1945 -

Zimbabwean musician, known as "The Lion of Zimbabwe" for his immense popularity and for the political influence he wields through his music. Thomas Mapfumo was born in 1945 in Marondera, a village south of Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia. He lived a traditional, rural Shona lifestyle until the age of ten, when his family moved to the Salisbury township of Mbare. He joined his first band, the Zutu Brothers (Encyclopedia Britannica says it was the Cyclones), as a singer at the age of 16. From then he was always in one band or another, sometimes doing odd jobs on the side as well, including chicken farming. Hence the name of his 1972 band.

Chronology of bands:

  • Zutu Brothers (Cyclones?) - 1961
  • Cosmic Four Dots
  • Springfields 1964 - 1967
  • Hallelujah Chicken Run Band - 1972
  • Acid Band - 1976
  • Blacks Unlimited - 1978

He played mostly covers of American rock and soul tunes, such as Otis Redding or Elvis Presley, until he was in the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band. There he introduced the innovation of adapting traditional Shona music to modern rock instrumentation.

He worked with guitarist Joshua Dube (Leopard Man's Africa Music Guide says Jonah Sithole) to transcribe the sounds of the chief instrument of traditional Shona music, the mbira, or thumb piano, to the electric guitar. He also started singing primarily in the Shona language, rather than in English, and his music became much more political.

Just the fact that he was drawing on the native musical tradition and singing in his native language was a political statement. At that time Rhodesia was ruled by a white minority which denigrated the native black population and culture. But more than that, his lyrics became overtly political, supporting the revolution that was developing in the rural areas, what Mapfumo calls "the communal lands". He called his new style of music chimurenga. In Shona it means "struggle", and was the name of a previous revolutionary movement in the late nineteenth century. His songs openly called for the viiolent overthrow of the government, with lyrics like "Mothers, send your sons to war." But since the white government didn't understand Shona, they didn't realize how radical it was.

Eventually they caught on, though. The climax came with a song called "Hokoyo!", which means "Watch out!" The government banned the record from the state-controlled radio and threw him into a prison camp without charges in 1979. But they couldn't stop his records from being played in discos or on radio they didn't control, like the Voice of Mozambique. Large demonstrations in protest of his arrest and an inability to trump up charges against him forced the government to release him after three months.

Free elections were held in 1980 and a new government was installed. Mapfumo performed at a celebratory concert which also featured Bob Marley.

    Aside: One story I heard about this concert was that at the beginning of Marley's set, the Rhodesian flag went down, the new Zimbabwe flag went up, and the first words spoken in Zimbabwe were: "Ladies and gentleman, Bob Marley." I don't think I believe this story - it didn't make much sense once I thought about it, but it sounded kinda cool the first time I heard it. There is a bootleg Bob Marley set ciruclating that's labeled "April 19, 1980 at Rufaro Stadium, Salisbury, Zimbabwe". It does not include this intro. At least, not the copy I have.

The PRI-syndicated radio program Afropop ran a feature on Thomas Mapfumo in late 1988/early 1989. Host Georges Collinet describes Mapfumo as living in the low-density suburbs with his wife, who worked at a law office in downtown Harare, and his two children - a boy and a girl. And he drove a blue Ford with fake leopard-skin seat covers.

Most of his songs were still political, dealing with poverty and other social issues. Mapfumo comments on the fact that he doesn't sing many love songs: "All you need if you wanna get into the bedroom... You've got a wife. You do it. You don't have to sing a song about it." Collinet also observes that Mapfumo can't sing anything he wants : "Clearly he can't sing 'Down with President Mugabe' - but he wouldn't want to. He supports the present government." That would soon change.

Mapfumo released the album Corruption in 1989. It criticized Mugabe and his government, which was more and more obviously becoming a despotic kleptocracy. Mugabe wasn't happy with Mapfumo, either, and he became the target of government harassment. Mapfumo was accused of being involved with a stolen-car ring. Things got uncomfortable enough that Mapfumo moved to Oregon in the late nineties, where he lives now.

Thomas Mapfumo tours internationally, and still sings and speaks out about the problems of Zimbabwe. His chimurenga style of music influenced a new generation of Zimbabwean musicians, including The Bhundu Boys and Stella Chiweshe.

Partial Discography

The Springfields

  • "You Can't Say Goodbye"
  • "Chemtengure"
  • "Kiss Me" / "Talking String"
  • "Kunaka Wakanaka"
  • "Shungu Duzino Ndibaya"
  • "Valley of Lost Souls" / "Sunday Morning"
  • "Lonely Avenue"
  • "Springfields Go Latin" / "Instrumental Kuwela"

The Hallelujah Chicken Run Band

  • "Taranbana" / "Mary"
  • "Shumba Inonbva Mu Gomo" / "Amalume"
  • "Chandiparapata" / "Muwuyi Amuka"
  • "Ngoma Yarira" / "Murembo"

Thomas Mapfumo and the Acid Band

  • Hokoyo 1978

Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited

  • Gwindingwi Rine Shumba 1980
  • Ndangariro 1983
  • Mabasa 1984
  • Mr Music 1985
  • Chimurenga for Justice 1986
  • Zimbabwe/Mozambique 1987
  • Varombo Kuvarombo 1988 released as Corruption 1989
  • Chamunorwa 1989
  • Chimurenga Masterpiece 1990
  • Shumba - Vital Hits of Zimbabwe 1990
  • Hondo 1992
  • The Singles Collection 1976-1986 1992
  • Chimurenga International 1993
  • Sweet Chimurenga 1994
  • Chimurenga Varieties 1995
  • Chimurenga Forever - The Best of Thomas Mapfumo 1995
  • Roots Chimurenga 1996
  • Afro Chimurenga 1996
  • Chimurenga Movement 1997
  • Chimurenga African Spirit Movement also released as The Lion of Zimbabwe 1997
  • Chimurenga '98 1998
  • Live at El Rey 1999
  • Chimurenga Explosion 2000
  • with Wadada Leo Smith and N'Da Kulture Dreams and Secrets 2001
  • Chimurenga Collected 2001
  • Chimurenga Rebel / Manhungetunge 2002
  • Toi Toi 2002

Sources/Further Reading

Home page (management contact)

profile written by Banning Eyre:
March 2002 interview:

Encylopedia Britannica (Hey, it came free with my DSL) : (entry written by Elizabeth Laskey)
"Mapfumo, Thomas." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 30 Jul, 2003 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=125501>.

The Leopard Man's African Music Guide

Global Village Idiot

(in Japanese)