Saturday, February 24, 2007

Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited

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My wonderful wife and I just returned from a concert performance by Thomas Mafumo & the Blacks Unlimited at the local JC.

I can’t say that I had heard of Mapfumo before today but I have already come to admire him as a person and as a musician

Mapfumo is from Zimbabwe and grew up there when it was still white-ruled Rhodesia. During the ‘60s he began performing in popular music venues imitating the British/American styles of Elvis, etc.

By the ‘70s he had created his own musical synthesis combining various musical styles around a form of music indigenous to his Shona tribal culture. Central to this music was the spiritual, circular melodies created by the mdima, more commonly known as a finger harp.

The black Marxist rebels seeking the overthrow of the Ian Smith government captured his vision of freedom. The guerrilla forces were called chimurenga (Shona for “struggle”) and Mapfumo began calling his new sound “chimurenga music.”

According to notes on his life found at,
Mapfumo had become a national hero by singing theme songs for a revolution, his deeper message was really about culture, not politics.
At tonight’s concert, Mapfumo introduced his music in this way:
My music is about freedom. That is all I have to say about my music. It is about freedom.
Having seen the demise of one oppressor and having celebrated the liberation of his country, Mapfumo found himself, by the late 1990s, becoming increasingly critical of the rapidly totalitarian rule of Mugabe. At times his songs were banned outright by the government and, after the opposition party unexpectedly did well in a national election the government began harassing Mapfumo, including filing false criminal charges against him.

In 2000, Mapfumo took his family to Oregon where he now lives in a sort of self-imposed exile. He occasionally returns to Zimbabwe to perform for his many fans. His songs have

Decried alcoholism, AIDS (several of his original band members died from this), domestic violence and people’s devotion to foreign things—all prices that Mapfumo felt Zimbabweans had paid for abandoning their ancient culture.

Since Mugabe, whose iron-clad rule has completely destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy and social structure, is celebrating his birthday this week with a lavish party tomorrow (Saturday) I was curious what, if anything, Mapfumo might have to say about him.

What he said was this:
This song is about dictators . . . . like Robert Mugabe of my own country, Zimbabwe . . . when a man like that dies . . . the world rejoices.
He also introduced another song by saying,
This song is about our youth. There are too many wars these days . . . what if young people refused to go? (applause)
By the end of the evening I had concluded that Mapfumo’s music, with its complex, melodic rhythms (that brought dozens of the audience to the front of the theater dancing) could best be described as “liberation music.”

Even more, as I pondered the themes of peace, of justice, of freedom or health and wholeness that transcended the music that tried, futilely, to contain and tame them, I decided that an even better description might be “Kingdom of Heaven” music . . . music in the footsteps of Isaiah, Amos and Jesus.

I found it easy to relate Mapfumo’s focus on freedom to our own national passion of every possible idealized version of this concept . . . including the musical voices from our own turmoil of the 1960s freedom marches and anti-war demonstrations.

No matter how elusive, impossible or impractical the attainment of this vision of freedom might be there is nonetheless something of God in it: The lion lying down with the lamb; Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom of God; John’s revelation of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven.

I sought in vain to find some parallel with Muslim culture . . . an expression within Islamic culture in music or poetry or simply a visionary dream of peace, and joy, and freedom for all. I have no doubt that I will be thinking and rethinking this matter in the days to come.

As Mapfumo ended the concert he thanked the audience for their enthusiastic support and then added,
God bless you.
These simple words, which caught me completely by surprise, seemed to validate my take on his music. True freedom is not provided by ideology or liberation movements. The liberation from one oppressor (White Rhodesia) has turned out to be little more than a slow transition from one form of oppression to another. True freedom will never be attained through the efforts of sinful humanity. Freedom is, above all else, a gift from God that is, as our own nation’s founding documents explain, presented to us all as an endowment . . . an unalienable right for all.

Yes, tonight’s concert was about freedom. And the words, “God bless you,” pointed to the only place we can ultimately turn to find it.

Samples of his music can be found here, here and here.