Banning Eyre interviewed about
Mapfumo's early albums by Jason Gross
In the fall of 2009, I spoke to writer and African music expert Banning Eyre about the early years of Zimbabwe music legend Thomas Mapfumo. At the time, Eyre was knee deep in his work, writing a book about Mapfumo's life for years- the fruit of this wouldn't be seen until only this year, with the publication of Lion Songs, which shows that it was well worth the wait. For the interview, we focused in particular on Mapfumo's first two albums (Hokoyo! and Gwindingwi Rine Shumba), his groups at the time (The Acid Band, The Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, Blacks Unlimited), the political struggle to transform from Rhodesia to independence as Zimbabwe, Mapfumo's famous, daring ‘chimurenga' (revolutionary struggle) songs, where Mapfumo fit into the political structure under white rule and his later conflicts with the post-independence president Robert Mugabe.
When I spoke to him, Eyre had the book manuscript with him and was hoping that it would come out in 2011. Here's what he had to say about the book in progress otherwise:
“Writing it for the last 6 years but in effect I could say I've researching it for 20. I didn't know that's what I was doing at first. I met him (Mapfumo) in 1988. I've (had) lots of kinds of interactions with the band- I've driven them on tour, I've played with them, I've even recorded songs with them and I've interviewed as many people as connected with the band as I could, including many of the great musicians who are no longer alive- a lot of the great musicians in this band have died, many of them of AIDS. It's a real story of survival in the face of every form of adversity. Thomas is really a survivor. A lot of people have gone by the wayside. It's kind of amazing that he's still with us."
(NOTE: AN EDITED VERSION OF THIS INTERVIEW APPEARED ON ANTHOLOGY ARCHIVES)
PSF: Would the Zimbabwe music scene would have been different without Thomas Mapfumo?
BE: I think it would have. You can describe Thomas' fundamental impact on the music scene as being a bringing together of two big emotional currents in Zimbabwean history and identity. One has to do with music and tradition and the way that Thomas was not just mbira music but a lot of different traditional dance forms, mostly from Shona but Shona itself includes many sub-ethnic groups. He took lots of those forms and turned them into viable popular dance music that could be played in nightclubs and bars and on the radio as pop hits. There were other people doing that. There were other people who sang in Shona. There were others who took pieces of traditional and worked it into their repertoire but Thomas, once he realized the power of that formula, he made that his identity. And he stuck with it and he kept the focus on it and he brought it to a level of acceptance and allowed it to be embraced by the overall Zimbabwean population in a way that I'm not sure would have happened without him. So I would say that's one thing.
The other big current is of course the whole aspect of protest lyrics and of lyrics that were in support of the guerillas. Again, there were other people who sang songs that are counted among the Chimurenga songs but there was no one who did it with the consistency, focus and daring that he did. And it was the combination of those two things and the way that Thomas brought them together, personified them... It helped people connect two worlds that had been kind of separated by history.
One thing you have to understand is that the Rhodesian regime was very focused on culture. They had come to Zimbabwe not just to get cheap resources or cheap labor but to live. So they were very concerned with having the African population fit in with their overall view of what society should be like. And so, that meant for religious and educational institutions which were powerful, people were really well educated in Rhodesia. But they were educated in a way that was expressly designed to alienate and marginalize their own culture, their ancestral culture. So the fact the state couldn't make them hate their traditional music and their traditional dances, but it could make them feel alienated from them and be mistrustful of them and think that the Christian way is better than the Animist way. ‘The British way is better than the African way. This is how you should dress. This is how you should talk.' These things were pushed very hard because the Rhodesian plan was to have this very intelligent, educated but ultimately subservient African population.
So by the time you get to the ‘70's, you have 3-4 generations of this kind of education and a-culturation. So people are in this situation... and this still exists today... they go to the countryside, they go 'Kumusha' ('back home') on holidays and then they take off their city clothes and they dance to mbira music and 'jit' music and various kinds of things have been there in their tradition. But then when they come back to the city, they put on their other clothes and they're very far from that. And a lot of the kids who became fans of Thomas', when they started, before they heard his music, I've had interviews with people who heard their music, they say "I was into Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, James Brown, Otis Redding. The last thing I would have ever wanted was to dance to mbira music." But Thomas managed to make it cool by tying it to the political aspirations of the liberation struggle and by putting in electric guitars. He made people look at themselves in a different way and reclaim their culture. And he was very clear about the fact that this is what he wanted to do. And once he discovered this as his mission, he just stuck with it. And he was able to essentialize the really strong emotions within the realm of political aspiration and the realm of cultural renaissance in a way that lasted, so that by the early 80's, he was huge. He was a national icon. I've been to a lot of other African countries where these same elements exist and there have been bands that have created really interesting hybrids of traditional and modern music but they never really become the most popular music in the country. The country remains focused on some foreign sound whether it's reggae or Congolese music or something. And it never reaches the sort of iconic status that Thomas achieved, particularly in the 1980's.
So it really took him to do that and I think it had a real effect on where Zimbabwe music went and how the industry developed and even how people thought about themselves in the country. I don't think it's too much to say that. And it's not that he's single-handedly responsible for all this as some writers and even he himself will at times made it sound... I wouldn't go that far. But I would say if you were to ask the question 'what would it have been like without him,' I don't think it would have ever achieved the same focus and the same force in the development of the culture that it did.
PSF: For Mapfumo himself, he was in his early 30's when he did these albums and had been in the music business for about 15 years by then. What brought about the change that led him to create this music?
BE: He actually went through a LOT of different bands in the late '60's and early '70's. He tried a lot of different things. It was a time when he was really interested in jazz or what he thought of as 'jazz,' which would have been broad enough to include Frank Sinatra and the South African jazz that he was hearing. And then he was really, really impressed by the so-called 'Afro-rock' sound of groups like Osibisa from Ghana. And that was a big influence on the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band and also on the Acid Band. And there was a time when he really thought that this was the music that was going to cross over. I think that early on, what really convinced him was that these 'traditional adaptations,' as they called them, were more the way to go. This was the reaction that he saw among audiences when they played the music. Even back when he played in this rock and roll band the Springfields in the late '60's, you find recordings of them doing traditional Shona songs as pop music. There's this kind of kind of like jazzy, swing band version of "Chemtengure," which he later recorded in a number of other versions. So that existed. It was in the mix but there were these experiences that he had when... The first time he worked with the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band and the guitarist Joshua Dube came up with this way of muting the guitar lines and playing the mbira lines that way and singing... using a little bit of that kind of over-driven, traditional vocal style that comes out of mbira music. Once he started doing that, you hear that in a couple of early songs which predate this, he was blown away with how the audiences really responded to those songs. Granted, the band was playing for miners in a very remote camp and a lot of them were Malawians and there were different groups. So the band was charged with trying to have a very diverse repertoire so that they could play at a sports club and play rock and roll covers even for white people and then also play for the miners and hit each of the language groups and ethnic groups. So they were trying a lot of things.
And that was the band who in 1975 participated in a battle of the bands in Harare and won. And Thomas won for a performance where he was dressed in this sort of faux spirit medium garb with this skirt and amulet. And it knocked people out- it was the hottest thing. And that was an important moment but one of a few that happened over the years where he started to really understand that the most powerful tool in his arsenal was these traditional adaptations. So it's partly that the audience led him to it but it was also that he came to really start to identify with this persona. And it wasn't that he thought he was a spirit medium. He wasn't really posing. It was an act. He knew it was an act. There was no real confusion about that on his part although some people were confused by it. And it has too much to do again with this idea that this is all happening in the context of people who've been really traumatized culturally, aside from all the financial, economic and the other kinds of abuses that they have suffered at the hands of the Rhodesian state. There was also this deep cultural wound and Thomas identified this early on and just never let go of it. And to this day, he will explain the problems in Zimbabwe in terms of this idea that 'we've been scared off our culture, we've lost our culture and we need to get it back. And it's not that we need to return to the people we were before...' It's not this simplistic... rejecting all the ways of the world because Thomas is a man who loves horror movies, professional wrestling, reality TV, soccer and any number of things that come from the modern hybrid world. And he doesn't see any contradiction between that. He's very good at synthesizing different cultural impulses.
I would point out these early songs with the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band- one was called 'Ngoma Yarira' and the flipside was 'Morembo,' which was not a mbira song, it was a hunting song. But again, both of them, you would not call them overtly political songs, they didn't say things like 'send your children to war' (ED NOTE: as one of his later songs did) but they did... One was about preparing for the hunt and the other one was 'I hear the drums calling' and it's this responding to the drums. And people could easily read into this, that this is a call to arms. And so the political side of it was subtle and became more and more overt as the 70's go on. By the time you get to Hokoyo!, Thomas has been through a few different bands and he's come back from the mining situation, he's been in Harare (Salisbury at the time), bashing around from club to club, playing in different bands. He's trying a lot of different things.
But he hooks up with this band, the Acid Band, which already exists and he finds this guitar player, Leonard Chiyangwa. who's also going in this direction, interested in these traditional adaptations. And they like the fact that he started to get this vocal style down, singing like a mbira singer. So they bring him in... Thomas used to always be the guy who was hired to sing the rock and roll songs. He'd be the one doing Elvis and the Rolling Stones and that. So this was a new paradigm- now he's the guy who's being hired to sing these traditional songs. And he's also writing songs now. And Thomas is a prolific songwriter. From the moment he started writing, he has never stopped. The man has written 1000's of songs, I would guess. I couldn't enumerate them because many of them never get recorded or they get recorded and they never get released. Once he came upon his formula of writing songs, it was just a torrent that was released. And they're all over the map. You listen to any of his albums and you'll find a few songs that have you scratching you're head like 'what is he doing here?' There'll be some peculiar aspect of Motown, R&B thrown in. He's quirky. But if you take the body of work that really is focused on Shona culture writ large and transforming it into modern context, there are many, many moments of absolute genius. He has the ability to take what was essential about this traditional idea and turn it into a musical idea that just works for a rock band format and turns into something transcendently beautiful and that everyone then imitates.
So I would say it was a series of cues. It was a lot of cues that he got back from his audience that convinced him that this was the way to go. And once he got there, the thing that was great about him was that whatever up's and down's he experience then, and there were plenty, he never let go of that idea. He never stopped believing in its power. Any detours he would take into reggae or any kind of hybrid music... I mean, these days, he has his son rapping with the band even though he has raves against hip hop that will just take the bark off trees. But at the same time, then he'll turn around and do a song with hip hop in it. So he's very malleable and adaptable as he long as he feels like doing it. He's not going to take anybody's suggestion that he should do something but he very well might decide to do just about anything. But no matter what he does, he knows where his center is and he will always come back to these core ideas of uplifting the traditional culture through these modern songs.
But the response to the audience is something that some people have tried to use that to criticize him as if... 'oh, he wasn't really a visionary. He was just a guy who knew how to read the market and knew how to make money.' And they tried to sort of reduce it all to a commercial instinct. To which I respond 'What do pop musicians who are successful in any age do but read their audience?' But I think that to suggest that meant that his commitment to this idea was somewhat was somehow manufactured or just a performance is just wrong. You could just look at the man's life and you know... While he himself isn't going to go back to the village and wear a skirt and cook all his meals over an open fire, no way... But that does not mean that his deep profound feeling for Shona traditional culture is any way a performance or an act- it's very real. He is the embodiment of the modern African who's able to hold onto a sense of pride and ancestry and some real knowledge of traditional culture with just a no holds barred embrace of modernity and to find no contradiction in it and to be able to go forward into the modern world but as an African. This is something that he's really embodied and it's real. It's not a performance. It's absolutely who he is.
PSF: "Hokoyo!" came out when exactly? There's some confusion over this.
BE: I don't think that it came out as a single... (looks through manuscript) 'We know that sometime in 1977 through about May of 1978, Thomas and the Acid Band released about 10 or 12 singles and an album of 10 songs, Hokoyo!.' So I've obviously hit the same ambiguity of release dates as others have. There were singles... I don't know that the song "Hokoyo!" ever came out as a single. I think Hokoyo! is interesting because it's the first full-length album he ever recorded. And that by that time, he had been listening to a lot of albums and he understood that an album wasn't just a collection of singles, that it had to have an overall shape to it. And the album was kind of influential because it was conceived as an album with different styles and kind of a mix of things that would work together as a unit. That was kind of a new idea.
PSF: But you had said before that singles in Zimbabwe had a bigger influence in albums, right?
PSF: So did this album change things in that way?
BE: It was the beginning of album culture (in Zimbabwe). The singles were played on the radio and they were circulated- that's what people were used to. Around this time, by '78, we're getting close to the time when Thomas' songs were going to get banned from the radio. At that point, the way people would hear them was from these trucks would go around from the record company. They would go into the townships and they'd do like these 'mobile discos.' They'd blast the things and they'd sell the records right out of the truck.
(Reading from manuscript) Hokoyo! was the only complete album of songs that Thomas recorded before independence and one of the first albums completed by any local artist. Recorded it... I know where it was recorded, I don't have an exact date. It may or may not be known.
PSF: The songs on Hokoyo!, were a lot of them written around that time?
BE: I think most of them were probably written right around that time. Thomas tends to do that. These days, he'll go back and redo an old song but at that point, the idea of an album was new. He'd been listening to the Beatles and all these people. He had an understanding of what an album was as a form. My guess is that he wrote all those songs and went in and made most of the albums he made during the '80's. This is kind of the paradigm- you create a group of songs, you practice them, it's too many, you go into the studio, you record some of them, maybe you record too many, some of them get dropped and out of that you select and shape the album.
PSF: He was in jail between this album and his next album?
BE: Yes, it was somewhere between 30 and 90 days. That's another of these things to pin down. Thomas always sticks by 90 days. You can do some guessing by how the law works. You could hold someone 30 days before you really had to charge them and they didn't have anything to charge him with so eventually they released him but they did under this deal. He had to sing at a rally for Archbishop Muzorewa (prime minister installed by Rhodesian government), who was a complicated figure. Some people saw Thomas a sell out for doing that. He doesn't depict himself as being a hero. He says 'we had no power. They presented us with an ultimatum and we had to go sing at this rally but we did not sing...' What was so meaningful to him was not that he had sung at the rally but what we sung at the rally. He always tells how the organizers at the rally were not very happy with he sung at the rally because he was still singing the same songs he had been singing before, which were all about going to war. And you look at the songs that he wrote during the time- there is not one song there that suggests that he thought that Muzorewa and his party were the party and that we've arrived and everything is OK now. He didn't feel that way.
He had liked Muzorewa- he had certain things that Thomas admired. He came out of the church and Thomas' parents were very involved in the church. As much as he reveres and loves Shona religion, he doesn't see it as contradictory with Christianity. He has a way of reconciling that in his mind. And so, he has a tendency to like people that come out of the church. I think that Mugabe, with his Marxist ideas, just on paper was someone that Thomas had more reason to be suspicious of. But in the context of all that was about to happen, Thomas definitely did jump on the bandwagon and sing songs for Mugabe. Even on the Gwindingwi Rine Shumba, there's praise for Mugabe.
PSF: Was his jailing linked to Hokoyo!?
BE: There's not much controversy about how he was arrested. They brought him in for questioning. They presented him with all these records and they accused him of singing politics. His defense was 'no, I'm singing culture. This is traditional music.' And that was how the argument went and he had it many times. He was interrogated numerous times. I don't think they had a clear idea of what they wanted from him. Partly, they wanted to intimidate him. But the other thing is that this was happening in early '79 and the game was almost over. Basically, the Rhodesians were lost. It was too late for them to have any real impact by doing things like intimidating pop singers. The game was way beyond that and I think that on some level, they knew that.
I've interviewed him (Muzorewa) and he doesn't even remember any of this. 'This would have all been handled by other people.' Thomas says 'no, he's lying. This is too important.' But to me, what it shows is that it's one of these interesting divides in Zimbabwean culture where the event that is so iconic and so crucial to people who follow Mapfumo and to Mapfumo himself and to Muzorewa, it's just something that went by. He doesn't even remember it. I actually do believe Muzorewa- I actually think that he doesn't have any reason to say that he doesn't remember that. It was probably done by other people. He was probably being manipulated by all sorts of people at that point. Some collection of people came up with people that it would be a good idea because Thomas was so popular, 'if we get him to sing at this rally, it will perhaps people around.' They wanted support for this 'internal settlement,' which was something that (former Rhodesian prime minister) Ian Smith had worked out with Muzorewa and they were hoping to avoid outright independence with that. We knew where that went- within a year, it was over. They had new elections and they had Mugabe.
PSF: With the jailing, how did that change Mapfumo and how he was perceived in the public?
BE: Thomas has been a lot of things over the years. I asked him a few years ago what was the hardest period of his whole life and career and without a beat, he went right to that. Those months after that happened, when prominent voices in the guerilla movement started chanted him down and saying that he was a sellout and people started not coming to the shows, it was... really tough because he was starting to build a machine, to have gear and to tour around the country and having the kind of crew that would allow him to become one of the major operating pop enterprises in the country. And it all started to fall apart. He saw it all slipping away. As in other times when he's been publicly accused of doing something that he thinks is unjust, he didn't really defend himself. He didn't really get out there and say 'no, this isn't true!' He just kind of burrowed and went back to what he was doing. He just kept writing great songs. And of course, this is the time when the Blacks Unlimited, which had only been around for about a year... which is really the band that was going to take him to the heights.
PSF: Did the band proceed him?
BE: The Blacks Unlimited formed... there was a version of it in 1977 but the real band formed in 1978. And he had Jonas Sitthole, the guitarist who you hear on Gwindingwi Rine Shumba, that beautiful lead guitar work. When he got out of jail, he pulled the band back together. They just kept writing songs, very much in the same mode that they had been. And they kept refining their sound. And emotions gradually settled down. Independence came. Thomas kind of had a rough experience at the independence ceremony with Bob Marley and all that. So many ZANU (Mugabe's party) insiders still didn't really trust him and so they made him play last. He played literally as the sun as rising and the only people who were left in the stadium were... he describes them as 'the guerillas with their AK-47's.' You could imagine them drunk out of their minds, dancing in the dust while the sun rises on the first day of Zimbabwe. It's a nice image.
And these songs on Gwindingwi Rine Shumba come out of that time. In fact, one of them, "Chitima Cheruunungko," means 'train to freedom.' A guy who managed Thomas at the time thinks that there's a connection between that song and Thomas' kind of redemption. Thomas was invited to play at a luncheon for the leaders, sometime in the early months of the administration. He sang that song, which apparently Mugabe liked and while he sang it, Mugabe and his wife got up and danced and this was on television. Thomas does not buy that this moment was so important but his manager remembers it clearly so I give it some credence. But whether it was this moment or other things or just the passage of time, within the course of 1980... it was just a fast turn around. In general, what I remember is that newspapers were saying that he was on top. He was the most popular musician in the country.
The gist of it is that he came back in a big way. And it was the music (that did it) for one thing. The band was just really cracking at that time. The band that he had which recorded Gwindingwi Rine Shumba is just exceptional. It's a really focused hard-hitting combo with brilliant guitar playing, really interesting songs and just the spirit of it... And that carried the day and I again I come back to the idea that it was Thomas' consistency, his dedication to his ideas, come what may. No matter how much you throw at him, he never sort of goes off course. And I think people quite quickly recognized that and whatever resentments they might have had about the Muzorewa thing, they gradually let go of it and he became the most popular musician in the country.
PSF: What do you think the difference were between the Acid Band and Blacks Unlimited in terms of how Thomas worked with them and vice versa?
BE: Well, the big difference is that the Acid Band was not Thomas' band. They hired him to sing in it. And there was always some sort of rivalry about who was really in control. Those kinds of struggles would go on but from the point of view of the Blacks Unlimited, this was Thomas' band. He was calling the shots. So the Blacks Unlimited really represented HIS vision. That's the first big difference.
In terms of musicality, the Acid Band had more... other musical impulses going on. The traditional adaptation idea was in the mix but they also did a lot of other things. I mean, you could say the same thing about the Blacks Unlimited- they also did a lot of different styles. But what you really hear between these two records is there's a lot more of this kind of Afro-rock idea. Even the song "Hokoyo!" itself is in the genre that Thomas refers to as 'Afro-rock.' And that really starts to go away, you really don't hear anything like that on Gwindingwi Rine Shumba. There are some songs that are not at all traditional, like "Rita." It's an important song lyrically because it's about a young woman adjusting to rural life after the war life. This album deals a lot with this sort of aftermath of war and people coming out of the forest and trying to pick up the pieces of their lives again. This is a huge part of Thomas' appeal.
That's another thing that's different with him and the Acid Band. He's writing all the songs now so all the messages are his. And he's really able to shape the message. He had a role in shaping message (before), the really big popular hits of the Acid Band were his songs after he joined in the late 70's. But once it's the Blacks Unlimited, he's controlling everything. And he's able to express himself in all these different ways. And telling stories about a person, like "Rita"- her thing of coming to the rural life after this time of war was poignant. Even many, many years later, people related to that and they were talking about that song. They were quite emotional about it because of what it meant to them.
So, the Black Unlimited is the beginning of it and this is the first Blacks Unlimited album. It's the point where after a lot of wandering around, trying different things, going from place to place, band to band, situation to situation, he really finds himself and says 'OK, now I know what I'm doing. This is my band.' And it's not like it was any kind of a smooth ride from there but at least much of the Mapfumo picture, the idea that he's going to have his band and he's going to the songs and he's gonna call the shots, that is established and it's never changed.
PSF: So Gwindingwi Rine Shumba was recorded after Mugabe first came into power?
PSF: Was the material written at that time too?
BE: Now this is interesting... I've actually had some discussions with Thomas where he's told me that the song "Gwindingwi Rine Shumba" was sung before the end of the war. (pause) I really think I know when this... It was not recorded (then). It was recorded later. It was recorded even in 1981, so (it was) considerably after (that), or months or a year after. So whether the song existed and was sung before... And this becomes important because there are some people who try to make a connection between 'Gwindingwi Rine Shumba" ('the lion in the forest') with the very ugly episode which was about to happen where Mugabe was going to go tooth and nail after the Matabele resistors and the massacres in Matabeleland. And people tried to say 'well, this song is encouraging that.' And Thomas, to distance himself from that charge, claims that he was singing the song much earlier. I really don't... I have no evidence that the song did exist earlier than that.
But that doesn't make me buy into that charge (accusation). I certainly don't think that Thomas ever intended it that way. For one thing, people really didn't know. Thomas is a street guy- he grew up in the ghetto. He talks tough. I mean "Hokoyo!" is basically 'watch out- we're waiting for you.' It's this kind of street kind of language. In the early years of independence, everyone wanted the (Mugabe) government to work. Everything wanted the thing to happen. And Thomas was behind it and rooting for it. So when he starts saying things like 'there are still people out there who are resisting. We need to go after them,' it's just his natural bravado mode of expression. The fact that the government was in fact training this elite brigade to go in and torture and intimidate and do horrible things to people, nobody knew that. Thomas didn't know that. You can't tag him with being complicit in that. However, you can imagine that the people who were doing that would have listened to songs like that and a later song like "Nyoka Musango" ('snakes in the forest') and feel encouraged in what they were doing. So it's a big of a grey area there and it's one that Thomas really, really takes great exception to anyone suggesting that he supported any of that. And I totally take him at his word. But I still say, whatever your intentions are, your music is going out into a cultural context. People will take it and use it in whatever way they want. And I don't think it is insane to see that people who were engaged in that campaign could gotten encouragement from those songs, whatever Thomas may have intended.
PSF: The famous ‘Chimurenga' singles are separate from these records, right?
BE: Yeah, they're not on either of the albums.
PSF: What was different about them as compared to the material on these two albums?
BE: I think that if you listen to Hokoyo!, it's two different bands. But you listen to Gwindingwi Rine Shumba and you hear a real change. But if you listen to all the singles in between, you would understand that increments of that change and the different points that were touched along the way. It's not that they're inherently different but the singles give you a more moment to moment sense of what's happening. He would release singles a lot. They'd go into the studio and record what would be an album in modern times and it would just get released over the next few months as six singles. Or sometimes he would write a song, responding to something that was happening right then- they'd go right in and record it and it would very soon be out as a single. So, what was different about the singles in terms of their cultural impact is that they could really respond in almost in real time to events. And people were just very orientated towards listening to singles on the radio. The album thing hadn't really taken hold yet the way it was about to. So it just sort of the normal way of an artist relating to his public. And musically, it's not that they would be wildly different. You would find the same kind of mix of styles in all those singles that you find on these albums. But again there's this business of... This album (Gwindingwi Rine Shumba) has a lot of traditional adaptations on it, reflecting the fact that at that time, that was the hot sound. The Afro-rock thing was going away. You have some kind of experimental songs on here but by and large, there's a lot of traditional impulse on this record. That's what was happening. That's what people were really feeling at that moment and Thomas knew it.
PSF: Thomas moved here (the U.S.) in 2000...
BE: Yes, he moved his family here in 2000 and he moved here permanently in 2004 and he hasn't been home since.
PSF: How is he seen back in Zimbabwe outside of the government (who bans his music now)?
BE: It's interesting. It's hard for me to answer that now since I haven't been there in so long. One thing I always hear from people who go there is that there is still tremendous hunger for him to return. There is clearly a faction that feels abandoned and that he looked after himself rather than his audience.
I think Thomas favored his family over his career by coming here but while it was good to get his kids out of that school system and out of all the dangers and harassment that they faced and into American schools... They have good lives. They've been spared a lot of terrible things they would have had to endure. But for Thomas' career, I don't think it's really been a good thing. It's removed him from his most loyal audience, and has opened him up to this perception that he looked after himself. One the other hand, after 40 years of music making and this incredible body of work just sort of guiding the culture and psyche of the nation through this tumult of liberation war and all these experiences leading up to the (recent) farm invasions, he was right there, helping them understand it and process it. He just doesn't owe the world anything. When I lived there in 1997 and '98, he was working like 5 nights a week, playing shows that would start at 8 at night and sometimes go until dawn. And he was rehearsing every morning of the weekdays. Just really working hard. Harder than most musicians I've ever seen in any context. Very, very dedicated. And on some level, he really deserved to have a less stressful life for a while. At this point, it's unfortunate that it's gone on for so long. I think he'd love to go back. I know he'd love to back and hopefully he will some day. He can now- he has a green card, just as of a month ago.
PSF: How does the music on these two albums compare to the music from his later career?
BE: Hokoyo! I would say is tremendously important in terms of his history. Just evaluating it in musical terms, it wouldn't be one of my top choices. Gwindingwi Rine Shumba I think is really of his truly great, great albums, largely because of the energy, the chemistry in the band, the power of the songwriting and exquisitely beautiful guitar playing by Jonah Sithhole.
After that, there are many phases. The ‘80's were very strong. I really like the albums he did. Towards the late ‘80's and into the early ‘90's, two things start to happen to the band. One is that he starts to bring in the actual mbria and the traditional side becomes richer and becomes closer to the actual traditional music. That results in some really fabulous albums and songs- I'm thinking of Chamunorwa (‘what are we fighting for') in 1991 as being a real standout. The other thing that was happening is that he said that he was going more in the African pop direction and following the trends at that time like having keyboards more and more prominently. I really never really liked the aspect of the thing and I don't think those albums, the ones that... You can't even do it by album, you have to do it song by song, although some of the albums have a particular focus and unleash one instinct or another to a greater degree. But those early 90's albums are more hit or miss. I think there's songs that are really ruined by the keyboards from my point of view.
Then, coming into the later ‘90's, I think he then starts making again some truly great albums- I would think of Chimurenga Explosion, which had the two songs which got banned by the radio, which led to this sort of... growing confrontation that Thomas had with the Zimbabwean government, starting in the late '90's. Some people find hints of Thomas making snide remarks about the new leaders as early as 1984, in the song "Congress," where he's singing about the big ZANU congress and he's talking about 'even the snakes are coming..." People listen to that and think "Oh OK, he's already seeing this corruption. And he comes right out in 1988 with the song "Corruption," which was responding to an actual scandal (with the Mercedes Benz going to be resold by ministers). And Thomas was right out there with that. But what happens in the late ‘90's is different because what he really starts to say to the Mugabe and the leaders at that point is 'you've betrayed us. You've promised us all this stuff. And what you've given us is...' You know, the song "Mamvemve" ('the nation is in taters' or 'the country is in disaster'). And he's pointing the finger at the leaders. He's not just saying 'you are corrupt and you look after yourself.' It's saying 'you really let us down. You promised us all this stuff and you haven't delivered.' And once he gets on that message, it's just persistent. He just hammering at it and it really pisses them off. And it creates tremendous dissidence within the leadership because these people... he was their hero, he was their Bob Dylan, their shining light. And now he's turning and trash talking them and it creates this huge conflict for them. The reaction is... understandably complex.
Also see this 2015 interview with Banning Eyre about his book on Mapfumo, Lion Songs.
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