by Bill Weinberg

There are a lot of political songsters in the world, but not many can boast of actually having been jailed for their music. Thomas Mapfumo doesn't boast about it, in fact. But he was imprisoned for three months in 1977 by the white colonialist regime of Ian Smith in what was then called Rhodesia. No charges were ever brought against the musician, but everybody knew it was retaliation for his songs, which blisteringly attacked white-minority rule. He was freed as part of ongoing negotiations which would lead to free elections and an end to Smith's regime in 1980--and the birth of the nation of Zimbabwe. For his role in galvanizing the liberation struggle, Mapfumo became known as the "Conquering Lion of Zimbabwe."

I caught up with the Conquering Lion at Joe's Pub in New York City on his summer 2002 tour of the US. Almost greedily, the racially-mixed audience ate up the joyous sounds of Mapfumo and his band, the Blacks Unlimited, which blends a pop sensibility with more traditional African forms. Along with electric guitar, bass and horns, each song features an amplified version of the mbira, an ancient indigenous instrument fashioned from a gourd and metal keys, played by Mapfumo's longtime sideman Chaka Mhembere. The sounds overlap in complex yet instantly danceable poly-rhythms. The lyrics--often in the native language of Shona--are still often on political themes.

With admirers crowding the dressing room after the show, our backstage chatter was perfunctory--Thomas told me he hoped his tour would help promote African music in America and how he was looking forward to his West Coast gigs. Then I invited Mapfumo and his entourage back to my conveniently nearby apartment to partake in a little "mbanje"--Zimbabwe's rendering of the word ganja. That's when the Conquering Lion started to get loquacious.

"There's two things I miss about Zimbabwe," he said, inhaling happily. "I miss ganja, and my mother." Our favorite herb seems to be pretty ubiquitous in Mapfumo's homeland. "Everybody smokes mbanje," he said. "I have friends in the police force who smoke it. I hope they will legalize it soon." In one custom I hadn't heard of before, Mapfumo told me mbanje is sometimes buried in the earth wrapped in banana leaves to ferment, which is said to enhance potency.

Mapfumo's new album is called Chimurenga Rebel, and chimurenga is the Shona word for struggle. He tells me the first chimurenga was that of the woman warrior Mbuya Nehanda, who led an uprising against the British in 1896. It later became the word for the struggle against the white supremacist Smith regime in the 1970s--and for the musical genre Mapfumo spawned. Unfortunately, the theme of struggle is no less relevant today. "The new chimurenga is against our own government," he says.

Twenty-two years after liberation, Zimbabwe is in a bad way. Former guerilla leader Robert Mugabe has been the country's real boss (officially president since 1987) since the end of white rule. In January 2002, his regime pushed through legislation subverting the electoral process, revoking civil liberties and restricting the press. As presidential elections approached, the military warned they would not accept any leader other than Mugabe. In the March election, Mugabe was proclaimed winner despite both internal and international protest. To shore up support, Mugabe is exploiting the issue of unequal land distribution, sending his militants to invade and occupy white-owned farms. The issue is a legitimate one, but Mugabe's handling of it has been disastrous. Dozens of black farm workers have been killed by his militants, and thousands of black laborers have been evicted and left homeless. Redistributed lands are handed to Mugabe cronies, while many poor blacks are left landless. The UN now warns that starvation looms in Zimbabwe, partially due to the chaos in the countryside. Worse yet, the government is accused of denying food aid to thousands of people in drought-stricken areas because they backed the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in the elections.

"Those elections were not free and fair," said Mapfumo. "They were rigged. People are talking about war. You cannot oppress the people you claim to have liberated. That's nonsense. That's bullshit. If you are president, you are not the president of your party. You are president of the people. So you look after all the people, whether they are from the opposition or from your party. Now that man looks after the people from his own party, ZANU, and says if you are not from ZANU you are no good. And that's no good. If you are president, you are the father of everyone, you look after everyone."

Mapfumo agrees that the land issue is a real one. "But it must be addressed in the proper way," he said. "We have to accommodate everybody who is living in Zimbabwe." He calls for peaceful dialogue to determine how the land should be redistributed. He also denies that the ZANU militants who have been sent to occupy white-owned farms are really all veterans of the 1970s guerilla war, as Mugabe claims. Instead, he says they are often young street rabble who have been bribed by Mugabe. "He's got a lot of thugs, and he is a thug himself."

Predictably, Mapfumo has been followed and harassed by government agents in Zimbabwe recently. But he refuses to go into exile. "You cannot just sit there and watch your people suffer. I have to keep fighting alongside my people. When they are liberated, I am liberated."

I pointed out that a generation after he was imprisoned by Smith--and after rising to become one of the giants of African popular music--Thomas Mapfumo's songs are still often political. "That's very true," responded the Chimurenga rebel. "You cannot run away from that, because most of the poor people are suffering in this world. And if you try to pretend that everything is alright and everything is rosy, then you're making a big mistake. We enjoy our music, we are dancing, and yet some people are crying. Some people are being killed while we are dancing."
From High Times, January 2003