Banning Eyre interview by Jason Gross
Patience is a virtue and certainly has its rewards- case in point is Lion Songs, the new book by African music scholar and producer of the wonderful radio series Afropop Worldwide Banning Eyre about Zimbabwe singer/songwriter/innovator Thomas Mapfumo. In the works since the early 2000's, Eyre finally got to finish and publish it early this year. The story is an incredible one which tracks Mapfumo's early musical career in the early '60's in what was then Rhodesia, an African country under white rule (much like South Africa then) all the way up to his present life in exile in America. In between, Mapfumo clashed with the white government in the late '70's, cheered the country's move to independence as Zimbabwe in 1980 but later clashed with its new president Robert Mugabe (who continues to rule to this day) as he became a despotic ruler, leading Mapfumo to take his family Stateside for their safety. In between, Mapfumo crafted music that was revolutionary in more than one way- not only did he sing of struggle and resistance but the music itself combined the traditional instrumental sound of mbria (thumb piano) with electric guitars. This potent combo was dubbed Chimurenga music.
Here, Eyre reflects on the long and amazing career of an artist that he's known well through working with and supporting his work. We also have this extensive interview with Eyre from 2009 about Mapfumo's first two albums.
Lion Songs is available through Duke Press. Also see Eyre's website. A career spanning CD, also called Lion Songs, was also released in conjunction with the book- see details here.
PSF: When you first heard Mapfumo's music, what struck you about it that was unique?
BE: I knew the music of the Shona mbira. I had listened to it as a college student in the ‘70's. So in 1984, when I first heard Mapfumo, I was drawn to the energy and precision of the guitar playing, the passion in Mapfumo’s vocal. But most unique of all was the sound of mbira music transposed to electric guitars. I recognized what it was right away and absolutely loved it.
PSF: Having known and worked with Mapfumo for a while now, how would you describe him on a personal level?
BE: Thomas is his own man. He will certainly accept ideas from his musicians, but he knows what he wants, and is just as likely to veto suggestions. By nature, he is upbeat and positive, and loves to enjoy a joke. That said, he can be moody, and he doesn’t hide his feelings, so if something is bothering him, you’re apt to know it. The best way to be with Thomas is to go with what he wants to do. This was sometimes a challenge for me when I needed to interview him. It’s not that he was unwilling to be interviewed, but finding the right moment often required a lot of patience on my part.
PSF: Having immersed yourself in his music for many years, have you seen it evolve in terms of the lyrics and music?
BE: Absolutely. In terms of music, he is constantly evolving. The emphasis on mbira and traditional adaptations in the late '80's and early '90's helped earn him an international following. That came to define him. But he has always remained interested in African jazz, other Shona traditional sounds, and overtones of rock and pop that had seeped into his musical imagination from the moment he landed in front of a radio at about age 10. All these things constantly get recombined to give each new album a slightly different sound. Since living in the U.S., he has created more complex and layered sound-scapes. The mixes can be dense with mbira, guitars, keyboards, call-and-response vocals, brass and percussion all intertwining at once. His most recent album, Danger Zone, even experiments with electronic grooves and auto-tune.
As for lyrics, there are certain constants: lamenting the loss of traditional culture, highlighting the problems of the poor, and warning of the consequences of dishonesty and corruption. There is a large body of political songs, both from the Rhodesian era, and also those criticizing the Mugabe regime. But in recent years, Thomas has at times grown weary of those political themes, and has sung songs directing people not to put their faith in politicians at all. He has also been writing more celebratory songs of a sort he used to avoid. He wants to show people that he’s not all seriousness and finger-pointing. He also likes to have fun, and to create music that simply makes people want to dance.
PSF: With Zimbabwe having suffered from Mugbabe's horrible rule for decades now, do you think that Mapfumo is still hopeful for change there?
BE: Thomas is perennially optimistic and believes in his people. At the same time, he knows that deep damage has been done to the country’s constitution and political culture. So I would say that he definitely remains hopeful, and really looks forward to returning there to play a role in the healing and rebuilding. But after so many predictions of Mugabe’s downfall have failed to materialize, he’s not in the business of prognosticating. Change will come when it comes.
PSF: Before Mugabe became totally repressive, did you get the sense that the message of Mapfumo's music was having some sort of effect on the music audience there?
BE: Yes. While he was not directly criticizing the regime before 1989 and Corruption, he was pointing to the ongoing struggles people faced, especially the poor. This was an indirect indictment of Mugabe's achievements.
PSF: What kind of impact do you think that Mapfumo's work might have had on other internationally known Zimbabwean artists like Oliver Mtukudzi and the Bhundu Boys?
BE: In the case of Oliver, Thomas had an early impact. He was the person who encouraged Oliver to sing in Shona, write his own songs, take on cultural issues. They toured together briefly in about 1976, with a group called Wagon Wheels. This had a big impact on Oliver early on. As for the Bhundus, they grew up with Mapfumo. He was huge for them. They did a few songs based on mbira music, and the very name they took references the bush (bhundu) where the chimurenga fighters operated. Mapfumo was in their DNA.
PSF: In what ways might you compare Mapfumo's work to other African political singers like Fela Kuti, Johnny Clegg or Mzwakhe Mbuli?
BE: Fela was the bravest and took the most chances. But all four of these artists took their own chances and stood up to corrupt and oppressive power. The distinction for Thomas and Fela (are that) both created styles of music. The others had their own styles, but they didn't become genres like Afrobeat and, to a lesser degree, chimurenga. Thomas's distinction from all these is that he was a major force in uplifting and transforming marginalized and stigmatized traditional culture. For him, culture and politics were always linked.
PSF: Though he's thankfully still with us and active, what do you think Mapfumo's long-term legacy might be?
BE: Big question. He will always stand as one of the foundational cultural figures in Zimbabwe. For more, see the last chapter of Lion Songs.
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