Magazine article New African

The Lion in Exile: Thomas Mapfumo Has Been the Most Popular Entertainer in Zimbabwe for the Best Part of 40 Years. He Has Also Been a Fearless Critic of the Country's Rulers, Earning the Sobriquet "Lion of Zimbabwe". Stephen Williams Interviewed Him for New African

Magazine article New African

The Lion in Exile: Thomas Mapfumo Has Been the Most Popular Entertainer in Zimbabwe for the Best Part of 40 Years. He Has Also Been a Fearless Critic of the Country's Rulers, Earning the Sobriquet "Lion of Zimbabwe". Stephen Williams Interviewed Him for New African

Article excerpt

IT WAS A SHOCK FOR HIS MANY FANS when in the late 1990s Thomas Mapfumo took his family to relocate in Oregon, USA. But it was also an indication of just how serious Zimbabwe's problems were that he should choose to go into voluntary exile. A decade later, Mapfumo is still based in the US where he continues to lead a busy life touring internationally and recording, as well as lending whatever support he can to the people back home in Zimbabwe.

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Interviewed while he was touring the UK in late November, Mapfumo confirmed that he was just putting the finishing touches to a double CD, entitled Exile, recorded in Oregon and New Mexico, in the USA. It will be his first new release for many years, and Mapfumo is clearly excited about the music's direction. "The melodies and the beat are a little bit different, but the message of the music is still the same," he confirmed.

Mapfumo also talked about the strange situation that many African musicians like himself face--they may be hugely popular in their own country and overseas, but it is difficult to reach into other parts of the continent. An artist like Mapfumo, who could sell out a concert in Amsterdam at the drop of a hat, would hardly be recognised in, say, Accra (Ghana) or Dakar (Senegal). Thus, he sells many more records in London than he does in Lagos (Nigeria); and is a popular performer in New York and Tokyo but virtually unknown in Nairobi (Kenya)--a situation that needs to change.

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"We've been aware of this and we've been talking about it for years," he says, "and I hope the record companies and promoters will start to do something about it. It is holding the continent back when Africans are kept apart in this way."

Inevitably, our conversation turned to the situation in Zimbabwe. What Mapfumo has to say about his country carries a special weight given his own role during Zimbabwe's liberation struggle. As a young man, he witnessed the blatant racism of Rhodesia's white community and consciously decided to use the power of music to fight for his country's freedom.

"No, I never really listened to the political speeches [before independence]," Mapfumo makes clear. "I just noticed what was going on around me, and it didn't go down well with me. As a kid I was always wondering, 'When are we going to be free?' It was supposed to be our country, and I knew that I might have to fight for my country. I thought I could use music as a weapon, to send my people messages that this is their land, that they should fight for their freedom."

When the Rhodesian authorities finally woke up to what Mapfumo was singing, in deep Shona, they arrested him. "I never went to court, I was just detained. I spent nearly three months in Chikurubi [a notorious prison outside Harare]. "I wasn't tortured in jail, I don't want to lie about that, but they had other ways to shut you up. They could always just take you away and kill you." It was a terrifying experience, even worse for his family who could not be sure they would ever see him again.

Yet Mapfumo survived his incarceration, and in recognition of his contribution to the struggle, was invited to play at the Zimbabwe independence ceremony in April 1980 at Rufaro Stadium in Harare, alongside reggae act Bob Marley and the Wailers, who are still one of Mapfumo's favourites. …

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