Zimbabwe's secret weapon

Thomas Mapfumo carries a nation on his shoulders

Back in the '60s
and '70s, when Zimbabwe was still called Southern Rhodesia, Thomas Tafirenyika Mukanya Mapfumo found that he could get his fellow black countrymen to dance to his music and buy his records. But it began to trouble him that the music he was making wasn't really his.

"As soon as I realized that our country was under oppression, I was trying to find my identity," says Mapfumo. "I did all the jazz stuff, and rock 'n' roll. And I was asking myself, 'Who am I? Am I supposed to be Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley or John Lennon? I am Thomas! And where does Thomas come from? I am from Africa!'"

On stage at a recent festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the world-music superstar proved that, even at age 57, he could get all kinds of people to dance to a music he helped create and promulgate. It's called chimurenga, and it sets the electric instrumentation of rock and the horns of jazz to the task of carrying the burbling melodies and heady syncopation of the Shona culture in which Mapfumo grew up.

"There was a lot of dancing, singing, drumming and mbira playing," says Mapfumo of his youth. The mbira has also been called a kalimba or thumb piano, and has metal "keys" sometimes amplified by a gourd and, with his band The Blacks Unlimited, by a microphone. It's the medium by which the Shona people call up the spirits of their ancestors.

Mapfumo's full name reflects his origins. "Mukanya [as he's hailed affectionately by many of his countrymen] is my totem, from the ape family; the people from my region are all Mukanyas," he explains. "Tafirenyika is my Shona name," by which he was known as a young child. "But when I started school, you have to be baptized, and Thomas was the name my parents gave. People call that a 'slave name.'"

The young Mapfumo herded cattle, goats and donkeys. "When I started going to school, I didn't know much about the life our people were living; I thought everything was going along smoothly," says Mapfumo. "But then I started realizing, through reading books on my own, that our people were the oppressed ones."

By the early 1970s, after work in several Western cover bands, Mapfumo started to put the mbira sound into his own compositions. His songs bore lyrics subtly critical of the white English Rhodesian government. He called this music chimurenga, the Shona word for struggle. "Everyone was listening to my music, when they were out fighting in the bush," he says.

Mapfumo was seen as a threat to the government and imprisoned in 1977. He was released just in time to share in the celebration of Southern Rhodesia's rebirth as black-governed Zimbabwe.

But as the years passed, it became difficult to sustain the euphoria under black President Robert Mugabe. "After eight years, we started noticing the lapses," says Mapfumo. "We were reading a lot about 'corruption' in our country, and we had never heard of that when the white government was there."

Just as he was beginning to ride the wave of global interest in world music, Mapfumo began writing songs critical of Mugabe's administration. This has led to recent attempts to ban from the radio several of his songs, whose Shona titles translate into such protest-oriented declarations as, "You've Been Telling Us Lies."

His country decimated by AIDS, Mapfumo gathered up his wife and three children (now 6, 15 and 19) and his band (including his conga-playing brother, Lancelot) and relocated to Eugene, Ore., two years ago. He's now under the auspices of Mongrel Music and Anonymous Web Productions (www.anonymousweb.com), both based in the San Francisco Bay area.

As with most world music stars, the acceptance of Mapfumo's music has been enhanced in his homeland by his success abroad. He plans to return to Zimbabwe for his annual homecoming performances a month after his appearance in Atlanta. He'll also add to his Anonymous catalogue with Toi-Toi, its title a reference to the sort of collective song that enlivens Zimbabwean political rallies. It's a voice of opposition to the spurious electoral system — and of the search for leaders who can effectively confront the powers-that-be. It's a sentiment that rings true and timely as Mapfumo tours his adopted country.