thomas chartwell new york
Image: Banning Eyre

Mapfumo with Chartwell Dutrio at a show at New York’s SOB in the early ’90s.

MAPFUMO HAS CERTAINLY FACED TOUGHER STRUGGLES. By the mid-’70s, his celebration of the ever-bolder freedom fighters had become wildly popular with the people of Zimbabwe. But the Rhodesian government despised anthems like “Mothers, Send Your Children to War,” a call for new recruits to the revolution.

First, the Ministry of Information outlawed his music on national radio. When that didn’t quiet him, officials jailed Mapfumo for three months. Lastly, in a desperate attempt to co-opt his message, they blared his songs from the loudspeakers of helicopters that bombed rebel camps.

It didn’t work. In April 1980, Mapfumo and Bob Marley shared a stage in capital city Harare’s Rufaro Stadium, playing to a crowd of 100,000 in celebration of the new democratic Republic of Zimbabwe. “Thomas Mapfumo embodied the seven years of struggle,” writes Frank Tenaille in Music Is the Weapon of the Future: 50 Years of African Popular Music.

Independence, though, proved a false summit. By the late ’80s, the cycle rebooted. The bespectacled “president” Robert Mugabe was already on the road to perpetrating the flagrant injustices that would spur Parade magazine to rank him as the world’s worst dictator in 2009: rigging elections, jailing homosexuals, allowing unemployment to peg 85 percent while plumping his coffers with profits from steel exports.

Mapfumo spelled out his growing disillusionment in no uncertain terms. “People, there is corruption” he sang in the 2000 hit “Disaster.” “People, there is corruption here.” Unsurprisingly, police raided kiosks in the markets of Harare and destroyed Mapfumo’s albums, and Central Intelligence Organization agents threatened to beat Mapfumo if he played protest songs in concert. His family—Thomas and his wife, Verna, son and daughter Tai and Chiedza (then teenagers), and daughter Mati (then a toddler)—no longer felt safe.

In 2000, the family boarded a plane out of Zimbabwe.

At the encouragement of a friend in Eugene, the Mapfumos relocated to the home of the fighting Ducks.

“We did not need to see more tall buildings,” Mapfumo says. “We needed a quiet place where the kids could go to school.”

Moving didn’t end the harassment, though. In 2001, the administration accused Mapfumo and Verna of involvement in the alleged theft of several BMWs; conviction of a similar crime had earned fellow Zimbabwean musician Simon Dendera four years behind bars. Still Mapfumo continued to visit Zimbabwe.

But in 2003, the government stepped up its arrests of real and supposed dissidents, including five Lutheran aid workers: two Germans, a Finn, an American, and a Kenyan. Mapfumo became uneasy about his visits. “You don’t know who’s gonna do something bad to you because there’s no rule of law in Zimbabwe,” Mapfumo reflects. He made a final trip to Zimbabwe in the spring of 2004 and hasn’t been back since. 

house of blues concert
Image: Banning Eyre

Mapfumo performing circa 2002 at House of Blues in Cambridge, Massachusetts

WITH MOST OF THE FAMILY AWAY ON vacation in California, Mapfumo has their rental house in Eugene to himself.

He and his 59-year-old brother, Lancelot, who plays keyboards and congas, watch a European soccer game in the living room of the four-bedroom split-level home perched high above town. Guitarist Zvamaida cooks, as always. An ashtray sits on the coffee table; a pool table dominates a nearby room. Three aging rad-mobiles—a dual-cab Ford F150, a British racing-green Jaguar sedan, and a teal Mercedes SL500 AMG coupe—jam the driveway.

“This is a place where you can do whatever you want, so long as you’re not hurting someone,” Mapfumo says.

“ You don’t know who’s gonna do something bad to you because there’s no rule of law in Zimbabwe. We needed a quiet place where the kids could go to school.”

—Thomas Mapfumo

The transition to life in Eugene wasn’t easy. A late-night stranger wandered into their first home. Feeling unsafe, they moved into another house, where mold left their drummer laid up sick for months. Mapfumo’s wife traded her lucrative old job as a real estate agent in Harare for caregiver in a retirement home. And Mapfumo’s musical output slowed from roughly one new album release per year to just two in six years, the result of contract problems, lengthy recording sessions brought on by his own perfectionist streak, and difficulty finding and keeping savvy handlers. The first song on his last album, Exile, sung mostly in Shona, reflects on this time. “I’m always thinking about Zimbabwe, since I’m so very far from my friends and relatives,” go the lyrics to “Ndangariro,” or “Memories.”

“He’s part of a very threatened fringe of an already traumatized music industry,” says Eyre. “I think he needs more help; he needs a really good manager.”

Indeed, Bob Marley broke into the American charts, for example, only after years of publicity and generous financial support, including the gift of a home in Jamaica, from the founder of cash-flush international label Island Records. While those days of long-term faith and fat contracts are gone forever, Mapfumo, allegedly a sometimes challenging business partner, hasn’t been able to hold on to even small-time managers and agents, or woo a large record label that he trusts. The new album will be released on his own, Chimurenga Music.

But still, he says, the decision to go into exile was a good one, and Eyre agrees, with a caveat. “I think that as a person, he did a very honorable thing—he put his family first—and he has nothing left to prove as a musician,” he says. “But he’s been away long enough now that the culture back home is starting to move on.”

With much of Mapfumo’s music still outlawed on national radio and his CDs difficult to find, few fans in Zimbabwe’s cities hear his recent work, and even fewer do in the countryside. Instead, older crowds embrace the latest nonpolitical pop music from Mapfumo’s former touring partner Oliver Mtukudzi, whom UNICEF recently named a Goodwill Ambassador. And the younger generation listens to “urban grooves,” a homegrown version of rap and hip-hop. Artistically, Mapfumo is at risk of becoming a man without a country.

And there in his living room, as his baritone refrain emanates from a dusty old sound system, it becomes clear that his lyrics—from the new album’s fourth track—don’t sound specifically Zimbabwean. In fact they don’t sound so different from the slogans of Eugene’s celebrity tree sitters or the chants of its Occupiers in the city below.