Mapfumo and Zimbabwe

thomas-mapfumoRecent events have caused me to pause and catch my breath, and to think about the country I once considered retiring in—Zimbabwe. Many of you would ask—”Why the hell would you want to live there?” Well, in the early 1980s, just after its independence—Zimbabwe seemed a wonderful place to live. The best tea I had drank, verdant countryside consisting of: Vic Falls, Vumba Mountains, Great Zimbabwe ruins, Harare, Chimanimani and my favourite place Matapos where that great imperialist exploiter Cecil Rhodes was buried. This was about ten years before the madness of farm invasions by “war veterans” was to take place and send Zimbabwe on a downward spiral to bankruptcy.

Upon reflection of the good old days, I can always tell my every trip I made to Africa with some of the music that I heard in matatus, buses, or taxis, and sometimes bars I was in. I have incorporated some of this music into my African books that I hope get published one day.

[1984] I first became acquainted with Zimbabwean music in 1984 when travelling overland from South Africa through Zimbabwe up to Kenya. Initially, I had started to appreciate African music after my younger brother had introduced me to King Sunny Ade’s “Synchro Sound and Ebenezer Obey from Nigeria. He and his girlfriend (later wife) had spent two years with CUSO in Nigeria at Manchok Teacher’s College. I had also listened to South Africa’s Johnny Clegg and Jaluka in their “Scatterlings” LP in 1982. Accordingly, I wanted to get a taste of Zimbabwe’s music, so I bought a cassette of Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited called “Mr. Music” at a small music shop in Bulawayo.

I proceeded on my journey to Harare, where I stayed at the infamous Harare Youth Hostel and ran into two South African guys: one who looked like a business man and the other like a long haired, pothead hippie. My guess was that they probably were in Zimbabwe to escape being called up for the South African army. We must have gotten around to talking about music, and no doubt, I would have mentioned Mapfumo and his band. Mapfumo would have been known by most in this region because of his chimurenga or revolutionary songs that he sang during the pre-independence days and Rhodesia’s brutal “Bush War”.

I was fortunate enough to cajole them into taking me to a concert by Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited at the legendary Queen’s Hotel in Harare. The two guys were somewhat hesitant about going in the first place because the hotel was in one of the rougher areas of Harare and we, as “whiteys”, might not be appreciated in this area. I am not even certain if these two guys even listened to or liked his music. I think they just wanted an excuse to go out for a beer. Later, I found out that the Queen’s Hotel was a favourite hangout for picking up “coloured girls”. Nevertheless, I went to just hear the music.

The lads had warned me before we even left the hostel that, if a fight breaks out, we get the hell out of there. Goofy me asked—“Why will we have to leave?”
I was told that if the “blacks” get on the piss and they see a “whitey” in there, they might pick on us. I was also told to wear covered shoes and not my flip-flops—I thought it was just because of the long walk. We finally got to Queen’s Hotel and walked inside, past the chicken wire fence bar that stopped patrons from winging beer bottles at the bartender. This was where you ordered your beer too. I immediately found out why I was warned not to wear flip-flops—everywhere underfoot was broken glass from the smashed beer bottles.
The Zimbabweans didn’t just sit and drink, they also danced as they caressed their beer bottles which might explain why there was broken glass everywhere.

The Blacks Unlimited Band warmed up and were getting into it when Thomas finally stumbled onto the stage—he looked like he was stoned on bhang (weed), but maybe drunk from the beer.
He played a few songs, maybe an hour’s worth, and I was just getting into it when suddenly, a fight broke out. My two friends grabbed me and told me it was time to leave.
We walked past the chicken wire bar where two guys were propped up against the wall, bleeding profusely from head wounds, no doubt inflicted by broken beer bottles—the ones that are quart sized no less. That was my first time at a Mapfumo concert and in a Zimbabwe pub.

Fast forward to [1988-89], my travelling companion Janine and I travelled overland from Kenya, and we were in Zimbabwe when Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited’s popular, yet politically-charged “Corruption” LP/cassette had just come out.
We went to a pungwe which in Shona meant all-night vigil. During the Rhodesian Bush War and in pre-independence days, a pungwe was a war meeting. However, in post-independence Zimbabwe, it meant an all day/all night concert in a huge outdoor venue outside of Harare. We took an hour or so by taxi to get there.

We got there at 2 pm and the musicians drifted in and out of the venue, some just playing mbira or a thumb piano, while others were drinking beer off-stage, many smoking bhang, and then the band would join in and then Thomas would do a song or two—this was still going on when we left around 1 am the next morning.

I was recording parts of the concert especially when he sang the “Corruption song.  I should have mentioned there were only four whites in amongst the Africans at this pungwe—Janine, a German guy who joined us, maybe one other and another German guy who was Thomas’ manager. He stopped me when I was recording and asked me what the purpose of the recording was. No doubt to stop any bootlegs. I assured him it was just for personal use, so he gave me the okay.

It was a raucous, free-wheeling affair and the band and Thomas were great. We had our share of beers, sudza (corn polenta) and beef stew, we chewed on some rather tough BBQ corn cobs which I broke my partial plate on.

It was a few years after this that Thomas and the Blacks Unlimited were forced to seek exile to Portland, USA. The “Corruption” LP had rattled too many ZANU-PF cages, and no doubt Mugabe himself. I suppose the lyrics about “corruption in this society” had hit too close to its mark with the ZANU-PF echelon.

Oddly enough, the hellish Rhodesian years of a white minority government under Ian Smith and his Rhodesian Front party had never made Mapfumo leave his country. Struze bob—Thomas was incarcerated for his revolutionary songs called chimurenga. Nevertheless, Thomas was eventually freed and the Blacks Unlimited group stayed put in Zimbabwe.

It is curious that they finally left Zimbabwe because he and his group had fallen out of favour with the fellow Shona big man–Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF cronies. I suppose if Thomas and his group had have remained in Zimbabwe, they too would have been thrown in jail or met a different fate.

A few years ago, I was playing some music by Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited on my laptop in Nairobi—of course, he was singing in Shona of which my wife would not know too much. The song was a live version of “Moyo Wangu”—which she knew in Swahili means “my heart”. Shona is a Bantu language after all and there are many loanwords in other African languages from it. She heard the mbira music and asked me: “Do you like this?”

Naturally, I had been listening to this music for the past 33 years—of course I liked it.
She said—“You’re weird” as she continued to listen to her Barry White, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion songs on her headphones. If you come to our house in Nairobbery and hear African music not from Kenya, but from the Congo, Mali, Zimbabwe or other parts of Africa—chances are that it is not my Kenyan wife’s music selection, but mine.

[2017] Oddly enough, recently while looking for the “Corruption” LP on You Tube, I came across a link to some American guy who played with and wrote a book on Mapfumo and mbira music that is so iconic with Zimbabwe. His name is Banning Eyre—I had never heard of him before—he is a musician too and has written a book on Mali music and griots or storytellers/praise singers from West Africa—a man after my own heart as I would have liked to have done that myself.
I was in the middle of writing him an email when BBC World News interrupted to show their reporter, Ben Brown, on a roof top in downtown Harare and the horns tooting in the background. You could barely hear him yell over the din behind him that—“Mugabe has just resigned!”
I had to cut off my email to Banning saying “I was too overcome to write anymore.”
It was an unbelievable night—as I wrote on my Facebook account—”Who needs a World Cup?”
Harare was a mad house, it was like they had won the World Cup. The TV interviews were great on BBC with Ben Brown and Haru Mutasu on Al Jazeera. Ben Brown (BBC) corralled and interviewed the white farmer, Ben Freeth, who had been brutally beaten along with his Dad when they resisted leaving their farm during one of the many land seizures by the so-called “war veterans”. Freeth’s father eventually succumbed to his injuries inflicted from their torture.
Ben Brown (BBC) asked Freeth what he did when he first heard the news and Freeth said he went out and bought a bottle of champagne, walked outside the store and started crying, not because he was sad, but because he couldn’t believe that Mugabe had actually resigned. Like so many of us, Freeth had thought Mugabe would still find a way to remain in power.

Also interviewed were two Zimbabwean women activists who had equally suffered incarceration and beatings from their ZANU-PF thugs. These gals were also caught up in the euphoria and were crying on air because they couldn’t believe that Mugabe had just resigned.

Just the other day, my friend Janine alerted me on Facebook that they were playing the “Corruption” track on radio in Canada and another friend, John Jacobs, sent me the link to CBC of an interview with Mapfumo in Portland, USA.
I have included it here for your enjoyment.

Now that Mugabe has stepped down, I still wonder if Thomas and his band will come back to their homeland, drink chibuku, maybe play at the Queen’s Hotel or at a pungwe, but most importantly, return to their Zimbabwe—as Africans they must!
Aluta continua


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