Out of fear that Robert Mugabe’s government will have him arrested, the Zimbabwean singer and guitarist Thomas Mapfumo has lived in exile in Eugene, Ore., since 2000. Mapfumo’s chimurenga music, or music of struggle, is banned from the airwaves in his home country. But the 66-year-old musician known as The Lion of Zimbabwe will make a rare local appearance with his seven-piece band The Blacks Unlimited Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. He spoke with Arts Desk via e-mail about his music and the controversies dogging him at home.
Mapfumo spent his teen years singing Wilson Pickett and Beatles covers in English, but began penning socio-political songs in Shona during his country’s revolutionary 1970s. The white minority-led Rhodesian government consequently jailed him for subversion. Nevertheless, his bouncy, melodic Chimurenga music, which combines traditional mbira (metal-pronged thumb piano) with Southern African pop, was already the unofficial soundtrack to the uprising that overturned that rule in 1980.
That year, Mapfumo sang at a Zimbabwean independence concert with Bob Marley; by 1989, he had soured on Mugabe’s reign, and released his album Corruption. About a decade later, he relocated to the United States. But he still faces trouble from the Zimbabwe Republic Police, who allege that Mapfumo, on a visit to Zimbabwe in 2001, bought and sold four stolen cars and failed to respond to an open police docket on the case. Mapfumo insists there was no docket opened against him at all, and he does not know why this is being brought up now. “I told the police exactly who I sold the cars to and nothing was ever done about it,” he notes, adding, “This is probably a political maneuver intended to tarnish my name.”
In May, he made a surprise appearance in Johannesburg with Zimbabwean singer Oliver Mtukudzi, and he is now touring in support of his 2010 album Exile. He says he consciously made this album more pan-African than his prior releases. He grew up listening to Congolese rumba and South African township jazz in addition to soul and rock, and on Exile, he incorporates West African guitar sounds into his already unique, hybridized Zimbabwean sound.
Why did the controversial legend choose to live in Eugene? “It’s a quiet place and good for my children, unlike big cities,” he says. “It has better education, also.” But despite his distance from Zimbabwe, Mapfumo keeps up with news from home. He’s resigned himself to the possibility that Mugabe will stay in office until he dies. “It’s possible because others in power are supporting him,” he says, “and want him there to maintain their own positions.”
Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited perform Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, 2700 F Street NW. kennedy-center.org. Free.