By Takura Zhangazha*
Banning Eyre’s biography of legendary Zimbabwean musician, Thomas Mapfumo, is a welcome and honest read. Titled ‘Lion Songs, ThomasMapfumo and the Music that Made Zimbabwe, this biography is one of those rare narratives of a Zimbabwean icon who willingly participates in the narration of his life story. And there are few such biographies.
The book narrates the life and times of Thomas Mapfumo with an historical context that weaves its way from colonial Rhodesia, the liberation struggle, the euphoria of post independence, protesting injustice and his eventual exile in the United States of America. Its candid narration of Thomas’ life at various stages in the evolution of his illustrious musical career is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book. It gives not only Mapfumo’s side of the story but also that of those that were or are still close to him at every major turn in his life.
In outlining the creative development of Mapfumo from childhood, Eyre is careful to explain the influence of not only his loving parents, religion but also the bustling township culture had on the musician. The latter included Mapfumo listening avidly to the radio, getting his first performance doing Elvis Presley impressions and being informally trained in music by Kenneth Mataka with a band called the ‘Cosmic Four Dots’.
Eyre outlines Mapfumo’s rising star to the popular Springfields and the superb future bass guitar player for the Blacks Unlimited, Allan Mwale. It was the same Springfields band that was to have the single, ‘Shungu Dzinondibaya’ their first using Shona lyrics.
The book also ably explains key life events from when Thomas left the Springfields to be part of the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band in Mhangura where he was to experiment for the first time with mbira music in tandem with Joshua Dube and Elisha Josham to produce the single, ‘Ngoma Yarira’.
It was also at this early stage of Mapfumo’s career where the prospect of the banning of his music for the political inferences it contained would begin with the Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation.
However Eyre also intersperses these early developments with more personal occurrences in the musicians life. Such as the time when he was arrested for allegedly abusing his Mhangura mine account, the sad moment where in his absence his biological father, Tapfumaneyi Mpariwa had passed away. Or also the time when Thomas had to deal with a woman who brought a child she claimed to be his and caused a row at the family premises. It took his mother, Janet, to handle the situation.
According to Eyre, Mapfumo was to later join the Acid Band which incidentally also had the great James Chimombe and went on to release perennially likeable songs such as ‘Pamuromo Chete’ and ‘Pfumvu Paruzevha’, ‘Tozvireva Kupiko?’ among others.’ The Acid Band was to go to produce the album ‘Hokoyo’
There are more gripping parts of the book that look at the time Thomas gained great popularity because of his different approach to his music that linked Shona folklore, mbira and modern instruments. The most depressing of these periods however were the time Mapfumo was incarcerated by the minority government in 1979 and then had to perform at a Muzorewa rally in Bulawayo. This did not endear him to the nationalists and Eyre vividly explains Mapfumo’s regret at briefly being accused of being a sellout by some in the nationalist ranks. A charge Thomas vehemently denied.
At the onset of independence, Mapfumo’s star was waning with the former freedom fighters according to Eyre and as a result he had a torrid time at the independence day celebrations where he had to perform long after all the dignitaries had left. According to the book, he was only to regain his popularity with nationalists when he performed at the Prime Minister’s luncheon and belted out the hit song, ‘Chitima cherusununguko’.
The biography goes on to outline Mapfumo’s tours of the United States and Western Europe regularly in the 1980s and sign record deals with international music companies. Eyre however does not shy away from explaining the many challenges the Blacks Unlimited faced with contractors and tour expenses (including the high costs of weed).
It was the song ‘Corruption’ that was to become the protest song that saw Thomas change from being merely a struggle cultural icon to a post independence social justice legend. There were to be many other albums with Thomas now becoming a key protest musician in the country in difficult circumstances for the band. These circumstances included tragic deaths of band members, disagreements over money and the dire economic situation in the country. It is these dire economic circumstances and new wave of political consciousness that turned Thomas into a Gill Scott Heron to Zimbabwe’s youth, according to Eyre.
The decision that Thomas made to go into exile is handled with rare honesty by Eyre. Thomas had decided in favour of the safety of his family after the police questioned him and his wife over vehicles he purchased. He took his family out first and then followed for long periods at a time but kept returning home to do live shows until 2004.
The main reason for the stop in the holding of his annual shows is given as the fact that Thomas Mapfumo reluctantly applied for political asylum. His coming home would therefore have led to a lack of a guarantee of his being able to return to the United States. And Eyre makes it apparent that exile has not been easy for Mapfumo.
His creativity and commitment to Chimurenga music has however not been diminished. There at least five albums that are now imbued with his stay in exile, namely, Chimurenga Rebel, Toi Toi, Rise Up, Exile and his 2015 latest offering Dangerzone. In these Thomas has remained true to his cause and as he is quoted in the book, ‘We finish what we started’. And I take that to mean the ongoing struggles for democracy, social and economic justice in Zimbabwe.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)