If Swedish furniture-chain IKEA made a city, it would probably look something like Milton Keynes. This bizarre British ‘garden city’, conjured up by warped government officials and overpaid urban-planning hacks in the early 1970s, is a surreal setting for a performance by Zimbabwe’s most popular political musician. Yet it is here in Britain’s consumer capital - Milton Keynes is infamous for its gargantuan US-style shopping malls - where I meet up with Thomas Mapfumo and his band The Blacks Unlimited. For one night this cultural desert blooms as hundreds of Zimbabweans come from all over Britain to see one of their most adored music legends.
Thomas Mapfumo, according to many who have turned up here tonight, is a cultural ambassador of Zimbabwe. ‘He is Zimbabwe,’ says Joyce, an IT student from Harare, currently studying in London. ‘I’ve listened to his music since I was a child, and now here I am still listening to it all the time. He is one of a kind.’ Affectionately called the ‘Lion of Zimbabwe’ by fans, it is not just his music, but the politics of his music which makes him truly unique.
It was in 1970s Rhodesia, after years of playing covers of Elvis and Beatles songs, that he began to search for an indigenous musical identity. In a country where local culture was viewed as primitive and worthless by the white minority and often violently repressed, Mapfumo found strength and inspiration from the folk music of his youth. The traditional mbira - or thumb piano - became the primary weapon in a culture war against the white colonial Government of Rhodesia. The majority Shona people began to take a renewed pride in their culture and traditions. Influenced by the Afrobeat sounds of Fela Kuti, Franco’s fast-paced guitar rhythms, Miriam Makeba’s freedom songs, and Bob Marley and the Wailers’ ‘rebel music’, Mapfumo plugged the mbira into a guitar amp and let rip. He added a full horn section, guitars, bass, drums and backing vocals, and set songs ablaze with a music all his own. Most important of all, he sang in the Shona language rather than English.
This marked the birth of the unique musical style and ethos which Mapfumo dubbed chimurenga after the Shona and Ndebele uprisings of 1893 and 1896-97. His music was often played at pungwes - all-night meetings of villagers with liberation fighters. The trance-like repetition of Mapfumo’s mbira rhythms provided an opportunity for community dance and celebration, bringing people together in a society wounded by decades of repression, violence and ridicule. Chimurenga music was an oral newspaper, passing on subversive information coded in the deep metaphor of Shona proverbs.
Oh mothers, oh boys,
There’s a snake in the forest,
Mothers take hoes,
Grandmothers take hoes,
Boys take axes.’
The early chimurenga music was a spark in dry brush. ‘Mapfumo’s music provided the fuel and yearning for liberation,’ says Tafazuwa, a student who fled Zimbabwe four years ago and now lives in Britain. ‘He is a true culture bandit.’ The Rhodesian Government thought so too, and duly imprisoned him. Recognizing the influence he had on people, the white Government tried to manipulate Mapfumo into speaking in their favour. He resisted and white rule was eventually overthrown in 1980. Mapfumo was honoured by the newly elected president Robert Mugabe on stage with Bob Marley, who made a special visit to perform his song ‘Zimbabwe’ for the occasion. Mapfumo and his band The Blacks Unlimited headlined the show. Mapfumo recalls: ‘Well, we all felt great. because everyone was celebrating a new era. Everyone was very happy. It was a day to remember.’
His next few albums would reflect the early optimism of black Zimbabweans jubilant in their newfound freedom. ‘He used to sing praises to Mugabe,’ says Brian, an exchange student studying in Britain and attending all of Mapfumo’s British shows on this tour. ’ It was that sort of time. We all felt that way. Hope. Why wouldn’t he be singing about those things then? None of us could have imagined what would befall us.’ It was not long before Mugabe would don his despot cap, preside over a government riddled with corruption and pursue his political opponents with ruthless zeal.
And so there was a new struggle to sing about. ‘When we heard Mukanya [Mapfumo] sing songs against Mugabe, we knew things were getting really bad,’ says Brian. ‘It wasn’t just Mugabe. It was ZANU-PF [Mugabe’s party], AIDS, poverty, corruption. Within a few years we had to wipe the smiles off our faces. Mukanya kept singing. We love him for that.’ Mugabe’s megalomania worsened and Mapfumo soon found his songs banned from the airwaves of the government-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. After a brutal few years and under increasing pressure to tone down his anti- Mugabe musical tirades, Mapfumo went into self-imposed exile for the safety of his family. Though he has lived in the US for the last three years, Mapfumo has not strayed from the chimurenga movement. He was recently awarded the ‘most banned artist’ distinction at the anti-grammy awards. His latest album Toi Toiis a message to the people of Zimbabwe to rise up once again. ‘We are not in a good situation now,’ says Mapfumo. ’ Our people are suffering. There are many messages in the album. “Toi Toi” means “protest”. For example we have this song “Vechidiki” (Youngsters) where we are singing about the youth of today, who are being used by those at the top to go out there, to beat up people, kill people, and do all the dirty work of those at the top. So we are saying to them: “Stop what you are doing!”’
But Mapfumo is not a party political man. He maintains his independence and wariness in view of the potential for abuse and corruption that always accompanies power. Asked what he thinks of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), he replies with characteristic langour: ‘Well, you never know with these politicians. One day they say something, and then the next day they say something else. You can’t trust them. We don’t know what will happen if ever he comes into power. Maybe he’s going to change like Mr Mugabe. You never know with these politicians. They do funny things sometimes.’
He’s not likely to abandon hope or give up the liberation struggle, though. ‘I can never see myself stopping doing that. I don’t support anyone in particular. I am on my own. I’m concerned about things like making sure that the people are being treated fairly. That they are being fed. That the people have got jobs. That the people are enjoying their independence. That’s what I sing about. That’s what I’ve always sung about. We need to free ourselves from bondage, so we cannot stop fighting. We need to fight. We are not fighting for our own future, but for those who are coming after us. We are just passing through.’
After our brief conversation Mapfumo, with his stetson perched atop his long mane of dreadlocks, climbs onstage, grabs the mic and offers a curt ’ Zimbabwe’ to the audience, who roar in reply. The amplified mbira kicks in first, laying down a foundation of rhythm which the other instruments build upon in terraces of sound weaving ever more intricate patterns. Finally Mapfumo’s feathery vocals and easy-going stage manner complete the spell and keep us all dancing, singing, laughing and dreaming well into the morning. And all the while Milton Keynes sleeps, unaware of the conspiracy of sound inside.
Lion of Zimbabwe
The Shona people believe that the spirits of their great ancestors are supernatural protectors. Among the spirits that protect society today are those called mhondoro or lions. The title he has been affectionately given - ‘Lion of Zimbabwe’ - reflects a belief by some that Mapfumo is a great spirit or mhondoro. Mapfumo’s Shona name, Tafirenyika, means ‘die for freedom’ and was given to him by members of his community. Mukanya is his totem, which is of an ape family.
‘My bones shall rise again’
According to oral tradition, the first chimurenga was inspired by a great Shona warrior named Mbuya Nehanda (Grandmother Nehanda). She is credited for having inspired people to fight against the white settlers during the 1893 and 1896-97 uprisings. Her influence was so great that she inspired the Shona and the Ndebele, the largest tribes of Zimbabwe, to unite against their common foe. She is famed for saying ‘my bones shall rise again’ prior to her execution by the white colonizers. This prophecy has lived on in the hearts and minds of the people, spawning mediums for Mbuya Nehanda’s spirit. Her spirit is said only to possess those who are respected in society, have leadership skills and are women. Communication with the spirits is often aided by the mbira with which a medium uses to enter a state of trance.
Among those Nehanda inspired to take up arms was the legendary Shona warrior Sororenzou Murenga, renowned for his fighting prowess and bravery during the first uprisings. Great fighters after him were believed to be possessed by his spirit. Thus they were said to be fighting chimurenga, which when literally translated means ‘fighting the Murenga style’ and has since come to mean ’ war for liberation’ or ‘struggle’.