Redemption Songs

Thomas Mapfumo: the musical conscience of his native country
Redemption Songs

By M. Solis

Even in American exile, Thomas Mapfumo remains the lion of Zimbabwe

Over the last 27 years, Thomas Mapfumo has crafted some of Africa's most potent protest songs.

In 1977, Mapfumo - known as the lion of Zimbabwe and the godfather of the "chimurenga" sound - called out the ruling British colonialists of what was then known as Rhodesia with "Hokoya (Watch Out)" and landed in jail for three months. The following year, he helped spark the nation's independence movement with Pamuromo Chete (It's Just Talking), a vibrant response to the regime's declaration that Zimbabwe would never be ruled by Africans. After his country finally won independence in 1980, Mapfumo shifted his focus to the corrupt administration of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's first and - to date - only president. His protest tunes have so incensed Mugabe that Mapfumo now finds himself a political exile in the United States.

Bombasta frontman and San Antonio native DJ Robotico is an avid Mapfumo supporter and a fan of the singer's immense catalog.

"It's a constant struggle and I think that's what we see with Mapfumo," Robotico says. "He illustrates that greatly. Here he is fighting for the people, trying to win Zimbabwe's independence, doing his part as a musician and as an artist and almost 30 years later, he's kicked out of the country and blacklisted. If anyone knows about struggle, I'm sure it's him."

Mapfumo's music is all about "chimurenga," a Shona word which means to fight or struggle. His songs are rousing anthems that consistently address the political, economic, and agricultural plights of his native land. To many of his fellow Africans, he is Zimbabwe's answer to Bob Marley, with whom he performed at the country's legendary inaugural independence celebration 24 years ago, on April 18, 1980.

On Saturday, April 17, on the eve of the 24th anniversary of Zimbabwe's independence, Robotico and Bombasta will share the stage with Mapfumo and his renowned band, the Blacks Unlimited, at Flamingo Cantina in Austin. Robotico's voice resounds with anticipation and awe at the thought of the gig.

"I'm influenced by all of them because it's people out there trying to speak the truth and that's what I gravitate toward," he says. "It doesn't matter who it is, whether it's Stevie Wonder or Fela Kuti or Blackalicious. Somebody's out there saying how it actually is and giving witness to all the fucked-up shit that goes on, bringing it back into your consciousness.

"As far as myself, being Chicano and from San Antonio, to be up there heading the band and getting my idea across, to be sharing the stage with Thomas Mapfumo, that's real cool."

Thomas Mapfumo

Saturday, April 17
Flamingo Cantina
515 E. 6th Street, Austin

For Mapfumo, who currently resides with his family in Portland, the journey began in 1945 in the small town of Marondera, just south of the Rhodesian capital of Salisbury. His grandparents were traditional Shona musicians who instilled in their grandson a love for various instruments, particularly the mbira, the sacred "thumb piano" used to summon Shona spirits. As a teenager, Mapfumo was easily able to tackle covers of his favorite musicians, such as Nat King Cole, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley.

By 1977, he had formed the Blacks Unlimited with guitarist Jonah Sithole, enchanting Zimbabe with his political vision and knack for confronting social injustices through his music. His 1988 song, "Corruption," railed against Mugabe and the greed, poverty, crime, and drought that has defined Mugabe's administration.

Mapfumo continued to touch on these subjects as recently as 1999 with his song "Disaster," which commented on the growing AIDS epidemic. His latest album, Toi Toi, takes its name from a style of protest music and expands on the political and social ills Mapfumo has addressed his entire career. They are ills that transcend the particulars of Zimbabwe.

"The parallels between Mexico are very obvious, as far as being casualties to imperialism," Robotico says. "Whether it was France, Spain, or England you see that 'old world' mentality where countries go over and take some shit that isn't theirs. We're seeing it in Iraq and just about anywhere that a company like Coca-Cola can get a factory in and start the cultural imperialism.

"It's the same thing and it just breeds corruption. There are people who are growing up in a corrupt society to begin with, fighting for independence, winning independence, and then falling right back into the same corrupt ways that they tried to overthrow." •

By M. Solis

About The Authors

Scroll to read more Music Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.