Fifteen years ago I did this interview with Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo, aka the Voice of the Revolution. A headline about what’s going on in his homeland made me revisit our chat. It took a long time to dislodge the despot who ruled Zimbabwe, but it looks like Robert Mugabe may finally be gone.
When Thomas Mapfumo began his musical career, the country he lived in was called Rhodesia. During the armed struggle in the ’70s to drive out the colonial government and establish Zimbabwe, the songs he wrote and recorded were an integral part of the revolution. He called his music chimurenga, using a word from the Shona language that means struggle.
The music he makes with his band, the Blacks Unlimited, combines the sound of the mbira, a traditional Shona thumb piano, with horns and electric guitars. Mapfumo is still singing songs that comment on the corruption and injustice he sees in his homeland and elsewhere.
Before he came Humboldt County, I called him at his home away from home in Oregon. He was working in a studio there writing new songs dealing with the issues of the day…
What are you writing about now?
There are a lot of issues. We sing about the problems that the world is facing today. As you know there are so many disturbing situations that we hear about like the situation back in Zimbabwe, the situation in Palestine, these kinds of situations are all over the world. There are a lot of people who are not very free in this world. They don’t have their freedom. They don’t have a voice. We as musicians, through our music, we can be their voice.
When you were growing up, you lived with your grandparents in the country, in a somewhat traditional Shona home. Does what you do with your music connect in some way with traditional Shona music?
Music back home played a very important role. Sometimes you would have music for the workers. The workers in the field would have music to encourage them, to give them enough strength to work. There is music for fairs and music for when you gather because someone is dead. This is a different type of music. Another is music for when people are partying, gathered together enjoying themselves, drinking beer, drumming and singing, things like that. There are some traditional ceremonies held where the elders gather and there is mbira music going on, and then some medium spirits are also there. That is the work of the music, and as I say before, music also has a very important role to play concerning politics.
When you were fighting to establish Zimbabwe, the music you made was part of the revolutionary struggle…
We would write songs that would encourage fighters, those who were fighting from the bush, fighting for freedom. That type of music actually motivated them to fight fiercely.
This is what you call chimurenga music?
Yes, Chimurenga means struggle.
I understand there was an earlier revolt or chimurenga at the end of the 19th Century.
Chimurenga Chekutanga was fought by Mbuya Nehanda. She was a medium spirit and she was actually arrested and executed by the white regime.
The revolutionary struggle in the ’70s, Chimurenga Chechipiri, was led by a group that called itself the Patriotic Front… Were you aligned with the Patriotic Front?
I was part of the struggle, but not part of the Patriotic Front. I was one of the oppressed, so actually it was very, very important for me to join the struggle and fight together with my people, but I wasn’t affiliated with any political party because I stand by myself.
When the struggle was won, there were elections and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. How did your role change?
My role at that time was to unite the people. All of Zimbabwe’s population, blacks and whites should be seen walking hand in hand, doing the same thing at the same time like brothers and sisters. Some of the white people were born there, they grew up there, they don’t have no other home to go to. They are Zimbabweans as well, and to see them being harassed because of political reasons, I did not think was logical.
I assume that stance was not universal, that there were blacks who wanted to see all of the white people gone.
That’s right. In any society, you find white people who don’t have a good mind, who think all black people are bad, and you can also go to the black side and find people who think all whites are bad. Those kind of people, they must be discouraged. You know we are all the same in the eyes of God and no one can change that.
When the Patriotic Front won the war and change came in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe of ZANU took power. I take it you are not happy with what happened later. What went wrong?
The thing is, they say ZANU liberated the country, that ZANU and ZAPU liberated the country, but I don’t think so, because everyone was involved in that war. They should say Zimbabweans liberated themselves.
And there was a struggle for power between ZANU and ZAPU, between Mugabe and Nkomo…
That’s right. They pretended to be together for the struggle when they formed the Patriotic Front. But when the war ended, Mugabe parted ways with Nkomo because he knew he had an advantage over him because Nkomo came from Montebeliland. He was not Shona and Mugabe knew very well that the Shonas were the majority. Most of the people who were in the Patriotic Front were from Shonaland and he knew he had the support of the Shona people. He was very ambitious and wanted to be the president. He wanted power.
Is this a classic case of the corruption that come with power? I remember a song you wrote years ago, “Corruption.”
That song was about Mugabe and his ministers. After about eight years we started noticing that there were a lot of corrupt people working within this government. This is the reason I wrote the song, I wanted the people to know that it was a corrupt regime.
How did they respond to your criticism?
Well, some people said the song should be banned from being played on the radio and they don’t play it any more. Some said, ‘Give it a green light. Let it play, because this man is singing the truth.’
And since the government runs the radio stations your music might not get airplay…
That is very true. It is government controlled radio. Now after they banned “Corruption” they also banned this other song, “Chimurenga Explosion” and they have banned my latest release, “Chimurenga Rebel.”
What sorts of things are you commenting on at this point.
I was commenting on a lot of things, like these people when they were campaigning for the presidential elections, a lot of people were beaten. These youths from the ruling party, they call the militias, they were going ’round from house to house asking for ZANU-PF membership cards. If you don’t have a card you are suspected to be an MDC supporter. They beat you up. The police were doing the same thing, the soldiers were doing the same thing, harassing the opposition supporters wherever they see them. When it came to the election results, it was laughable. You cannot believe it was done by a man with President Mugabe’s status. He’s not supposed to act that way he did. It was clearly a fraud. The elections were not free and fair. They claim that they won the elections, and now they want to sit down with the opposition, with the MDC and work out the problems, but they are the ones who created the problem.
Does other popular music in Zimbabwe have a political edge? I’ve heard Oliver Mtukudzi, and he sings about AIDS and some indirectly political things.
A lot of the music played by these youngsters is what you call it — music about love, bedroom love — they sing about their girlfriends and things like that. There are not a lot of bands who try to do political music. Some of them are afraid to stand up and speak out.
Because it is dangerous?
Of course it is really dangerous. Like what I was telling you about the youths going house to house looking for people who have no membership cards.
Do you have one?
I don’t. I don’t need it.
I assume you famous enough that they would not attack you personally, at least not physically.
I’m a big name myself and a lot of people support me. So you have to think twice before you do anything with me.
So your recent songs are a comment on what happened with the election and after?
Yes, they are. I really have to comment. What we need now is unity among our people. Some in power are trying to run away from the accusations. They know very well that there are a lot of questions that must be answered. They know they have a lot to answer for, but they are trying by all means to hang onto their power. As I said before, we musicians speak as the voice of the people. It is my role as a musician to speak out.