Thomas Mapfumo at The Forum, London (ca. 1984)

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From the bloody years of the country’s liberation war in the 1970’s, right through the present economic and political cries, Mapfumo has used his revolutionary, spiritually charged music to decry injustice and highlight the historical and cultural issues that underlie the news headlines.

From the genesis of his career Mukanya made revolutionary changes to Zimbabwe’s pop music scene by recording a song he’d written himself. Before Mapfumo, songs in the traditional style were always based on tunes that had been handed down for generations. Mapfumo’s music, Chimurenga (“music of struggle”), became popular during the civil war against white minority rule, but his popularity made the government unhappy. In 1977, he was sent to a prison camp for subversion. To obtain his release, Mapfumo agreed to perform for the ruling party, but at the concert he sang only his most revolutionary songs. “I told them that since I’d been in detention, I didn’t have time to write new ones.”

In 1977, he was sent to a prison camp for subversion. To obtain his release, Mapfumo agreed to perform for the ruling party, but at the concert he sang only his most revolutionary songs. “I told them that since I’d been in detention, I didn’t have time to write new ones.”

Mapfumo grew up in Zimbabwe, went to a British colonial school, and worked as a herd boy, watching over the cattle. After hearing the Beatles and Wilson Pickett in the early ’60s, Mapfumo taught himself guitar and started a band that played pop music from African countries, as well as Beatles, Rolling Stones, funk, and soul. Mapfumo left Western music behind to form the Acid Band. Their first album, Hokoyo (Beware), contained the songs that led to Mapfumo’s detention. After Zimbabwe’s liberation in 1978, Mapfumo formed Blacks Unlimited and released Gwindingwe Rine Shumba (Lion in the Bush), a joyous celebration of the country’s independence.

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