Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited

Thomas Mapfumo was born in 1945 in Marondera, a small town south of the Rhodesian capital, Salisbury (Harare). He spent his first ten years living an old-fashioned, traditional life in the countryside with his grandparents, removed from the growing bitterness of the cities and townships.

When Mapfumo was ten, he moved to Mbare, the poorest and toughest black township of Salisbury and a center of black protest against the Rhodesian regime. In Mbare, Mapfumo heard radio for the first time – African jazz from Johannesburg and Bulawayo, classic big band Rumba and R&B and soul.

Mapfumo began to sing and in high school he joined his first band, the Zutu Brothers. For the next ten years, he made his way as an itinerant singer, copying American and English music such as Elvis, Otis Reading and The Rolling Stones.

In 1973 Mapfumo formed the folk-orientated Hallelujah Chicken Run Band and began to explore traditional folk music, particularly the mbira (thumb piano). With guitarist Joshua Dube, Mapfumo first adapted songs from the ancient mbira repertoire, working them into the band’s Afro-rock set. To sing in Shona was unusual, and in the context of the escalating war, automatically political.

In 1975 he warned against the coming war in the single ‘Morento’ and spoke of the struggle for human rights in ‘Ngomo Yarira’.

As Mapfumo moved on to work first with the Acid Band, and then with the Blacks Unlimited (1978), everything came together. He developed his mbira pop sound with guitarists Jonah Sithole and Leonard ‘Picket’ Chiyangwa, bassist Charles Makokova, and other innovative young players. Mapfumo’s lyrics reflected the concerns of the people around him – hardships in the rural areas, young men heading into the bush to fight, and a rising sense of indignation at white rulers who had systematically devalued Shona culture for four generations. The guerilla fighters had taken the name chimurenga, Shona for struggle, and Mapfumo decided to call his new sound ‘chimurenga music.’

In 1980, Robert Mugabe was elected president of a new nation and that same year, Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited shared the stage in Salisbury (now called Harare) with Bob Marley and the Wailers.

In the late 1980s, the band began to tour internationally, and made landmark recordings for Chris Blackwell’s Mango Records, Corruption (1989) and Chamunorwa (1990).

In the 1990s, Mapfumo toured and released his music abroad when possible, but he kept his energies focused on home, releasing a cassette of new songs every year and playing as often as five nights a week during peak season. The songs included deep mbira anthems, rollicking township dance grooves, and refracted glimmers of reggae, R&B, and African jazz and decried alcoholism, AIDS, domestic violence, and people’s devotion to foreign things.

In the late 1990s, Mapfumo increasingly focused on the country’s leaders, who he felt had failed the people. The state radio briefly refused to play critical songs from his 1999 album, Chimurenga Explosion, notably ‘Disaster’, which stated the country’s predicament in no uncertain terms.

In April 2000 the situation worsened for the government, and one of the reactions was to issue threats against Mapfumo, and trumped up charges that he had bought stolen cars. A few months later, Mapfumo quietly moved his family out of the country to Oregon, USA, where they have based their lives ever since.

Mapfumo continues to record incendiary music, to have it banned, and until recently, to return to and play for his loyal fans, risking arrest and harassment each time. In 2005, Thomas concluded it was no longer safe to go to and although in exile, he remains engaged, and passionately creative.

In April 2018 Mapfumo played his first concert in Harare for 15 years saying he could finally return home because of the political changes in the country. “There was no rule of law. Everything was just out of order. There was a lot of dictatorship going on. I don’t tolerate dictatorship,” he told AFP.


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