What is Chimurenga?
Chimurenga is a Shona word which means to fight or struggle. Traditionally, chimurenga or bongozozo is a fight in which everyone at hand participates. The word’s modern interpretation has been extended to describe a struggle for human rights, political dignity and social justice. Thomas Mapfumo coined the phrase chimurenga music to describe his revolutionary music which evolved during Zimbabwe’s struggle to gain independence in the early seventies. The war of liberation which was dubbed Chimurenga Chechipiri or the second revolution was a fulfilment of the prophesy of a great Shona spirit, Mbuya Nehanda, sister of the great Shona prophet Chaminuka. Mbuya Nehanda led the first war, Chimurenga Chekutanga against British colonial rule in Zimbabwe and was hanged in the late eighteen hundreds. However before she died she declared that her bones will rise and fight the second war of liberation. Her prophesy was not realized until almost a hundred years later. While armed struggle ragged along the borders of Zimbabwe, Mapfumo used his music to arouse revolutionary sentiment among Zimbabweans during the seventies. Mapfumo has continued to use his chimurenga style of music to address a multitude of pressing political and social concerns in peace time Zimbabwe.
Characterized by biting social and political commentary, third person political innuendo, Mapfumo has developed a style of music whose roots are traditional Shona mbira music, but played with modern electric instrumentation, a more modern message adapted to current social and political affairs, a sense of urgency and a cry for justice.
Thomas Mapfumo:Birth of a Legend
Thomas Tafirenyika Mukanya Mapfumo was born on July 2nd 1945 near the town of Marondera in Zimbabwe. Even though his parents where staying in the capital city of Harare (then Salisbury), Thomas stayed with his grandparents in rural areas. Both his grandparents where avid traditional musicians. Thomas learned the music at an early age. His grandmother insisted on bringing him to some of the beer parties she was invited to play and sing. Shona music is participatory music. Unlike western music where a few musicians perform for a large audience, the Shona concept is one of every member participating in their own capacity. Mapfumo learned by playing and singing with the traditional masters.
As a young boy in the village, Thomas did what all youngsters in the rural areas do, graze cattle and goats, help grandparents in the fields, perform domestic chores and all activities that make living in the village an unforgettable experience.
As Thomas approached school age, his parent summoned him to come and stay with him in Harare. In contrast to life in the village, he was now exposed to radio, and television, media that he had no access to living in the village. Through these media, Mapfumo was exposed to other kinds of music. He was able to listen to music from South Africa, Zaire, USA, UK and many other parts of the world. Before long Mapfumo had a list of favorite regional and international musicians: Franco, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Bing Cosby, Frank Sinatra and many others.
After school Mapfumo would spend time practicing cover songs of his favorite musicians. He particularly idolized Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley, yes Elvis!
Mapfumo took his music seriously. He was now attempting to be a rock star. It so happened, that in Harare (then Salisbury) and annual best rock-and-roll band contest was held. Thomas and his friends always participated. There were both white and African bands participating from as far away as Lusaka, Zambia and Johannesburg, South Africa. However no African band ever won these contests regardless of their talent. It was this realization that no matter how good he was as a rocker, he was never going to win the contest that Thomas started to re-think what his music was supposed to represent. It was then that he convinced himself that, for the most part Africans were loosing their musical culture in pursuit of western music. He began to focus on Shona music.
His upbringing had given him enough exposure to explore a new direction in his career. A local African comedian who called himself, Charles Dee Ray Tiger had recorded a Shona song called Shungu Dzinondibaya in which he made fun of a rich man who lost his wealth overnight. Mapfumo took this song very seriously. He liked it so much that he decided to record it. Without any recording equipment or recording budget, Mapfumo recorded the song on tape. The tape fell in the hands of an entrepreneur who made it into a single on vinyl. To his amazement, Mapfumo heard his own voice on record while visiting a record store in Highfield, outside Harare. The record was very successful. This was Mapfumo’s endorsement that he can succeed as a Shona musician.
AfroRock: Precursor of Chimurenga
In 1973, Thomas Mapfumo went to a mining town of Mhangura north of Harare to look for work. While he was there he met a few musicians who all worked at a chicken run. Together they formed a band, The Hallelujah Chicken Run Band to experiment with the then emerging Afro-Rock style of music pioneered by the band Osibisa. They made several Afrorock singles which all had limited success except for one single that was traditional Shona war song. By 1975, the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe had already taken hold and the song was met with critical acclaim.
In 1976, Thomas left Mhangura for Harare, where he hung out at the Jamaica Inn doing gigs whenever he could. The owner of Jamaica Inn asked him to form a house band, which he did. The band was the Black Spirits. The Spirits were together for a short while before they disbanded and Thomas was without a band again.
Blacks Unlimited are Born!
After Thomas left Jamaica Inn and Mushandira Pamwe Hotel, in Harare, he went to Mutare where he lived with a group of musicians. They played gigs in the Mutare area both in and out of the city. It wasn’t until a local night-club in Mutare contracted Thomas and his friends as the club’s house band. It was then that the Blacks Unlimited was formed. The band consisted of Thomas Mapfumo, Leonard Chiyangwa, Jona Sithole and Marshall Munhumumwe. The new Blacks Unlimited stayed together for a couple of years until Jona Sithole left the band to go back to Harare. After a few months the remaining members disbanded and also left Mutare for Harare. Thomas arrived in Harare without a band. However several club and hotel owners had come to like and admire his music. The owner of Mushandira Pamwe Hotel in Highfield asked Thomas to come and play with the hotel’s band, The Pied Pipers. They were a rock and roll outfit with very little knowledge of Thomas’s style of traditional music. The location of Mushandira Pamwe Hotel was ideal for Thomas. Leonard Chiyangwa, a former Blacks Unlimited member was playing with another band across the shopping center at Machipisa Hotel. Thomas used his breaks to listen to Leonard and his Acid Band. The Acid Band were peforming some traditional Shona music to Mapfumo’s liking. He persuaded Leonard to practice with him and before long they recorded their critically acclaimed single, Pamuromo Chete which was in response to Ian Smith’s declaration that Zimbabwe will never be ruled by Africans in his life time. Thomas and the Acid band’s response was that was just mere talk. The song, sung in the native language Shona and laced with political innuendo literally ignited the nation as every African understood the message. Thomas Mapfumo had now become a household name. In the meantime, the liberation struggle was gaining ground around the country. As if to thank the fans for their support and appreciation, Mapfumo recorded another song that became an instant hit, Pfumvu Paruzevha which means trouble in the rural areas. Because of the fighting that was happening in the rural areas, people instantly identified with the song and Mapfumo’s popularity soared. In the meantime the government started getting interested in Mapfumo’s popularity. They finally figured out that Mapfumo’s music was galvanizing the African population and encouraging young people to cross the border into Mozambique for military training.
Mapfumo: Political Prisoner
When it became apparent to the Smith regime that Mapfumo’s music was subversive and politically inciting, he was detained for three moths without charge. However while he was in jail Mapfumo made lots of friends as most of the African prison workers knew who he was and what his music was about. The was so popular in prison that some prison employees used to bring him food from their homes so he wouldn’t have to rely on prison food alone.
After three months the government of Rhodesia decided to release Mapfumo on condition that he play at a political rally for the African National Council (ANC) then headed by Bishop Abel Muzorewa. The ANC was working with the Smith regime to forge a political agreement to set a timetable for Zimbabwe’s independence.