The first thing you hear are the rhythms: bass drums, snare drums, high-hat cymbals, rattles, even stamping feet. Then the guitars begin--intricate melodies, picked instead of strummed, repeated until they become a groove. In the background, a bass guitar rumbles just behind the beat. Finally, a singer begins to sing, almost to chant, in an African tongue.
Intrigued? It's Zimbabwe pop star Thomas Mapfumo and his band, Blacks Unlimited. Do you want to hear more? No problem. Mapfumo's new album should be out in the U.S. this October. That is, if it ever leaves his briefcase.
Fresh out of his contract with Island Records, Mapfumo is about to sign a deal with Warner-Elektra-Atlantic-affiliated Sound Wave Records. But until the ink dries and his check is cut, he's hanging onto the master tapes.
"I will keep them with me until we meet," Mapfumo says of his upcoming negotiations in Los Angeles. "There will be no Federal Express to California."
Mapfumo's problem is much like the one the NFL's William "The Refrigerator" Perry is having with the Chicago Bears. The Bears won't offer Perry a contract until they check his weight. Sound Wave won't offer Mapfumo a deal until they hear his tapes. Mapfumo's reluctant to give up his tapes until he has a deal in hand. In Mapfumo's case, both sides say it's only a matter of time.
The Mapfumo-Sound Wave story is a textbook example of why most Americans don't realize there is African music beyond Paul Simon's Graceland album--let alone that the huge continent produces a wide variety of popular music. Recorded in Africa, mixed and mastered in either Europe or the U.S., most African popular music takes years to reach U.S. stores. Mapfumo's current album, Hondo, for example, has been out in Zimbabwe for over a year, time enough to spawn a hit single, "Magariro--a word meaning "the way we live."
To Thomas Mapfumo, though, tangling with a record label is a brush burn compared with the political collisions he's survived. In some ways, Mapfumo's story is like that of Nigerian singer-songwriter Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Both Mapfumo and Fela rose to prominence on the strength of their protest songs--inspired in both cases by personal clashes with state authorities. But whereas Fela ran afoul of Nigeria's ruling black elite, Mapfumo became the target of what was then Rhodesia's white minority government. And though there are similarities in their initial musical motivations, the present-day realities for Fela and Mapfumo are very different. One of the world's most compelling and original musical performers, Fela continues to maintain a high political profile, using music as a vehicle to attack the social ills of Nigeria. Fela's albums routinely consist of a handful of long, groove-heavy diatribes. His live shows contain as much political rhetoric and overwrought drama as they do music.
After years in the political spotlight, Mapfumo is more concerned today with selling albums and filling clubs than with changing Zimbabwean politics. Although he's still proud of his political recordings, the colonial rulers of Zimbabwe are now gone, and Mapfumo's overtly political past is not his favorite topic of conversation.
"It's been ten years since the war [of independence]. Zimbabwe, my music and myself have all moved on," he says in a telephone interview from a Toronto tour stop. "I feel good now that people are finally beginning to hear my music. Before, everyone listened to my political statements. They defined me in terms of my politics, not my music. It's time that changed."
Born in 1945 in Rhodesia, Mapfumo grew up during the period when the African nations each gained their independence. By the late Seventies, when Mapfumo came of age musically, pressure was building on the white minority government in Rhodesia. Because literacy among blacks there was low, music with highly politicized lyrics became the call to arms. Taking the form of seemingly harmless dance singles, this new music was called chimurenga, a word meaning "music of the struggle." Chimurenga was sung almost exclusively in Shona--a Zimbabwean language that at first was unintelligible to most English-speaking whites.
"Contrary to what many people think, there were whites in Zimbabwe who understood Shona and so knew what my songs were about," Mapfumo says with an ironic laugh. "I guess that's why they put me in prison."
In 1977, with a group he dubbed the Acid Band after its biting political wit, Mapfumo recorded Hokoyo! (Watch Out!), an album whose title Mapfumo says he meant as a threat. Hokoyo! was immediately banned and Mapfumo was imprisoned.
But by then, other musicians like Oliver Mtukudzi had seized on Mapfumo's chimurenga and were cranking out politically charged singles of their own, according to Afro-rock historians Chris Stapleton and Chris May. The Rhodesian security forces released Mapfumo after 90 days in prison--because they feared he would become a martyr, Mapfumo says. In a switch in tactics, the government then began a Tokyo Rose-style campaign to discredit the singer, who, despite the government's efforts, had become the towering figure in Rhodesian music. "Unfortunately, when you look at the world, look at South Africa, what happened to me really doesn't sound that far-fetched even today," Mapfumo says. "The government used helicopters that played my music over loudspeakers. After the music got people's attention, they would announce that I no longer supported the rebels fighting for independence. It didn't work. No one believed them."
One reason these hearts-and-minds stunts failed, says Mapfumo, was his use of native languages and musical traditions. He says that even today his Zimbabwean audience views him not only as a musician and a bandleader, but also as an historian. (Chroniclers of African music have referred to him as the "lion of Zimbabwe.)
Mapfumo's interest in local culture began early. While still a teenager, he learned to play both drums and mbira. A small, buzzing thumb piano that's similar in some ways to the Western jew's-harp, the mbira (pronounced "beer-A) is the cornerstone of most traditional Zimbabwean music. (It transcends the many languages found in the country.) Years later, when Mapfumo formed his current band, Blacks Unlimited, he would pioneer the use of the mbira in modern African pop music. There are two mbira players traveling with Mapfumo on his current U.S. tour. Having mastered the drums and the mbira, Mapfumo began to sing with local groups in 1965. Covering the music of black American soul singers like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett was his first specialty. A devotee of that music even today, Mapfumo began to have a problem with singing in English, which he says he considered a symbol of British colonialism. Mapfumo's research into traditional Zimbabwean music and language led him to become the first modern Zimbabwean pop artist to write lyrics in Shona. At the same time, electric instruments and amplification had arrived and radically changed African popular music. Mapfumo has been credited as being the first to transcribe mbira parts for the electric guitar. At first his mbira-inspired guitar parts and Shona lyrics were scoffed at. He recalls that audiences enamored of American funk and soul music and Jamaican reggae considered him irrelevant and out of step. Today, Mapfumo himself giggles when he remembers how crowds laughed when they first heard him singing in Shona. Mapfumo eventually won over his countrymen.
The war helped open the world's ears to Zimbabwean music. As soon as Zimbabwe won independence in 1980, Mapfumo was signed to the London-based Earthworks record label. Earthworks licensed his music to labels in Europe and the U.S., and Mapfumo's music was soon widely available in the West. It was Earthworks that assembled the now-classic Mapfumo album Chimurenga Singles, which was subsequently released in the U.S. on Shanachie Records. In 1984 and 1985, Mapfumo toured widely in Europe and the U.S. for the first time. He wowed audiences with his beehive dreadlocks and lyrically dense but danceable music. In 1989 Mapfumo signed with Island Records, for which he released three records, the last of which, Chamunorwa, is his biggest seller to date. Mapfumo says he thinks that's funny considering that the music on Chamunorwa is the most traditional he's recorded since the war.
"Many musicians at home want to use more keyboards, even computers in their music," Mapfumo says with a chuckle. "Right after the war, when I first signed with Earthworks, I, too, experimented with keyboards. I did reggae. I even sang a song or two in English. "On Chamunorwa I went back to traditional music. Now it's only Shona you hear. No English. And now I'm traveling with two mbira players where ten years ago I had none."
Although making music remains his primary interest today, Mapfumo has revived some of his interest in political change. Not wishing to return to jail, his approach now seems to have more forethought and less aggression than in the past.
But that doesn't mean he's completely lost his edge. The master tapes that he's carrying around in his briefcase are from Hondo, which already has been released in Zimbabwe. Sound Wave execs want to retitle it Chimurenga Masterpiece for the U.S. market. That might have something to do with the fact that "hondo" is the Shona word for "war." (We'll have to talk about that, too," Mapfumo says in a serious tone.)
The war Mapfumo and most other African musicians these days are thinking of is the one in Zimbabwe's southern neighbor, South Africa. The singer has long believed in the violent overthrow of bad governments, and says that may be what's required in South Africa. On the other hand, he no longer sounds eager to incite people to violence.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Mapfumo's more considered approach doesn't mean he's lost his anger. In fact, he's expanded it beyond Africa.
"The war for black Africans is not over," he says. "But what's happening in South Africa just happens to be closest to my home. There are many disturbing things in the world. Many people in other parts of the world are suffering. There was Ceausescu, the government in China, even Saddam Hussein.
"But war and the dying have to be a last resort."
THE COST OF TOXIC SPILLS HERE'S HOW YOU'... v8-19-92