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Music and Madness in Zimbabwe

Mapfumo in Exile

Steven Tsoroti, Harare, Zimbabwe, March 7, 2001

When he announced in January that he was going into exile in the United States, there was a great outcry from fellow countrymen, but for those who have been reading the times, Zimbabwe’s Chimurenga Music King, Thomas Mapfumo, was making a statement of how unhappy he is with the situation in his country. The man who is Zimbabwe’s most famous pop star and is regarded as the father of modern Shona traditional music is the latest casuality of the political system that has sunk low.

Music critics in the country say Mapfumo’s exile is a sign of rapidly deteriorating events in Zimbabwe. His utterances and music that criticize how Zimbabwe is being governed have pitted him against the government, which is bent on quashing the voices of musicians, journalists, judges, and artists for their veiled attacks on the government. Lately, Gestapo-style night raids on journalists and members of the opposition have left many in limbo. "Zimbabwe is no longer safe for me and my children," Mapfumo said. "I want my kids to go to school. We are saying enough is enough to a government of thieves."

"I stand for justice," he told a Cape Town weekly magazine. "That is why I condemn the present government....If I weren’t afraid of the Rhodesian oppressors,why would I fear my own people? I don’t care if they kill me. In every revolution there are casualities. I am just one of them." Mapfumo was once imprisoned by Rhodesia’s Ian Smith regime for singing songs that incited people to revolt against the colonial government.

He says most of the violence being witnessed in Zimbabwe is as a result of jealous tendencies by people who do not appreciate the change that is coming to Zimbabwean politics. "They are jealous of Morgan Tsvangirai’s ( a leader of the strongest opposition party in Zimbabwe) sudden rise to prominence. They become angry when they see him receiving donations for his party, yet ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front), Zimbabwe’s current ruling party, has been receiving money from the whites, including the late business tycoon, Tiny Rowland.

Mapfumo’s latest album, Manhungetunge, sees him traversing the familiar corridors of protest. He sings of perpetual tales of woe. Following the release of the album in Zimbabwe in August 2000, two tracks, "Disaster" and "Mamvemve," were banned from state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) radio stations. "He isn’t only a musician, he is a social and political commentator in a class of his own," said John Makumbe, a political scientist. "It is a pity the government bans his music. They must listen to his messages because he speaks what the people want to say."

"Many people remembered me singing praise songs for the ruling ZANU-PF, songs like "Makorokoto, "Rakarira Jongwe," Mapfumo said. "All of them were congratulating the coming of Robert Mugabe’s regime into power. For sure, these were praise songs for the first majority rule. Everyone was happy with the coming of independence. We thought things would be better. We thought it was now our time to enjoy milk and honey. We were wrong. Things began to deteriorate," he told the Daily News’s Maxwell Sibanda.

Mapfumo’s music is inspirational, devoid of the hurried lyrics so reminiscent of other forms of music in Africa. His singing, like that of the great mbira singers who have preceeded him, is deeply spiritual and part of a mesmerizing dance-provoking celebratory tradition, which conjures images found in no other form of music. His stage performances are vibrant and often mesmerizing. He sings for both the old and the young, making him close to the people from different social classes.

Mapfumo was born 57 years ago in Marondera, a town in the eastern provinces of Zimbabwe. His parables in song were broadcast over guerrilla radio stations, reinforcing the legacy of the majority of the people as they fought against colonialism. He started performing when he was 14 years old with a number of local bands before forming Blacks Unlimited, his backing band to this day. Like Fela Kuti from Nigeria and Youssou Ndour from Senegal, he has been the trendsetter in traditional music in Zimbabwe, taking the minds of the people from rock and roll to an appreciation of local music.

Mapfumo has received numerous accolades both at home and abroad. Last year he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by the University of Zimbabwe, which was followed by The Personality of the Century award. A plaque was installed in his honor in the first street of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. The Ohio State University will award him an honorary Doctorate of Arts this year. On Jan. 30, Mapfumo left Zimbabwe to live with his family in Eugene,Oregon.

Tsoroti is a correspondent for The Zimbabwe Independent and The Herald.

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