Thomas Mapfumo
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Thomas Mapfumo

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BIO: Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited
By Banning Eyre November 1999

Thomas Mapfumo was born in 1945 in Marondera, a small town south of the Rhodesian capital, Salisbury. He spent his first ten years living in the countryside with his grandparents, tending cattle herds, and waking up long
before sunrise to do chores before school. Though Rhodesia was moving inexorably toward racial civil war, Thomas was living an old-fashioned, traditional life, mostly removed from the bitterness building in the cities
and townships. One of his greatest pleasures back then was the music of his people, the Shona, music he experienced in family and clan gatherings not unlike those his ancestors had been holding for centuries. Traditional
children's tunes, songs of celebration accompanied by the drums called ngoma, and especially, the sacred music of the metal-pronged mbira, an instrument whose beautiful, cycling melodies could summon the presence of
ancestor spirits-these things formed the basis of Thomas's musical personality, a force that continues to shape the history and spiritual life of his country.

When Thomas was ten, he moved to Mbare, the poorest and toughest black township of Salisbury. Life was different in the urban home of Thomas's mother, stepfather, two brothers and two sisters. Mbare was a center of
black protest against the Rhodesian regime, and a scene of random police actions designed to intimidate would-be rebels. Thomas's stepfather was active both in the Christian church and in Shona traditional religious
circles. He taught his children a highly moral worldview that saw no contradiction between the guidance of an almighty Christian God, and that of Shona ancestor spirits. In Mbare, Thomas also heard radio for the first
time, and he was wowed by African jazz from Johannesburg and Bulawayo, classic big band Rumba from the Congo, and especially, R&B and soul from America and England.

Thomas began to sing, and in high school, he joined his first band, the Zutu Brothers. For the next ten years, while the liberation war that would eventually transform Rhodesia into Zimbabwe roiled though the country,
Thomas made his way as an itinerant singer. Both in the Cosmic Four Dots, the band where he learned basic musical skills, and in the far more successful Springfields, Thomas was the rock 'n' roll singer, the man
charged with reproducing vocal performances by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bobby Darrin, Wilson Picket, and Mick Jagger. (To this day, Thomas is a walking juke box of hits from the 1960s.) His identity as a singer made
him something of a happy rebel. When the police came through his neighborhood one day demanding that everyone line up outside their houses, Thomas turned up in the shiny, silver jacket he wore on-stage. This playful show of disrespect nearly landed Thomas in jail, where he'd have been lucky to escape with a beating. But a cop who was a Springfields fan stepped in and let him go.

In 1972, Thomas moved to a mining town and started a band called the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band. The band got paid for entertaining the miners, but had to work day jobs as well, including tending chickens in a "chicken run," hence the name. It was here, working with guitarist Joshua Dube, that Thomas first adapted songs from the ancient mbira repertoire and worked them into the band's Afro-rock repertoire. To sing in Shona was unusual, and in the context of the escalating war, automatically political. So as Thomas continued to develop as a songwriter, his devotion to traditional music inevitably politicized him.

As Thomas moved on to work first with the Acid Band, and then with the Blacks Unlimited, everything came together. He developed his mbira pop sound with guitarists Jonah Sithole and Leonard "Picket" Chiyangwa, bassist
Charles Makokova, and other innovative young players. Thomas's lyrics reflected the concerns of the people around him-hardships in the rural areas, young men heading into the bush to fight, and a rising sense of indignation at white rulers who had systematically devalued Shona culture for four generations. The guerrilla fighters had taken the name chimurenga, Shona for struggle, and Thomas decided to call his new sound "chimurenga music."

Thomas's chimurenga singles captured the imagination of blacks nation wide. Near the end of war, the out-maneuvered Rhodesians arrested Thomas briefly and attempted to use him to rally support for a last desperate attempt to hold onto some vestige of power. But the tide of history had turned, and in 1980, Robert Mugabe was elected president of a new nation. That year, Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited shared the stage in Salisbury (now
called Harare) with Bob Marley and the Wailers.

As Zimbabwe took its first hopeful steps, Thomas sang rallying songs for the new leaders. But if they imagined him their stooge, they soon learned otherwise. For though Thomas had become a national hero by singing theme