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Thomas Mapfumo ponders on musical legacy in exile

By Gwinyai Dziwa in USA

Times do change. Generations come and go. Even traditions are dynamic. One of the greatest cultural ambassadors of Zimbabwean traditions through his rich musical catalog shared his concern about the possible fading of traditional music that has existed for many years. Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo, a music legend living in exile in Oregon here in the United States sees a possible disconnect between his music and the new generation. He gave me the opportunity to extract his thoughts on the music that has sustained generations of Zimbabweans over the last century. Born in 1945 in Marondera, Mr. Mapfumo is a son of Zimbabwe and has been known to his fans as the “Lion of Zimbabwe”.


Thomas Mapfumo, photographer: Gwinyai Dziwa

“I grew up as a cattle herder in the rural area,” he revealed. “I was raised by my grandmother and my grandparents were into traditional music.” He smiled. Then he shifted and fastened his eyes on a small can of drink floating in a cooler. “Is this beer?” he asked. I perused the ingredients for him. “Oh no, it’s just soda,” I advised.
Mr .Mapfumo said he grew up watching elders performing traditional rites and ceremonies to honor ancestors where people played drums and the thumb piano, known in Zimbabwe as mbira. “So are you a spirit medium?” I asked. “No I am not,” the aging singer responded in his baritone voice.
“But then don’t you find a contradiction when you claim to be a practising Christian and at the same time singing traditional music?” Mr. Mapfumo suddenly assumed a serious look. “Well there is a difference between demons and benevolent ancestral spirits that look after the family. Our traditional music is in sync with the Creator because the ancestors that came before us are like our angels,” Mr. Mapfumo explained. “In fact ancestors continue to look after their offspring even in spirit form and there is nothing wrong with that,” he continued. He then went on to refer to the scriptures to drive his point home. “In the Bible, someone went to Samuel asking for help but then Samuel referred that person to a spirit medium. That meant a lot,” Mr. Mapfumo asserted, with a sparkle in his eyes.


Thomas Mapfumo. Photographer: Gwinyai Dziwa©

Then I posed a question about the new generation. “Would you think a young person would listen to your music, after all they can’t understand the deep language in your lyrics?” Suddenly his forehead creased and he looked animated. “Well these kids have to be taught about our culture, our music and traditions in school. Someone has to explain to young Zimbabweans what our culture is about,” Mr. Mapfumo said. He added. “And why should Zimbabwean youths imitate American kids, why not appreciate Zimbabwean ways,” he asked. The interview then brought Winky D into the picture. Mr. Mapfumo clarified his misquoted comments about the new generation artiste Winky D.
“All I said was that Winky D would do well to sing in English considering the reggae dancehall genre he chose rather than sing in the vernacular.” Mr. Mapfumo admitted that even his biological son also sings music with a hip-hop influence.
But then he pointed out that the late Lucky Dube chose to sing reggae in English, not Zulu and the world accepted his work that’s why he garnered both commercial and critical success.
The conversation then went back to Mr. Mapfumo’s early years in which he sang songs to provide morale to the freedom fighters. The music carried a nationalist theme but it has evolved over the years to become critical of Zimbabwe’s political and economic decline.
“Here is the truth. I will never stop fighting for the Zimbabwean people,” he vowed. “The music should continue to point out the rights and the wrongs. It’s a continuous battle. It’s a battle we will continue to fight until we win the war against corruption,” Mr. Mapfumo explained, gesturing with his hands.


Thomas Mapfumo. Photographer: Gwinyai Dziwa©

“What we want is Zimbabweans to realise that they are one people and should not entertain to be divided by political affiliation,” Mr. Mapfumo pointed out. Mr. Mapfumo identified ignorance as a problem among Zimbabweans who become violent for political ends.
“People need to know how to choose those who represent them. It’s all about what the person they choose for public office  will do for them not their past contribution to the liberation struggle,” Mr. Mapfumo slightly raised his voice for emphasis.
Mr. Mapfumo then revealed that he had become a permanent resident of the United States. He believes Zimbabweans should feel free to live anywhere as long as they know their roots. He is not sure when he finally returns to his place of birth. His latest album now in stores is aptly titled Exile. But he maintains hope that few young Zimbabweans will carry the torch and continue to keep our traditional music alive.

About the author:
Gwinyai Dziwa is a writer par excellence. He is an artist, an ace journalist, photographer and business consultant living in the United States. Gwinyai wrote this article for Afrique Beat.


Gwinyai Dziwa


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