Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited
Thomas Mapfumo has been the musical voice of protest in Zimbabwe and all of southern Africa for nearly half a century. Easily the most famous singer in his native country, Mapfumo lives in exile from the regime of Robert Mugabe, and his music is banned at home. But Mapfumo doesn't sing his protest only against one corrupt dictator. Here are some lines from his earlier 'chimarenga' (struggle) songs:
"Corruption is like a disease that plagues the whole world. There are many leaders and others with power who are misleading the people. The songs remind everyone that corruption is everywhere and that no one can run away from justice."
"This song is about the exploitation of the poor by the rich. There comes a time of confrontation when the poor say enough, we will not be controlled by those who do not practice what they preach."
"This song is about family men who spend all their time and lose all their money in pubs and 'shabeens' with 'girls of sport.'"
Mapfumo's gruff baritone voice is an instrument as lyrical or as fierce as he wants it to be. It's a voice that can't be doubted. His singing/chanting cries of protest are backed up by music that can only be heard as richly joyful. If these songs are to be sung in the streets of protest, then the singers will be dancing. The source of Mapfumo's music is tribal Africa, as any amount of listening to ethnographic field recordings would show. The complex layers of double and triple rhythm, expressed in melodic patterns based on the sound of the mbira (thumb piano), are ancestral, as is Mapfumo's cascade-of-words delivery. Recent CDs show a steadily growing international influence on Mapfumo, especially the influence of reggae, and more readiness to incorporate the "high life" jazz sounds of African pop music. There is a kind of 'disconnect' between the anguish often expressed in Mapfumo's words and the exuberance of his music, but that disconnect is ours, not his. Mapfumo is a man of joy in a world of sorrow.
Thomas Tafirenyika Mukanya Mapfumo was born in Marondera, Zimbabwe in 1945. His early childhood moments, saw him tapping the knack and interest for traditional music and instruments (ngoma, hosho and mbira) from his grandparents who were avid musicians in the village. Unbeknown to him, that early-stage set-up underlined with innocence would describe his future music career and earn him global fame. By the age of ten he lived in Mbare with his parents who worked in the city. At the time, Mbare was a black ghetto township; also a hub of protest movements against the segregationist colonial regime. That anarchic neighborhood exposed young Thomas to some early brushes with police brutality against restless freedom protesters. It was also in Mbare that Mapfumo became hooked to the stereo, finding a favorite pastime as he listened to diverse international music from famous stars of the day. That concentrated limelight would eventually inspire him to plot for a music career at that tender age.
Around 1973 Mapfumo joined his first group, the Hallelujah Chicken band in Mhangura, a small mining town. Initially, he had sang in English but quickly spotted a need to express himself in vernacular and please his local fans. That way, he would also spread consciousness and the call for freedom. He had a brief stint with the Hallelujah Chicken band before joining with others to form the Acid Band. Realizing a need for seriously pursuing his own Chimurenga music genre, he then founded the Blacks Unlimited around 1978. By then, Chimurenga music had eventually morphed into a symbol for the struggle against injustice as it assumed a distinct and threatening presence in war-torn Rhodesia. Through that music banner, he continued to taunt the colonial regime, denouncing poverty while advocating for freedom. Despite the colonial system reacting to the music with censure and repression, Mapfumos music irresistibly rocked the nation like a Hurricane as it remained unique, melodious, informative and equally gripping.
When Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, Mukanya even shared the celebrations stage in Rufaro Stadium with the Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley, opening more doors to international fame and recording opportunities in London. Despite his dedication to fighting colonial arbitrariness from the stage, Mapfumo even got busier in independent Zimbabwe as he would embark on a new Chimurenga theme. The looming corruption, grinding poverty, and the decaying rule of law blighted a promising Zimbabwe, saddening hopeful masses and inevitably pushing him to compose more lyrics as missiles for protest against his own government. To the surprise of many, the same music censorship characteristics of colonial Rhodesia also visited Mukanya upon his release of the Corruption album in independent Zimbabwe. With more pressing conditions, in 2000, he relocated to the USA and continued with his music.
In October 2012, he entered the hall of fame, getting a chance in a lifetime, through his being reverenced to perform at the historic Carnegie Hall in New York City. As a venue mainly for top notch global musicians, such a humbling recognition to the Lion of Zimbabwe was made possible because of his historical contributions to the fight of freedom and social justice in Zimbabwe. After decades of scintillating compilations, Thomas Mapfumo, a.k.a. Gandanga (freedom fighter) has fearlessly spearheaded Chimurenga beats through his continued tremendous contributions to the struggle for a united, prosperous and comfortable Zimbabwe. His tireless liveliness in civil rights activism prod him to exploit his tools of trade to communicate with the public in song as he gets buoyed on amazingly consistent stamina.
His full captivating biography finally appeared in July 2015 in a book called "The Story of Thomas Mapfumo" by Banning Eyre, courtesy of Chimurenga Music Company.
Brief Timeline of Achievements by Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited
1980: Sang with Bob Marley & the Wailers to celebrate Zimbabwe Independence.
1999: University of Zimbabwe, Honorary Masters degree in recognition of his advocacy for freedom.
2000: Award for Zimbabwes Person of the Century in Arts Award in 2000.
2001: Ohio University at Athens, Honorary Doctorate degree in music to recognize his activism.
2001: AFIMs Best World Contemporary CD Award in March 2001 (Chimurenga Explosion).
2004: Award for first world music artist to go digital with a download-only release , Rise Up, later released in CD form by Peter Gabriels Real World label.
2006: Featured in an interview with Phil Meadley of the Guardian in London, England.
2008: Interviewed with George Negus of the SBS Dateline in Australia.
2009: Interviewed with Jon Kertzer of the National Public Radio.
2012: Made history through an honor to perform in the famous Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, New York.
2012: Featured in NPRs Musicians Who Paid the Price Before Pussy Riot.
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