Thomas Mapfumo & The Blacks Unlimited led a spectacular celebration of the first ten years of The Sanctuary for Independent Media in concert on April 2, 2016!
Thomas Mapfumo has been the musical voice of protest in Zimbabwe and all of southern Africa for nearly half a century. Easily the most famous singer in his native country, Mapfumo lives in exile from the regime of Robert Mugabe, and his music is banned at home. But Mapfumo doesn't sing his protest only against one corrupt dictator.
Mapfumo's gruff baritone voice is an instrument as lyrical or as fierce as he wants it to be. It's a voice that can't be doubted. His singing/chanting cries of protest are backed up by music that can only be heard as richly joyful. If these songs are to be sung in the streets of protest, then the singers will be dancing. The source of Mapfumo's music is tribal Africa, as any amount of listening to ethnographic field recordings would show. The complex layers of double and triple rhythm, expressed in melodic patterns based on the sound of the mbira (thumb piano), are ancestral, as is Mapfumo's cascade-of-words delivery. Recent CDs show a steadily growing international influence on Mapfumo, especially the influence of reggae, and more readiness to incorporate the "high life" jazz sounds of African pop music. There is a kind of 'disconnect' between the anguish often expressed in Mapfumo's words and the exuberance of his music, but that disconnect is ours, not his. Mapfumo is a man of joy in a world of sorrow.
Thomas Tafirenyika Mukanya Mapfumo was born in Marondera, Zimbabwe in 1945. His early childhood moments, saw him tapping the knack and interest for traditional music and instruments (ngoma, hosho and mbira) from his grandparents who were avid musicians in the village. Unbeknown to him, that early-stage set-up underlined with innocence would describe his future music career and earn him global fame. By the age of ten he lived in Mbare with his parents who worked in the city. At the time, Mbare was a black ghetto township; also a hub of protest movements against the segregationist colonial regime. That anarchic neighborhood exposed young Thomas to some early brushes with police brutality against restless freedom protesters. It was also in Mbare that Mapfumo became hooked to the stereo, finding a favorite pastime as he listened to diverse international music from famous stars of the day. That concentrated limelight would eventually inspire him to plot for a music career at that tender age.
Around 1973 Mapfumo joined his first group, the Hallelujah Chicken band in Mhangura, a small mining town. Initially, he had sang in English but quickly spotted a need to express himself in vernacular and please his local fans. That way, he would also spread consciousness and the call for freedom. He had a brief stint with the Hallelujah Chicken band before joining with others to form the Acid Band. Realizing a need for seriously pursuing his own Chimurenga music genre, he then founded the Blacks Unlimited around 1978. By then, Chimurenga music had eventually morphed into a symbol for the struggle against injustice as it assumed a distinct and threatening presence in war-torn Rhodesia. Through that music banner, he continued to taunt the colonial regime, denouncing poverty while advocating for freedom. Despite the colonial system reacting to the music with censure and repression, Mapfumo’s music irresistibly rocked the nation like a Hurricane as it remained unique, melodious, informative and equally gripping.
When Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, Mukanya even shared the celebrations stage in Rufaro Stadium with the Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley, opening more doors to international fame and recording opportunities in London. Despite his dedication to fighting colonial arbitrariness from the stage, Mapfumo even got busier in independent Zimbabwe as he would embark on a new Chimurenga theme. The looming corruption, grinding poverty, and the decaying rule of law blighted a promising Zimbabwe, saddening hopeful masses and inevitably pushing him to compose more lyrics as missiles for protest against his own government. To the surprise of many, the same music censorship characteristics of colonial Rhodesia also visited Mukanya upon his release of the Corruption album in independent Zimbabwe. With more pressing conditions, in 2000, he relocated to the USA and continued with his music.
His full captivating biography has finally appeared in a book called "The Story of Thomas Mapfumo" by Banning Eyre, published in July 2015 courtesy of Chimurenga Music Company.