Creating outlaw music that affects the social and political order is a romantic notion that's fueled many an activist pop performer. But for Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo, that rock dream was reality.
Mapfumo, who makes his local debut today at the Music Machine, pioneered the chimurenga style that was credited with inspiring the guerrilla forces during their battle against Prime Minister Ian Smith's white government. The armed struggle in the nation--then known as Rhodesia--began in 1965.
About 1974, Mapfumo began releasing singles in Zimbabwe that used traditional proverbs and doubled-edged lyrics to push the rebel cause. After his "Hokoyo" album was released in 1976, authorities viewed Mapfumo as such a threat that they banned the album and slapped him in detention for three months without charges.
"My music, the militant lyrics in it, started driving the people away from the Western sound," said Mapfumo in a recent phone interview from Berkeley.
"They wanted to be themselves and be called Zimbabweans, so they were rallying behind my music. That's what got me into problems with the Smith government. They kept sending people from the special police branch asking questions about my music. I kept saying the music was the traditional music of the people of Zimbabwe. It was part and parcel of my culture, and I would not do away with this type of music, because it was my culture."
Mapfumo was released and had to weather repeated efforts by the government to sabotage his credibility. But he didn't back off from the \o7 chimurenga\f7 sound, and after Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980, he was acknowledged as the father of the nation's modern music and the chief influence on groups like the Bhundu Boys, which have gained exposure in Europe and the United States.
Cultural identity had been a longstanding concern for Mapfumo, 41, whose music adapts the \o7 mbira\f7 style of the Shona people to electric instruments.
"Time was running out on me because I was growing but without my own thing," said the singer, who began his \o7 chimurenga\f7 experiments in 1973. "I kept saying to myself, 'Why am I chasing after these foreign sounds? Haven't I got something of my own, something that can be called Zimbabwean?' "
The \o7 mbira\f7 music that is the traditional cornerstone of Mapfumo's style is played at religious rituals summoning ancestral spirits. Its central instrument, a thumb piano, is also called the \o7 mbira\f7 . Mapfumo's hybrid is a rough yet lulling sound built on choppy, interlocking guitar parts and loping rhythms punctuated by bright horn lines.
"\o7 Mbira\f7 music is what we call the sacred music of the Shona people," Mapfumo said. "The music has been modernized so it's not the raw \o7 mbira\f7 sound you hear from the real instrument.
The release of "The Chimurenga Singles," a compilation of his late-'70s singles, by Britain's Earthworks label in 1983, established Mapfumo on the international scene. Several more albums for Earthworks and Rough Trade and some critically acclaimed European tours with his Blacks Unlimited band cemented his reputation.
"Corruption," scheduled for release by Island Records next week, will be Mapfumo's first album for a major label. The end of his homeland's liberation struggle didn't lessen the militant tenor of his lyrics nor his commitment to a one-world vision reminiscent of the late Bob Marley.
"We still call the music \o7 chimurenga\f7 because our music today is the voice of the poor back home," he said. "There are a lot of people suffering, so we, as musicians all over the world, must be united.
"It can be rock 'n' roll, or \o7 chimurenga\f7 music, \o7 juju\f7 music or music from Fela Kuti, but we all have to unite and sing about one thing--peace, love, justice and equality."