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Thomas Mapfumo: “I Don’t Have Money, but People are my Wealth”

Harare, Zimbabwe – “Shut up you kaffirs (a racist inference, frequently used to demean Africans during colonialism)!” The racist sneer, aim...

Harare, Zimbabwe – “Shut up you kaffirs (a racist inference, frequently used to demean Africans during colonialism)!”

The racist sneer, aimed at Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo and the Springfields band, came as they concluded a rock and roll piece during the Texan musical competition in the 70s, imitating ‘The Last Time’, a song by the Rolling Stones. The white man, shouting the K word, according to Dr Mapfumo, was incensed Africans were imitating western music, forsaking their own.

“This blatant racist episode hurt me a lot, and made me think that: we are not allowed to sing foreign music, yet, we have our own traditional music and this made me start singing my traditional music,” Mapfumo told me, from his US base. “Before, I used to sing rock and roll, and I had fallen in love with Elvis Presley, but I saw that I didn’t have any identity, but I was promoting other people’s identity, while I was neglecting mine.”

The racist episode initiated his U-turn towards chimurenga – a distinct traditional music, influenced by the war of independence, from (1966 to 1979), for land, education and human rights against British colonialism, later becoming his emblem. For Mapfumo, a village boy, his life revolved around traditional music. 

Around him, there was music reserved for every occasion, be it funerals, playtime, the raging war, and all traditional ceremonies. “Growing up, music was always part of my life from the beginning, and it has always fascinated me, and later on it inspired me to sing traditional music and put Zimbabwe on the limelight,” Mapfumo said.
Thomas Mapfumo: “I Don’t Have Money, but the People are My Wealth”

The rise of his musical career, particularly chimurenga, dates back to 1972 in Mhangura, a former mining town, now playing with the Hallelujah Chicken Run band, experimenting with revolutionary songs. 

“We composed our own music called Afropop. From our album, one song stood out; it was a militant song. Although the musical shift earned him some praises, since chimurenga music spoke directly to the people’s power struggles, fighting their identity crisis, it however came at a price,” he said.

In the largely dominant Shona vernacular, Mapfumo is a plural name for a spear, a war weapon used to pierce through the enemy from a safe distance. True to his name, his music has been equated to a sharp instrument used to penetrate the enemy’s stronghold, with its rich, forthright poetic and mystical lyrics, beginning with the war era, when he sang against the repressive British colonial regime. 

Since then, Mapfumo’s chimurenga protest music has centered on freedom, and fighting injustices for his country and the oppressed people, later hoisting Zimbabwe's cultural identity and national flag on global platforms. “We fought the war so that the country could freely demonstrate and practice its culture. In my life, I have encountered a lot of things, and since my childhood, I have always stood for the people.”

In 1989, nine years into independence, Zimbabwe was still celebrating the incoming of the new majority rule, yet, behind the scenes, corruption was slowly eating away the gains. The most prominent case was the Willowgate scandal, where political elites used their connections to buy cars at a reduced price and sold them for profit. This was a tip of the iceberg. 

Later on, Robert Mugabe initiated a commission of inquiry, however, it was never made public. Mapfumo didn’t relent, and that year, Corruption, a hit album addressing the rot within the echelons of power and the society, was to hit the airwaves, much to the appreciation of the masses, as usual.

The Mugabe regime, however, sensing the impact the song had, decided to censor it. In the end, it was only confined to selected bars and homes, signaling the beginning of the autocratic reign. Years later, Dr Mpfumo recalls meeting the then minister of finance, Dr Bernard Chidzero, who revealed about corruption in the country. 

After a 14-year absence, motivated by the will to protect his family from the Mugabe regime, he returned home from exile in 2018 for live performances, willing to give the new rulers a benefit of the doubt and to witness firsthand the so-called New Dispensation, under Emerson Mnangagwa, after the dispossession of Mugabe, who was in power for four decades. 

But what he saw was not what he had anticipated. Still, like before, people could not enjoy freedom, repression was dominant. Again, the scourge of corruption, just like the Mugabe era, is still rampant in the country, yet again.

“The president is quiet about the Gold Mafia scandal, he is not even talking about it. Where on earth does a leader keep quiet about corruption, and large tracts of land are being stolen and everything is swept under the carpet.”

In one of his songs, Mapfumo asks: Ndiani Waparadza Musha? (Who has destroyed my home?). But, sadly, like the days before, there are no immediate answers. For now, he cannot return home, but the music and struggle will continue, he says, until the people are totally free. Even though Mugabe is gone, he is still fighting his repressive legacy, seeking to emancipate his people through music, saying, the current regime is corrupt like the one before it. 

With the 2023 election coming in August, he warns the nation, particularly the opposition, to be vigilant against election manipulation and complacency. “I once called the main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, regarding the forthcoming elections and I told him not to accept them without reforms, without foreign observers, and the voters roll, without these there are no elections.”

After decades on the global stage, just like a good dancer, Dr Mapfumo believes it’s his time to exit the scene, while his legacy is still intact, electing to concentrate on nurturing the next generation of musicians. “I am currently working on an album to be released soon. I have been in the music industry for a while, and I am now old and will soon retire from live performances. After retirement, I will be helping other upcoming musicians to promote their own music and culture, not music from other foreign nations. 

“My last live shows will be specifically to thank the people who have supported me all these years, I salute the people and I play music for them. People may laugh at me that I don’t have money, but the people are my wealth, the love they have shown me over years.”

Having seen it all, played in front of big crowds, earning names such as Hurricane Hugo, Mapfumo will this year bow out of live performances. With age comes maturity, but one thing that the chimurenga maestro has always maintained is the love for the people. Sadly, the movement of yesteryears has suddenly evaporated, replaced by teaser, nodding of the head, and slight body movements. 

It is however not the first time that Mukanya, his baboon totem, has announced his retirement from live performances. Three years ago in July 2020, when he turned 75, he announced his planned retirement to groom upcoming musicians, which was greeted by much sadness by his legion of fans. But he was soon back in the showbiz limelight. Now, if he finally exits the scene, the viral chants of Yahweh, will sadly be missed. 

Kurai, his nephew, according to Mapfumo is the heir to the chimurenga genre and he believes he will carry forward its rich legacy. Now at 78, he has reached his twilight, and his ability to stage more shows like before has waned, his yesteryear vigor, dancing together with his departed brother, Lancelot are all water under the bridge. 

“There are a lot of musicians who are on the right track, playing our traditional music. There are a lot of young musicians who are now playing mbira music. When the war heroine, Mbuya Nehanda said my ancestors will rise again, he meant these people. If we are an independent country, we must follow our culture and heritage, we have our way of doing things.”

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