Thomas Mapfumo

1945 – ZIMBABWE

Biography

He is called Zimbabwe’s Lion, and his position in his homeland’s musical life is undeniable: he stands out both as a developer and leader of traditional the Shona people’s music.

Thomas Mapfumo grew up in the small town of Marondera, before the family moved to Salisbury (Harare), and as a child he attended a boarding school in 1964. After school he began to sing with a local band and copied American and English music, such as Elvis, Otis Reading and The Rolling Stones. But already in the 1960s he was experimenting with translating protest songs to Shona. In 1973 he formed the folk-orientated Hallelujah Chicken Run Band and began to explore traditional folk music, especially inside his own tribe. The main instrument in Shona folk music is the mbira (thumb piano), and together with the band’s guitarist, Jonah Sithole, Mapfumo transcribed the mbira-tone scale for guitar. He also moved from ordinary percussion to more traditional drums, the better to express rhythms of the old dance music. This didn’t go down too well at first, because people were not too accustomed to their own music; modern dance music was expected to be western orientated.

But gradually the situation changed, as did the politics. Mapfumo began to write lyrics in Shona, which best commented on the white minority government in the country. In 1975 he warned against the coming war in the single “Morento” and spoke of the struggle for human rights in “Ngomo Yarira”. In 1977 Acid Band was formed and released the album “Hokoyo”, that was a success.

Thomas Mapfumo was by then no longer an innocent musician, but in the process of becoming a troublesome political individual for the white regime, that tried to block the release of his disc. When this didn’t work, the regime forbade the playing of his music on radio and Mapfumo was imprisoned without trial. This led to violent civil protests and after three months he was released. As soon as he was out of prison he continued to play what was being called “Chimurenga” (independence music). During this period he produced many singles that reached the public via the “Voice of Mozambique” radio station. In 1978 the band’s name was changed to Blacks Unlimited, and in 1980 he performed with Bob Marley at Harare Stadium to mark the independence of Zimbabwe.

After 1980 Mapfumo further developed his politics-orientated music and continued to criticise the authorities’ (then Robert Mugabe’s government) corruption and misuse of power.
Thomas Mapfumo is one of modern African music’s most prominent personalities and among those who have really succeeded in modernising music without vulgarising it.