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Thomas Mapfumo, 'Lion Of Zimbabwe,' Returns From Exile With Triumphant Homecoming

May 7, 2018
Originally published on May 8, 2018 8:55 am

After a 14-year absence, Thomas Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited rocked until dawn at Glamis Arena, an open-air stadium packed with some 20,000 fans of three generations. Mapfumo — Mukanya to his fans, a reference to his totem, the baboon — moved his family out of the country in 2000, to escape turmoil and harassment under the regime of Robert Mugabe. Mugabe and members of his ZANU-PF party were frequent targets in Mapfumo's barbed songs and public statements. But since Mugabe's military-enabled ouster last November, efforts have been underway to get Mapfumo back to the country and in front of the audience that loves him most.

In Harare, Zimbabwe, on Saturday, April 28, it happened.

"I thought maybe I wasn't going to be able to come back here while I was still alive," mused Mapfumo the day before the big show. "But by the grace of God, I'm here."

Mapfumo last performed in Zimbabwe in April, 2004. For fans of an artist who once prowled the stages of Harare four or five nights a week, it's been a long dry spell. In the meantime, a whole generation of Zimbabweans has come of age knowing his music mostly from their parents' CD players and in public transport vans, or kombies. But it was clear from advance ticket sales that the interest in this historic concert was intense.

Mapfumo pulled together an all-Zimbabwean ensemble of 17 musicians and dancers, coming from Zimbabwe, South Africa, U.K. and his current home in Oregon. Over two days, the band rehearsed songs from throughout Mapfumo's 40-year repertoire. During his self-exile, Mapfumo has performed in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Mozambique and South Africa, working with a skeleton crew from Oregon and musicians he knows in these locations. Bands have rarely exceeded eight musicians. So this virtual orchestra felt like a return to The Blacks Unlimited glory days of the late '80s and '90s. There were a few old-timers in the lineup for this show, but mostly the band was made up of much younger musicians.

"It's so weird," Mapfumo notes with a laugh. "You start thinking of the old guys and now you see all these new faces. Those are our daughters. But they know the music."

A return show for Mapfumo has been rumored so many times that it had become hard to believe it would actually happen — and there were hitches that might have derailed even this one. Late advance payments from the promoters, rumors that Mugabe money was behind the show (unfounded) and squabbles over filming rights — as the band took the stage for sound check, it felt a bit dream-like, even to its members.

"I keep on pinching myself. 'Is this real?,'" says lead guitarist Gilbert Zvamaida, who has spent years in exile with Mapfumo in Oregon. "I was excited at the rehearsal, now this is the real thing, I'm kind of nervous. I'm a perfectionist by nature." That shows. Zvamaida's entrancing interplay with former Blacks Unlimited guitarist Zivai Guveya, now based in the U.K., was a treat to behold throughout the rehearsals and the concert.

The music began soon after dark, with sets by four opening acts, including another veteran of Zimbabwe music, Oliver Mtukudzi, and Winky D, one of the top acts in Zim-Dancehall, the country's dominant youth genre these days. Just after 2 a.m., The Blacks Unlimited took the stage. The mood was electric.

Mapfumo appeared in a black suit, orange-tinted glasses, and a quasi-top hat, behind which his three-foot dreadlocks trailed down his back. "Zimbabwe!" he crowed to roars of adulation. The artist hardly spoke as he led the band through a no-nonsense set, full of lengthy renditions of classic and new songs. At times the crowd sang along, ecstatic.

At one point, Oliver Mtukudzi came on stage and danced with the band, to Mapfumo's evident delight. Fans had often cast these two as rivals. But in fact, they have long been good friends, and this public showing of mutual admiration went down well with the crowd, perhaps a sign of what they'd like to see from their squabbling politicians.

The show ended only when the sky began to lighten. Some had wondered whether 72-year-old Mukanya still had that kind of stamina. But this and all other doubts were put to rest. The Monday morning papers contained raves, summarized in the headline "Mukanya Delivers."

"It was magnificent," noted longtime Zimbabwean music writer Fred Zindi. "We had not seen Thomas in Zimbabwe for almost 15 years, and suddenly he comes with the same bang he had in the '80s and the '90s. That was really cool. The biggest show I've seen compared to last night's one was Paul Simon and before that, Bob Marley. Bob Marley was a free show, and the crowd was almost the same as last night — and last night, people were paying $20 minimum."

Particularly encouraging was the preponderance of young fans in the crowd. These are the people Mapfumo wants to see lead the country, and the sooner the better. "For 37 years, we have failed," said Mapfumo referring to his generation writ large. "When we started, I was a young man, but now I'm seventy years old, and we haven't done anything to improve our situation. So I'm asking them politely: Give the youth of today the chance to run the country."

The young crowd that showed up in numbers for this show included many who had never experienced a live Mapfumo show. During the past 14 years, state-supervised radio stations have played his music only selectively, and state press has gone out of its way to paint the artist as a misguided has-been. So why this big youth turnout?

One of Mapfumo's former managers, Cuthbert Chiromo, has an answer. "When you're growing up, you've got your brother or your uncle or whoever, and you're exposed to what they are listening to. At home, obviously, the king in the house, he's playing Thomas Mapfumo," Chiromo says. Indeed, many young fans in the crowd told stories of being influenced by their Mapfumo-obsessed older relatives. It seems that the songs themselves, with their rich blend of tradition and modernity, and their trenchant lyrics, are central to Mapfumo's staying power over his extended absence from the country.

One of the organizers, Blessing Evanvavas, seemed awed by what he and the young promoters of the show had achieved. "Just him coming to Zimbabwe, it was a very big political statement. It silenced a lot of critics, and it changed a lot of dynamics in the political circles in this country."

Mapfumo himself was deeply gratified to sing again in his homeland.

"All I would like to say is I would like to thank everyone who supported me yesterday and those who are still supporting me today," he told the crowd, "I'm not fighting to be a leader of this country, but I want to stand with the poor people. That's where I belong. My message is still the same. It hasn't changed."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Thomas Mapfumo is an icon in his home country Zimbabwe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAMUNORWA")

THOMAS MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language).

CORNISH: The 72-year-old singer had not been home in 14 years. He moved his family to exile in Oregon to escape President Robert Mugabe's regime. Now with Mugabe out of power, Mapfumo finally returned. To mark the occasion, he and his band threw a massive all-night stadium concert attended by thousands. Banning Eyre was there.

BANNING EYRE, BYLINE: I arrived in the capital Harare two days before the show and got a warm greeting in the rehearsal studio.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Welcome, welcome, welcome. Good to see you. Hey (Unintelligible).

EYRE: Mapfumo and 17 musicians and dancers were preparing for the big night. He'd assembled artists from three continents. And they sounded sharp as they worked through numbers from his vast 40-year career.

MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing in foreign language).

EYRE: There were a few old-timers in the lineup, but mostly fresh faces too young to have experienced Zimbabwe's turmoil in the '70s and in the '90s. Mapfumo and his band The Blacks Unlimited used to perform four or five nights a week all over the country.

PRISCILLA SHUMBA: It is such an honor to work with such a great man. Yeah. What I remember about him - he's so blunt. He tells the truth like what it is. Yeah. That's very, very unusual - so very unusual.

EYRE: That's Harare-based Priscilla Shumba, one of four singer-dancers in the lineup. That bluntness comes through best in barbed songs pointing out the failures of the Mugabe regime.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DISASTER")

MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language) Disaster.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing in foreign language) Disaster.

EYRE: During his exile, Mapfumo's new work was scarce on the airwaves in Zimbabwe. Young people were more apt to hear his music in public transport vans called kombies rather than on the radio.

SHUMBA: People always play his music in their houses...

EYRE: In their cars.

SHUMBA: ...In their cars. Yeah. That's where you hear it, in most kombies.

EYRE: So all those kombie drivers, they're going to want to be at the show tomorrow.

SHUMBA: That's - oh, yeah (laughter).

EYRE: Mapfumo traveled from Oregon with his wife, two brothers, two daughters and his lead guitarist. None of them had been home in those 14 years. And the moment of return was emotional.

MAPFUMO: You know, the welcome was so huge. When I got by the airport, I couldn't even move (laughter). People were screaming.

EYRE: But Mapfumo says the conditions in his country have gotten worse. This summer, Zimbabwe will hold its first elections since Robert Mugabe stepped down. For now, members of his ruling party still run the country. And Mapfumo, like most Zimbabweans, is waiting to see what happens next.

MAPFUMO: I don't know them. I have no clue who they are. But some of them were part and parcel of the Mugabe regime. But we expect them to do the right thing. We are not siding with anyone. Let's see what they're going to do.

EYRE: He may not side with any party, but he is siding with the next generation.

MAPFUMO: If we are genuine, the youth of today should be given the chance to lead the country. This is their future. For 37 years we have failed them.

EYRE: On the day of the show at soundcheck, I caught up with lead guitarist Gilbert Zvamaida.

GILBERT ZVAMAIDA: I'm ecstatic. I'm so excited. I don't even know where to start. I keep on pinching myself. Is this real (laughter)?

EYRE: At 8 p.m., a series of opening bands kicked off, and the crowd swelled hour by hour. It was clear that the youth Mapfumo so believes in were turning out in big numbers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're having fun. And we're so happy. And it's a concert we've been waiting for for a decade.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I started listening to Thomas Mapfumo 6 years old. People who were surrounding me were into his music.

EYRE: By the time Mapfumo and his band hit the stage at 2 a.m., some 18,000 tickets had been sold.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAPFUMO: Zimbabwe.

(CHEERING)

EYRE: Mapfumo held the stage nonstop for nearly four hours...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

EYRE: ...Finishing only as the sun rose at dawn.

FRED ZINDI: It was magnificent. Suddenly he comes with the same bang that he had in the '80s and the '90s. That was really cool.

EYRE: Fred Zindi is a veteran music writer.

ZINDI: The biggest show I've seen compared to last night's one was Paul Simon and before that Bob Marley. Bob Marley was a free show, and the crowd was almost the same as last night. And last night, people were paying $20 minimum.

EYRE: Blessing Evanvavas, one of the show's organizers, seemed in awe of what the team had accomplished.

BLESSING EVANVAVAS: Just him coming to Zimbabwe, it was a very big political statement. It silenced a lot of critics.

EYRE: And as for Mapfumo himself...

MAPFUMO: I feel very, very good. I thought maybe I wasn't going to be able to come back here whilst I was still alive. I would like to thank everyone. I'm not fighting to be a leader of this country, but I want to stand with the poor people. That's where I belong.

EYRE: For NPR News, I'm Banning Eyre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.