By Atiyyah Khan

Mukanya’s heart will always reside in Zimbabwe, but calling out politicians in his music has made it difficult for him to live there. He is also ready to pass on the mantle.

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS – MAY 16: Thomas Mapfumo performs on stage at Melkweg on May 16 1986 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns)

ome is home. And that’s where the heart is always. You’re always thinking of home, where your roots are … where you’re coming from. Your friends, your relatives, that’s where they are.” 

For Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo, that place will always be Zimbabwe. It’s a love that is reciprocated, going by the huge number of Zimbabweans who turn up for his recent South African tour. Mapfumo has lived in self-imposed exile in Eugene, Oregon, in the United States since 2002. “I like it there, but that’s not my home,” he says. 

Mukanya – as he is respectfully referred to, denoting his family totem name meaning baboon –  is one of the most innovative African musicians of our time. He championed chimurenga (revolutionary struggle) music in sound and political philosophy.

19 July 1992: Thomas Mapfumo performs chimurenga music with his band The Blacks Unlimited at the SummerStage festival in Central Park, New York City, in the United States. (Photograph by Jack Vartoogian/ Getty Images)

Mapfumo performed with his signature band The Blacks Unlimited in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Hundreds packed into the Schotsche Kloof Civic Centre in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, on 20 November to watch the vocalist and guitarist perform, cheering as the 76-year-old elder came out on stage. 

The crowd danced and sang along to every word, as he performed for nearly two hours – a short set for Mapfumo, who has been known to perform for up to five hours at times. That he was cut off abruptly to comply with the Covid-19 curfew did not perturb his joyful fans, whose love and reverence for Mapfumo were palpable.

Pivotal moments

On a windy afternoon before the concert, Mapfumo is in good spirits. His deep baritone voice startling at first, his demeanour warm and friendly. This is Mapfumo’s first international tour since the beginning of the pandemic. With a smile, he says it is good to be back on stage after the long break. 

Despite the tour, his retirement is looming. There are plans for a 77th birthday celebration in the United Kingdom in July 2022. It will mark his retirement from live performances, although he will continue with studio recordings.

Mapfumo reflects on his path into music. His beginnings are humble, growing up in rural Marondera. He taught himself to play the guitar and loved rock and roll in his early years, playing mostly covers, as was the norm in Zimbabwe at the time. This would change after a pivotal moment during a battle of the bands contest in Harare in the late 1960s, while playing in one of his first bands, The Springfields. 

24 April 2018: Thomas Mapfumo during an interview in Harare, Zimbabwe, with press agency AFP. He had settled in the United States 16 years earlier, after being targeted by Robert Mugabe’s regime. (Photograph by Jekesai Njikizana/ AFP)

“So we were up there on the stage and we were playing copyrighted music. The last song that we were playing was The Last Time by The Rolling Stones,” he says, breaking into song. “There was this white guy in the audience. And he started shouting at us, ‘Shut up, you k****rs!’ It made me very, very angry. I thought well, if these people can’t allow us to sing in their language, don’t we have our own language to sing? That made me change my mind. From there on, I stopped playing copyrighted music.”

This moment was essential in nurturing Mapfumo’s political consciousness. “I thought … if we don’t play our own music, how are we going to promote our own culture?” He began singing in his mother tongue, Shona, from that day onwards. 

Throughout the interview, Mapfumo enthrals with descriptive tales of his early bands and adventures in different Zimbabwean cities. This includes the story behind the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band formed in 1972, while members worked on a chicken farm in the copper mining area of Mhangura. 

Struggle songs

Mapfumo’s contribution to music involves tuning the mbira – the spiritual sound of the Shona – to the electric guitar.  “As a boy I grew up in the rural areas, where there was a lot of traditional music. I was a herdboy herding cattle and goats. I listened to a lot of mbira music and also drumming and singing. I thought, is this music not danceable? … All we have to do is change the music and promote it.” This combination of mbira, rattles and drums originally played at gatherings for the ancestors was tweaked to modern electrical instruments, to create a danceable sound. 

His early lyrics contained messages against the colonial regime and promoting the Zanu-PF revolution. The electrification of the mbira, coupled with the protest lyrics embedded in the music, soon became known as chimurenga music. “We decided to name it chimurenga music when the liberation war broke out in our country … We made our first hit through supporting the struggle.” 

Among many singles, one was immensely popular at the time. It was a song about the war that encouraged people to fight, called Tumira Vana Kuhondo, which translates as “send children to war”.

At first, it was played on the radio because the authorities could not decipher what it was about – a common thread in chimurenga music was having coded meanings. When the regime figured it out, Mapfumo was arrested for supporting the struggle. He has been arrested, detained and harassed repeatedly throughout his career.