inspired chimurenga (revolutionary struggle) music, his descriptions are ­illuminating and technical. He also understands that the significance of his subject – a fixture in Zimbabwe’s music and sociopolitical fabric for at least five decades – transcends the music he made.

Eyre embeds the reader in Mapfumo’s creative process – the light-bulb moment when he translates mbira music into a secular idiom and how that coalesced with the cultural awakening that accompanied Zimbabwe’s war for independence – and succeeds in keeping the prose engaging and cinematic at every turn.

But, as an American, there is an obvious lopsidedness that favours his understanding of the music at the expense of the nuances of Mapfumo’s lyrics.

To bring out this latter aspect, Eyre relies on Mapfumo’s inner circle: the members of his band and the ­producers at the Teal record company who oversaw most of Mapfumo’s releases during the second chimurenga era (1966 to 1979).

In this period, Eyre focuses on presenting Mapfumo as a poet, not so much a polemic proselytiser as a shamanistic urbanite working for a ­cultural revival. Mapfumo’s lyrics were often oblique, double-edged or politically ambiguous to avoid censorship but he was, regrettably, sometimes politically naive, such as when he was used by the puppet politician Bishop Abel Muzowera, who headed the short-lived interim ­government that accompanied the tail-end of the country’s liberation struggle.

In telling Mapfumo’s story, Eyre tries as much as possible to blend into the background but there are odd moments when he appears in the narrative.

The detailed descriptions of parts of Mapfumo’s life, especially some of his tours in the US, are because of Eyre’s proximity to his subject. You get a sense of Mapfumo’s mood swings – controlling the CD player and rationing the marijuana in cramped minivans as various formations of the Blacks Unlimited trudged on often underfunded US and European tours.

Perhaps the most disturbing passage in the book is when Eyre interviews Ian Smith, the former prime minister of what was then Southern Rhodesia, who proclaimed a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain in 1965 and decreed the country a republic in 1970. Eyre spoke to Smith with the intention of understanding the regime’s views on chimurenga music and Mapfumo as a subversive figure. But his misplaced sympathy for the racist rebel and his desire to humanise him are nauseating. Eyre allows Smith to get away with portraying himself as a benevolent white farmer whose workers “had the happiest black faces in Africa”.

Even though Eyre had the opportunity to observe his subject up close and even played with his band, Mapfumo was not always easy to pin down for interviews. So, although it chronicles the life of an irrepressible and charismatic personality, the book is not overwhelmed by Mapfumo’s own words and world-view.

Eyre respectfully portrays Mapfumo as a somewhat politically unsophisticated bully, who mistreated his band members and was, for the most part, under the overbearing influence of his family, particularly his brothers Lancelot and William.

But even where Mapfumo is roundly criticised, such as in his distribution of meagre wages to band members (which forced many of them to quit, only to return when they ran out of options), Eyre strives for balance, in this instance with the views of University of Zimbabwe academic Musa Zimunya.

Zimunya, who denied that working conditions for Mapfumo’s band members were often brutal, says in the book: “What do you say about a man who has worked as hard as Thomas? After all he has given, he still has to play four nights a week just to support his family. Is there no brutality in that?”

Eyre documents how Mapfumo’s position on President Robert Mugabe shifted from portraying him as a hero after independence (even while penning songs critical of the excesses of his regime) to calling for his blood, as he did in 2012.

In that year, Eyre writes, Mapfumo took part in a panel discussion following the screening of Simon Bright’s film Robert Mugabe … What Happened? After chastising “Afrocentric Americans … who think he [Mugabe] is giving it [the land] to black Zimbabweans”, he called on the US and Britain to intervene to forcefully remove Mugabe and his “torturers”.

Although Eyre asserts that to understand Mapfumo one has to understand Zimbabwe, the book’s focus on the music is often diluted by superficial renderings of life under Mugabe. He resorts too often to generalised caricatures of the postcolonial country and does not really get under the skin of Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party.

Compounding this, Mapfumo’s output during Mugabe’s rule – from outright support to circuitous critiques and then outright outrage – is peppered with vagueness and opacity rather than clear-cut political critique. As a result, we understand Mapfumo more as an itinerant, eventually exiled troubadour – he lives in Oregon in the US – than as the conscience of the country.

But Eyre’s efforts to catalogue the oeuvre of this sometimes mercurial figure are nevertheless impressive.

Read more from Kwanele Sosibo and follow him on Twitter 

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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