thomas mapfumo portrait
Image: Daniel Root

AFTER A LONG DAY AT THE RECORDING STUDIO, Afropop superstar Thomas Mapfumo sometimes likes to swing in to an unremarkable teriyaki joint in a strip mall on the southeast edge of Eugene, his home in exile for the last decade or so. Ron’s Island Grill is all but empty when the 66-year-old Zimbabwean singer makes his way toward the brightly lit counter one winter night. He wears big sunglasses, a natty topcoat, and faux-alligator-skin shoes.

Just weeks earlier, Mapfumo and his band, the Blacks Unlimited, had played a much-anticipated concert in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Thousands of fans came from all over Africa for the rare chance to hear the “Lion of Zimbabwe” perform on his home continent. The chimurenga music—which translates roughly to “the music of struggle” and which Mapfumo essentially invented 40 years ago—is deeply connected to the decades of upheavals in Africa, especially those in his native Zimbabwe. But it’s hardly depressing. Mapfumo’s arrangements generally pair the syncopated rhythms of one or more thumb pianos, a high-spirited traditional Zimbabwean instrument, with keyboards, drums, congas, guitar, and lyrics anchored in the vernacular of freedom fighters. Sung largely in his native Shona language, Mapfumo’s songs are political but ambiguous, decrying corruption or praising justice generally without naming names. 

“He has been the most popular and significant singer in Zimbabwe, with one sensation after another, from 1975 to pretty much now,” says Banning Eyre, senior editor at the National Public Radio program Afropop Worldwide. “He’s one of the greatest, most iconic musicians living in America.”

Yet every day he passes living outside Zimbabwe, Mapfumo becomes less and less relevant to his fans back home. And here in the US, he risks retiring straight into the pages of world-music textbooks. Mapfumo hopes to change that. From his perch among the firs and fog of Eugene, he’s aiming to build momentum with his new album, World on Fire. Set for release this spring, it is an ambitious attempt to attract more fans. Most significant, in a departure from previous albums, this one will be sung predominantly in English, providing an opportunity for Americans to hear, in real time, what this beloved rebel has to say about the world today.

Tonight, though, at Ron’s Island Grill, he’s not exactly feeling the love.

“Can I help you?” the counter girl asks, more focused on the dozens of thimble-size plastic cups she must squirt full of teriyaki sauce before shift’s end.

“Yes,” says Mapfumo. “I would like Ron’s Sweet Curry.”

“I can’t hear you,” she says.

“I would like the number 11, please.”

A friend of Mapfumo’s politely asks the girl if she knows that this man ordering the number 11 is a legend.

She sets down her squirt bottle, looks at the vast spread of tiny cups, and raises her tired eyes to him.

“Do you feel famous?” she asks.

IT’S A FAIR QUESTION. Although Afropop has been rising in popularity since the ’90s (witness the recent Broadway hit Fela!), Mapfumo remains little more than a cult hero and world-music staple in his adopted home country. Over a 40-year career, Mapfumo has released more than 40 albums (even he has lost count). He’s shared a stage with everyone from Bob Marley to the Kronos Quartet. Today, Afropop-influenced indie bands like Franz Ferdinand, Tune-Yards, and Vampire Weekend admire Mapfumo’s sophisticated arrangements. (Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards used to include his music in radio DJ sets.) And equally hip record labels, such as Analog Africa, expend great effort to unearth early “forgotten” recordings connected to him.

But unlike Marley or Benin’s Grammy-winning Angélique Kidjo, Mapfumo has not crossed over and become anything like a mainstream hit maker. Since leaving Zimbabwe for good eight years ago, he has released two albums in the US, both of which met with minimal commercial success, and the man who once played for 100,000 people now might draw US crowds of 1,000. He does not, as he told Ron’s counter girl, feel famous.

“Mapfumo has been the most popular and significant singer in Zimbabwe … he’s one of the greatest, most iconic musicians living in America.”

—Banning Eyre, NPR

This is a new position for him.

Raised on a rural farm in the British colony of Rhodesia, Mapfumo was 20 years old in 1965 when a white man named Ian Smith seized control of the colony and declared it an independent nation—made up of mostly blacks but run by and for whites. Mapfumo’s fellow natives and Shona tribesmen responded by taking up arms against the illegitimate racist prime minister; Mapfumo grabbed the mic.

Like virtually every semiprofessional bandleader in Africa at that time, he relied heavily on popular “copyright” songs—hits by Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, the Rolling Stones. But in 1969, the supervisor of a remote copper mine hired Mapfumo and a handful of other ragtag musicians to play for employees in the canteen on weekends. The Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, as it was called, quickly exhausted its set list and began to search for its own musical identity. They found it, during the heady days of the early liberation struggle, in the thumb piano, or mbira, an ancient and sacred wooden box with plinky metal springs that tribesmen used to summon the spirits of ancestors and guardians. 

young thomas photo
Image: Banning Eyre

Mapfumo in Zimbabwe in the 1970s.

“The mbira is like the bagpipe to the Scottish people,” says Gilbert Zvamaida, Mapfumo’s electric guitarist, “or maybe the relationship is even deeper than that.”

The band first used an electric guitar to play a traditional mbira song, a farmer’s melody called “Ngoma Yarira.” Listeners were delighted, at least partly because the 12/8 guitar rhythms were, in the words of one critic, “so precise and intricate that listening to it is like watching someone knit lace.” “Ngoma Yarira” became the A-side track of Mapfumo’s first single.

The B-side track on that single proved equally central to his new identity. On “Murembo,” or “Elephant’s Tusk,” Mapfumo took a traditional melody, shuffled the music a bit, and added a few of his own words. “All the children have perished / The war has come,” went one of the phrases. Released on Teal Records in 1974, the record became a hit—and the combination of political lyrics with tradition-tweaking music became Mapfumo’s signature chimurenga style.

“That is where it really started,” says Mapfumo. “What gave the music a lot of support was the struggle itself.”

Here in the States, though, there is no such comparable “struggle” from which to draw support, making the odds that Mapfumo crosses over from a world-music standard to a big-time hit maker rather long. Few African musicians make the westward crossing. Never mind the struggles of the music business in general: fans of so-called world music tend to embrace exotic rhythms and instruments, and the escapism provided by not understanding the lyrics. Fans of commercially popular music expect a band to mirror their very American feelings and thoughts, without any weird accents. Between those two lie smaller fan bases, and a deep, dark void that can swallow a career whole.