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A day with the Lion of Zimbabwe

By Gilbert Munetsi

Some distinct attributes are synonymous with the music legend Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo.

Thomas Mapfumo, holding a copy of a July 1984 edition of a magazine featuring his cover story. (Picture by Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)
Thomas Mapfumo, holding a copy of a July 1984 edition of a magazine featuring his cover story. (Picture by Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)

On one hand you have Thomas the patriot, who despite his decade-long self-imposed exile, continues to churn out music dedicated to the motherland, Zimbabwe.

“Ko ndiyoka nyika yedu, tisu varidzi vayo. (this is our country, we are the custodians of this land),” he boldly said in a wide-ranging interview with The Sunday Mail Society last week.

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It is through the same patriotism that he and the late Oliver Mtukudzi, may his soul rest in peace, have played an ambassadorial role in marketing the country to the world by showcasing her identity through Chimurenga and Tuku Music, complemented by their accompanying typically contemporary African choreography.

Then there is Thomas the social commentator, a role he has ably executed – also through song – to challenge the establishment and the general Zimbabwean populace so that they may adapt to a character that is in conformity with national ethos. He harps on political, economic and social developmental issues among an array of subjects on a discography which is as long as the arm.

For instance, the track “Kuyaura”, released in the pre-independence era, is about the suffering of the masses at the hands of colonialists.

“Pemberai” is a celebratory song penned to urge the country to make merry upon the attainment of independence. And when he released the song “Corruption”, hardly did anyone envisage the scourge would get out of proportion to levels of warranting the establishment of an entire graft commission. That, he concedes is the role of an artiste, “to be the eyes, the ears and mirror of society”.

It is also fact that Thomas is candid in speech, a trait that has seen the icon held in different light, with some concluding that the Chimurenga music maestro is “crude”.

Recent remarks made in the national media pertaining to the conferment of national hero status on Oliver Mtukudzi is a case in point. In an interview with ZBC-TV, Mapfumo claimed that only Tuku and himself were selling the Zimbabwe brand abroad.

Some sections of society took offence at his subsequent remarks that “the likes of Alick Macheso are only known locally and in England”.

While a section of unhappy music fans viewed this statement as scorn, Mukanya was ready to defend his position saying:

“Vanhu havana kundiunderstenda. Ini naOliver kuti tibudirire pamusaka pevanhu vatinoshanda navo vaititungamirira. Isu hatidi kuti Macheso akabva kuno kuZimbabwe onopinda futi kuZimbabwe yekuEngland nekuti vanhu vamwechete ava.

“Toda isu kuti apinde muvarungu umu, kana asvika kuEngland oimbira varungu. Eeka! Vomuziva kuti kuna Macheso zvekuti kana vachimutsvagira mabasa kunana America nana Switzerland haashaye nekuti muimbi anogona, music yake inonakidza. But vanomutungamira ndovasingazive zvavari kuita.

(People did not understand me. Oliver and I succeeded because of our managers. We do not want Macheso to leave Zimbabwe to go and play for Zimbabweans in England because it’s like playing for the same people.

“We want him to play for Europeans when he gets to England. That way when promoters try to promote him in places such as America and Switzerland, he will be marketable because he is a good musician and his music is good. However his managers don’t know what they are doing.)”

And does he ever take some time to listen to some upcoming local musicians?

“There is this young man I have heard, I don’t quite understand these boys. His name is Jah Signal or something…the song talks about muroora. He sang well, that is Zimbabwean and we support that.”

He also spoke about Progress Chipfumo, whom he has had combined shows with, as one outstanding musician with abundant talent which, however, is not getting enough exposure. There are a lot of mbira artistes, Mapfumo noted, who are following in his footsteps, but the unfortunate thing is that they are not being afforded adequate airplay.

Commenting on the future of Zimbabwean music, Mukanya said: “Nowadays we have these boys that all call themselves Jah, Jah, Jah. People say do you know this Jah? What about your father’s name, your ancestral name, who will know it and respect it when you have given yourself another name? You call yourself Jah…Love (chuckles). Isn’t it we want to uplift out culture and our traditions? So let’s follow our own ways.

“We perform at international festivals where we interact with people promoting their respective cultures. Come to think of it, we have too many cultures within the four corners of this country to expose and we can never get tired of promoting them.

“But all we hear is dancehall this and dancehall that, do you people know dancehall? It is Jamaican music danced to by naked girls and the musicians themselves sing vulgar. Let’s stop taking all manner of cultures and bringing them to our country.”

Mapfumo believes in a deity but questioned the sprouting multitudes of intermediaries who make people believe they have direct connections to God.

“If we are not careful we will destroy our country because crooks are now saying ‘in the name of Jesus’ and your money is gone. When missionaries came, they lambasted our traditional way of life and told us that unveiling tombstones (kurova makuva) was tantamount to worshipping the devil. But that is our culture and even if you go to China they will tell you they have Buddha and they know who Buddha is.”

After drifting off for a moment, apparently lost in thought, Dr Mapfumo jerks his mental faculties into motion: “How did we survive before the white man came? Isn’t it we lived well and did things our own way? When I was in the rural areas, I used to get mosquito bites, but I never got malaria. I only got malaria after I came to live in the city.”

Rumour has a certain lady who used to frequent watering points within the capital city, particularly at Pennywise in Eastlea, once dated Mukanya and the song Joyce was a special dedication to her. Mukanya laughed his lungs out at the claims and could only say, “Ha-a ndaingoimbawo zvangu ini. Zvakangofanana nekuti Sereniya.”

Mapfumo is happy that one of his own has been recognised by Government by being given national hero status, “because this is a departure from the tradition that if one did not go to Mozambique to fight, they were not hero material. It is a positive thing that the Second Republic saw the need to revise this criteria.

“Munhu ngaaonekwe nemabasa ake kuti zvaari kuita zvinobatsira nyika nevanhu vekwake, uku ndiko kuti hero,” he said.

“A person must be judged by his deeds and his work and how these help in uplifting the nation. That’s how one should be adjudged a hero”. Sunday Mail