Thomas Turino is a professor of musicology and anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After conducting extensive field work in Zimbabwe during the 1990s, he published “Nationalists, Cosmopolitans, and Popular Music in Zimbabwe” (University of Chicago Press, 2000). A complex work examining the role of music in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and establishment of statehood, Turino’s book provides an excellent account of the social, political, and historical circumstances in which Thomas Mapfumo rose as a composer, singer, and bandleader. In October, 2005, Banning Eyre sat down to talk with Turino for the Afropop Worldwide program “Thomas Mapfumo: The War Years.” Here’s their conversation.
Note: Images in this feature come from Turino’s book, Fred Zindi’s book “Roots Rockin in Zimbabwe,” sleeve notes from Green Arrows and Hallelujah Chicken Run compilations on African Analog, and the collection of Banning Eyre..
Banning Eyre: How did you first get interested in Zimbabwe?
Thomas Turino: My first area of research was Andean music in Peru. As a beginning graduate student, however, I encountered Paul Berliner’s book, The Soul of Mbira, and the accompanying Nonesuch records of Shona mbira music, and I was hooked on the sound. The first time I heard mbira music performed live was at an musicology conference in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1980, and it was Ephat Mujuru playing. It was so beautiful, I think I cried. I loved it.
Paul’s book was very influential in the process of bringing the mbira into what has become a cosmopolitan canon of world music traditions, traditions any world music fan should know or any world music textbook should include, just as European music history texts must include Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and the other figures of that canon. But actually, Zimbabwe has many types of musical traditions, probably the dance-drumming and choral being most common, but it was really the mbira that caught the international imagination. I think that its sound and music produced a good fit with cosmopolitan aesthetics. It had a familiar aspect to it, a sweet aspect that fit our aesthetics, and yet at the same time, it was distinctive. So this mbira-centric view of Zimbabwean music influenced the reception and conception of Thomas Mapfumo in world music circles outside Zimbabwe after the mid-1980s.
B.E: You use the word cosmopolitan in a particular way. Can you define it?
T.T: When I use the word cosmopolitan, I’m thinking of a particular kind of cultural formation, or culture group. Cosmopolitans are bound together by shared habits of thought and practice, and technologies. So when I use the word cosmopolitan I am not thinking of individuals. I’m thinking of a cultural group that is spread out throughout the world, but united by common modes of communication and thinking.
B.E: Why don’t you give us a kind of social/historical snapshot of Rhodesia in 1970—say, in the 60s leading up to 1970?
T.T: To understand the development of Mapfumo’s style in the late 1960s and 1970s we have to go back at least to the beginnings of mass nationalism in late 1950s and to the rise of the black middle class as a separate cultural group in the 1930s. Most countries in the world have a variety of cultural groups within their boundaries; this is still true of Zimbabwe and was certainly true of Rhodesia before independence in 1980. In Rhodesia there was no unified cultural group that could be considered a nation. There were a variety of regionally based indigenous social groups each with their own musical traditions, as well as this middle class that I was beginning to describe. Through the process of mission education and growing up on mission station land a black middle class began to emerge as yet another distinctive cultural group. It was this group that internalized capitalist ethics and the value of personal accumulation, as well as Christianity. Through European and North-American-based missionary education, they also learned the principles of nationalism—that each social group should rule itself through its own government.
What’s interesting to me is that in Shona, for instance, there was no word for “nation.” It wasn’t a local conception. It was a conception that Zimbabweans learned through North American and European missionary education. The African middle class also internalized European and North American aesthetics in terms of clothing styles, music and dance styles, styles of weddings, and culinary styles—all the things that we think about as being part of culture. In the first phase of this process, in a colonial situation, like in Zimbabwe, the people are imitating a model that’s coming from somewhere else. And here again, the vehicle is this mission education. What’s important to me is the people who grew up, say, on mission station land, which is really separated from the indigenous sections of the country that were still thriving time. It was not that that a cosmopolitan culture took over the indigenous one. But people who grew up on mission station lands, who grew up in middle class households, start to be socialized in a different way, and they start to be socialized with these ideas that come from elsewhere.
But here’s the key thing. These new cultural elements become localized in these people’s life experiences, so that when they pray to Jesus, or they go ballroom dancing, it is no longer that they are imitating Europeans. At this point, they are really doing something that is coming out of their own cultural background, although in Zimbabwe, it was a minority cultural background. This is what I think of as a cosmopolitan moment, when the cosmopolitan formation really starts to form a particular place. It is through the internal generation of those practices that are done in London, that are done in New York, nowadays in Tokyo—but now, in Harare they’re being done, by people who grew up in households where these were common practices. That’s what I think of as the process of creating a cosmopolitan cultural formation.
B.E: So what was foreign for their parents or grandparents is no longer foreign to them.
T.T: It’s who they are. So the reason I was interested in understanding cosmopolitanism as a cultural formation in this way is that the old ways of talking about African and European, or Western and African, as a kind of dichotomy, seemed wrong to me, because there were people in Zimbabwe who when they went ballroom dancing, or they performed jazz, it wasn’t that they were performing a foreign style. These things had already been in their family, and in their cultural group, for several generations. This is certainly true for Thomas, who comes to this after these traditions are localized by local performers, and created locally in a distinctive way.
So the other aspect of cosmopolitanism for me is that while you’re sharing ideas like automobiles, money, that you should save money, that certain kinds of education are good—all these values that we think of as normal in middle class America—those values get spread their through colonialism, but then they take root within a particular cultural group and they are localized. But at the same time, cosmopolitanism always coexists with unique aspects from the area in question. So an African cosmopolitan might still believe in witchcraft, for instance.
B.E: Yes, I noticed that in West Africa, in Mali. But there, I always had the sense that people had a stronger sense of history than did people in Zimbabwe. Malians seem more protected from absorbing foreign culture because they have a stronger sense of history.
T.T: The other thing is that the Malian culture is an elite culture. It had a centralized state. And we see this in the musical traditions themselves, highly developed specialists who can stand on stage with anyone wherever they go. It was a type of civilization that was more akin to the European, cosmopolitan civilizations that it was coming in contact with, as opposed to a peasant society, for instance, when you don’t have the specialists. Zimbabweans did not have the same cultural mechanisms in place to preserve their own history.
But let me say this. I think this is important. We get these images that once westernization takes hold a certain place, then it sweeps the whole place, and once colonialism started in Zimbabwe, then all indigenous traditions go by the wayside. That is not the case. What I’m trying to describe for Zimbabwe is that the emergence of this small middle class that has cosmopolitan ways, that can speak to people in New York in London on the same terms because their part of the same formation. However, simultaneously in time, throughout the colonial period and to the present day, there are other cultural formations in Zimbabwe, which I’ll just call for the sake of ease, indigenous cultural formations. The belief system is different. The practices are different. The musical aesthetics, I would argue, are radically different. And these things exist in parallel. In other words, there is a kind of macro historical narrative that said, “Colonialism rubbed out indigenous Shona music and dance, and it was replaced by modern jazz and other cosmopolitan styles.” I don’t agree with that view. I think that the indigenous music making was powerful throughout the colonial period. It remains powerful today. It’s just in another cultural formation. It’s in other places. It’s in what were called the Tribal Trust Lands earlier on, in rural areas, and in the working-class townships. There are still a lot of monolingual Shona speakers in the working-class townships today.
There are some people in those places, in fact a fair amount of people, that are part of a deifferent cultural formation. There is interchange between people certainly, but I would say that they make decisions differently. One of my acid tests for thinking about cultural formations is how you make decisions. What is your basis? Is it about capital accumulation? Or is it about what the ancestors might say about a particular action? Those are two very different bases for making a decision. And those would be the kind of indicators that I would use to think about whether somebody was really in the cosmopolitan formation in Zimbabwe, or largely in an indigenous formation.
Everybody thinks of history as this neat linear phenomenon. There’s just one line of history, so when this stuff is coming in, the other stuff has to go out. People think that way, and it’s just not the case. You’ve got lots of tracks, but it’s the middle class track the gets reported on, because that’s who the cosmopolitans are interested in. So all this other stuff is going on, but nobody’s paying attention to it. That’s how culture works. The cosmopolitan loop. There’s also ethnomusicological loops. The ethnomusicologist shows up and all the professional informants come out of the woodwork and talk to you, because they are you been trained by earlier scholars what to do.
I was talking about how the African middle class internalizes the social style and cultural style, and then starts to produce its own version of it. I want to always argue that it is this particular pocket, this middle class pocket, who become really prominent, because they’re the ones who ultimately take over the government and the institutions. They are the ones who are found in print, who get to go to conferences in London and so on. But there’s this other, vibrant cultural formation going on in the villages that doesn’t get the same amount of attention, precisely because they’re not cosmopolitan. They don’t talk the talk, walk the walk, and they’re not as available to people in the cosmopolitan formation.
B.E: Okay, but when we talk about traditional music in Zimbabwe, there is a pervasive idea that the Rhodesians discouraged it. To some extent, where mbira is concerned, there is something to this, especially in terms of missionary activity. Wouldn’t you agree?
T.T: Throughout the colonial period, indigenous dance drumming, panpipe playing, mbira playing, and choral music continued on within indigenous communities and in working class townships with great vitality. There is a common idea in Africa in general, but certainly in Zimbabwe, that the colonial government, and missionaries, tried to stamp out indigenous musical practices and dances and so on. There is some truth to this in certain Mission groups, but even there are there’s quite a variety. But my research indicates that this is not so and that indigenous Shona music remained vibrant, as it does today. In fact, beginning in the post-World War II era, the government-controlled radio station began recording all types of indigenous music The idea was to attract and keep Africans tuned into government controlled radio, but in the process they recorded and diffused many types of indigenous musics outside the regions they were originally associated with. One unintentional outcome of this was to help break down regional cultural differences, which, ironically served the nationalist cause of unifying the different indigenous groups culturally.
Let’s take the colonial government, for instance. The government controlled radio actually went out of their way in the post-World War II era to record all types of indigenous dance drumming, choral music, popular music, mbira music, to be aired on the African Service radio programs. Why did they do this? Out of love for indigenous music? Probably not. They wanted to keep listeners tuned in to the government controlled radio so they wouldn’t tune in to radio Moscow or something. But the effect of this was to actually archive this stuff. These recordings are still in the Zimbabwean archive today. And it did something else too. I mentioned earlier that there were all these different, regional, indigenous groups. All these traditions were links to a particular area and to a particular group. When the radio picks them up and begins to air them widely, they begin to cross those regional boundaries, and people begin to know traditions from other regions. And in a funny way, they helped promote the same process that nationalists themselves were trying to promote, which is to break down regional and so-called tribal barriers, to get Zimbabweans to think of themselves as one group. Well, the radio had an impact in that. So to say that the colonial government tried to squash these things is inaccurate. They held festivals. They recorded and aired this stuff on the radio.
B.E: Perhaps those claims apply more to an earlier period. These radio broadcasts come later on in the Rhodesian history, right?
T.T: Yes, post-World War II. But even earlier, the picture is not so clear. What I’ve been trying to talk about with culture as a concept is that in any one place, you’re going to have a lot of different possibilities, different formations existing. And within any particular cultural formation, you have a lot of different individuals. Some missionaries, I was told, loved traditional music and dance. Some did not. There was a variety there, denominational variety. So these kind of macro stories that we get in different places don’t take human variety and idiosyncrasies into account.
B.E: So it doesn’t mean that the stories we hear about in mbiras being taken away, and children being humiliated are not true. It’s just that there are other stories too. But don’t you think that the Shona, decentralized, and weakened at the time Rhodes arrived, were especially vulnerable to acculturation?
T.T: Well, we don’t want to overstate the separation from the past either. It’s just a shortened past. So that within the indigenous culture, for instance, I argue that spirit possession ceremonies are a force for conservatism. You have to get particular ancestors into the ceremony. You have to play the music that they liked when they were alive. You have to play the same tunes, and you have to play them supposedly in the way they liked. So that whole tradition is a force for conservatism, it just simply doesn’t go back all the centuries that you have in Mali. But I would not say that history is unimportant. It is. It’s just a shorter history. It’s a history that is linked to actual individuals that somebody knows. So it’s like a small community as opposed to a larger civilization where there are structures that keep more abstract relationships in existence.
There are spirits which are much further back, clan spirits, mhondoro spirits. But a lot of the action, a lot of the energy in terms of ceremonies for the ancestors, is one’s own family ancestors that go back through generations and generations. So it’s the closeness. These ancestors are family members, and they care about us in the present, and they’re watching out for us in the present. So with that kind of attitude, it’s more intimate, more face-to-face.
B.E: But it also means that the ancestors who people are communicating with are all tied up with the colonial history, because that’s the history they grew up with. This is what I mean what I say that the colonial history looms so much larger in Zimbabwe than in, say, Mali.
T.T: Well, I’m not so sure it does looms so much larger for certain pockets. Again, it looms larger for cosmopolitans, because they’re interested in playing that game. For indigenous peasants, who are still subsistence farmers, I’m not sure it does loom so large. But this is a whole other topic. Let me say this. In the nationalist war period, there is this image that it was a populist movement, and peasants were all behind the guerillas and the leadership and so forth. That is not the case. There were special comrades who had to go out and try to politicize the country along Maoist principles. People were not on board just automatically. The idea of nationalism as this kind of groundswell, natural idea–that we should all want our own government. That was a foreign idea. And these were localized groups. They were not necessarily on board. Nationalism in Zimbabwe was a middle-class-led, and in a lot of ways, peopled, movement. Indigenous people certainly understood the colonial situation. They were moved off their land. And they were moved around in a way that was really very difficult for them because of spiritual connections to the land. So they were aware that they were under a colonial régime. But on a day-to-day basis, once they were left to themselves, whether this impinged on them to the extent that it did on the middle-class who had different aspirations, I’m not sure.
B.E: Let’s come back to music. You write about the indigenous music going on in the urban townships. Talk about that.
T.T: In the central market area of the main working-class township of Harare or Salisbury at the time, you had dance drumming and indigenous music every Sunday. Migrant groups from the rural areas, who were wage workers in the city, or domestics, performed this music. So this music is going on, but in parallel, you have a whole different kind of tradition emerging within this black middle class that comes up in the 1930s. And in fact, this type of music was directly out of the mission schools. These kids were trained to sing European harmony, and were trained to an aesthetic system that is radically different. In indigenous music, for instance, you get dense textures, lots of overlapping, lots of variation on the melody. All this creates this dense wall of sound, with highly percussive-based backing on drums, or hosho shakers. And the music is participatory at its core. Anyone can join in whenever they want, and it has the feeling of spontaneity. The way a particular performance goes depends on the moment of performance. In contrast to that, and as part of this emerging, cosmopolitan formation of life, middle-class Zimbabweans in mission school learn to read music. They learn to create very transparent, very clear textures. They sing all the same notes at the same time and rhythm, with well-balanced harmony. The diction of the text is important. And they sing sometimes even really strange songs, American songs like “I Ride in Old Paint” or “Shortnin’ Bread.” I’ve heard old recordings of school choirs singing these things in a style that is definitely influenced by the school singing tradition, this mission singing tradition, and yet it is distinctive. And that’s where I come back to this notion of cosmopolitan. It’s this notion of things that are done in lots of places, like western harmony for instance, but always with a kind of separate, in this case, Zimbabwean accent.
Okay, so the kids coming out of these choirs read music. They have developed this taste for very clearly arranged music, lots of nice contrasts, European harmonies, and so on and so forth. They begin to create their own traditions. They moved to Harare to try to get clerk jobs, or other jobs that are open to the black middle class, and they start to create their own groups, and they model these groups on African-American groups, like the Mills Brothers, or the Ink Spots, or different jazz groups. There were also groups from South Africa that served as models for these Zimbabweans. And so they started creating their own vocal quartets, quintets, backed by jazz band instrumentation. And jazz musicians were coming out of the military bands, which is standard practice in Africa in general. You have instrumentalists playing horns, often learned in military bands, or police bands.
One popular group beginning in the 1940s, and all the way through the beginning of the 1960s, was a group called the Black Evening Follies, and they spelled their name “De Black Evening Follies,” almost an imitation of dialect, coming out of the minstrel tradition in the United States. They performed at situations that were polite, middle class, sit-down concerts in recreation halls in the urban townships, for middle-class audiences. And one of the things that people always told me is these concerts were so quiet you could hear a pin drop. All the attention was on the performers on the stage. They were so polite that you could take your mother-in-law, which is the acid test in Zimbabwe to respectability. So they would have these concerts in the recreation halls on weekends, and they were variety shows, and they would do all the cosmopolitan styles of the day. In this one group, the Black Evening Follies, they kept up the cosmopolitan styles. For a lot of their tunes, they would come out on stage with carefully, politely choreographed dance, and sing Mills Brothers song very much in that style.
As time goes on, as rock-and-roll hits the world in the late 1950s the Black Evening Follies was one of the first groups to play rock-and-roll. Say, around 1958 to 1962, you could have heard in the same Black Evening Follies concert a Mills Brothers tune and a song imitating Little Richard or Elvis Presley. Sophistication and smoothness were important aspects of performance for the black middle class in Zimbabwe, because that was part of their sense of who they were. Again, I’m arguing that this is not simply an imitation, but that they were part of the same formation that valued a tightly organized, sophisticated sound. These were now their own values. It’s what they learned in school, so they would reproduce those things.
When Thomas Mapfumo began learning cosmopolitan musical styles as a teenager, he could have obviously turned to recordings, and the radio, and hear these recordings from afar, but what’s interesting to me is he also had local models. There were a number of different groups, Black Evening Follies, they Cool Fours, Epworth Theatrical Strutters, who were playing cosmopolitan music. These groups start performing jazz, and later rock-and-roll, in the townships, so that young Zimbabwe’s could go to these concerts in the city and hear local performers doing rock-and-roll. This is again this notion of cosmopolitanism. It had formed its own roots in this place method formed its own roots in this place, and there were local models. Young Zimbabweans could learn from older Zimbabweans, these traditions, not as foreign things, but as local.
B.E: That’s very interesting.
T.T: In my book I call this “concert music” because that was really the main context for performance. This is exactly the type of music that was written up in black middle class publications like African Parade, later just known as Parade. I studied this publication over time, and what was really interesting to me is that the African Parade writers were black, middle class Zimbabweans, and the bulk of what they talked about in their journal was either visiting artists from afar, or the cosmopolitan, local jazz groups like the Black Evening Follies and Cool Fours, and so on. And what was also interesting, is that when they talked about indigenous music, they talked about almost as the that was the foreign style. They exhibited a lack of understanding of mbira music, Shona dance drumming music, and so on, and I don’t believe this was them trying to deny their roots. I believe that this was actually the product of their upbringing. They didn’t know this music. They grew up in Mission station lands when middle-class households, Christian households, where this music was not performed. It wasn’t common.
So again, I’m coming back to this notion of these multiple cultural formations with very little crossover. What’s also interesting, in terms of this larger story that colonialism was crushing indigenous musical practices, is that during the late 1950s, the first attention on the part of the black middle class to indigenous musical practices does not come from the nationalists. But in fact, it comes from a group of white liberals, and white foreigners, who in the post-World War II era had become interested in indigenous African music. All of a sudden, the writers in African Parade started taking an interest in African music.
For instance, one writer notes that when a Zimbabwean jazz group goes to London, nobody is very interested. But when a Zimbabwean group goes to London and performs indigenous music, that’s what the Londoners are interested in. And so that idea takes root in Zimbabwe. Among the urban, middle class, all of a sudden, indigenous music starts to become chic. Now this is during the Federation years, late 1950s, early 1960s. There was a liberal mood among certain whites, and the idea that the discourse of “racial partnership” was pervasive at that time. But it is a partnership with the black, cosmopolitan, middle class. They were the ones in touch with that whole discourse and the possible benefits of it. So this creates a sense of real frustration when in fact the black middle class gradually realizes that political partnership and economic mobility is not going to be a possibility. So in the second half of the 1950s, mass nationalist really begins to take off.
Incipient nationalist parties, and then major nationalist parties like ZAPU, and in the early 1960s, ZANU, emerge at this time. Now what’s also interesting is that there was no unified Zimbabwean nation. There wasn’t even the word “nation” in Shona. This was a cosmopolitan concept, so of course the leadership that had this concept were cosmopolitan. That’s what they learned in Mission school or in higher education abroad.
B.E: So how did the nationalists use music in service of their cause?
T.T: In the early sixties, it was none other than a young Robert Mugabe, back from Ghana, schooled in ideas of African nationalism, who was the publicity secretary for one of these new nationalist parties. And as publicity secretary, Mugabe and his colleagues planned nationalist rallies for the people in African townships, particularly around the capital. What happened at these rallies? They would bring out a particular dance from one region, another dance from another region, another dance from another region, and they would have mbira players associated with the Zezuru, a sub-Shona group. They would have all these different traditions associated with particular regions or social groups together on stage, along with Groups like the Black Evening Follies, the Cool Fours, and others playing rock and jazz, and so-called “modern music.”
The image created from these rallies was very, very purposeful. They chose the indigenous traditions, Jerusarema dance drumming, muchongoyo dance drumming, mbakumba dance drumming, mbira performance, as emblems of the uniquely Zimbabwen. But at the same time, they would put them on stage juxtaposed with these “modern” acts. This was even written up in headlines, that the intention was to create a blend of the new and the old–uniquely Zimbabwean, yet modern, and on the same footing with other nation states in the world. And this particular image begins to be created, and seen by many, many, many urban dwellers in Zimbabwe in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And this in my opinion is the beginning of mass nationalism, and also, a second bit of fuel behind this idea that indigenous music is good, and it’s even better when it’s blended with these cosmopolitan aspects.
It was precisely this blend that Thomas Mapfumo hit on in the development of his mature style beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By playing indigenous dance-druming and mbira music in an electric guitar band format, Mapfumo, and the many others that did this type of thing in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, were right in step with the mood and taste of audiences.
I would argue that this kind of change of mood and change in taste among the Zimbabwe urban musical public has these two roots: One, the white liberals of the Federation period who were looking to the uniqueness of African music, and Two, the nationalists. And these two groups, white liberals and nationalists, in fact were closely united during the late fifties Federation period. So it was these conditions that created an audience that was receptive to the style that Thomas would make famous. Interestingly, it was also this blend of the distinctively Zimbabwean with cosmopolitan musical features that would make Mapfumo’s music appealing to world music fans after he started touring internationally—it was both exotic and familiar at the same time, exactly the combination world music fans would respond to in the 1980s and 1990s.
B.E: In your book, you talk about how Thomas was to some extent guided by his audience.
T.T: Well, you know, professional performers are always guided by, and influenced by, the tastes and desires of their audiences, and so they should be. What’s interesting to me in the Thomas Mapfumo case, is that the same combination of the distinctively local, represented by indigenous musical genres such as Jerusarema dance drumming, and mbira, and musical bow and so on, combined with electric band instrumentation, this was the very same combination that was created by the nationalists in the late 1950s, the same combination that worked with Thomas’s mature style and the late 1970s, and the same combination that worked with cosmopolitan audiences in London, in New York, in Tokyo, in the 80s and 90s. And the only way that I can understand that link is that, in fact, while we think of Zimbabwe as one culture, and the US another culture, and Japan as another culture, actually, all this was happening within the same cosmopolitan cultural formation. Mapfumo has been so successful in his own country because he was able to bridge and be true to the two aesthetic systems that he himself had internalized, and he was able to do so with creativity and beauty.
One of the things that I was struck by when I worked in Zimbabwe was that there were a lot of electric band’s doing indigenous genres, and the more conservative indigenous musicians often rejected these efforts. But they always said to me, “Thomas got it right. He was the one person who could really do the indigenous music in this band formats and get it right.” And I believe it he was able to be so creative, and produce such beautiful music because he himself had internalized these two aesthetics fully, and in him, they were combined in a unique way, and that’s what we get with his music.
B.E: Talk about some of the musical developments that lead up to the emergence of Thomas’s mature sound.
T.T: Well, in addition to the indigenous music and the cosmopolitan styles, there’s a third stream that is really quite interesting, which is what I call the itinerant guitar players, acoustic guitar players, what a lot of Zimbabwe us would call “box guitar” players. These people are typically subsistence farmers, but in the off-season from the agricultural work, they would travel. They would take their guitars. They would play in beer halls for tips, or they would play on the street, or play on trains for tips. And this was a vibrant crew. They were actually one of the first groups of part-time professional musicians in Zimbabwe, and it became real entertainers, so the way you make tips in beer halls is you tell stories and have a large repertoire. You can play lots of different kinds of pieces, and so these guitar players became really skilled. One of the types of music that they played the most was South African popular music, marabi, sometimes called jive. And the South African styles, once they became adapted to Zimbabwe and musical style, that is, they went into that 12/8 feel, that’s the beginning of the genre that is unique to Zimbabwe today called jit. It comes from the South African genres, through the aesthetic sieve of these Zimbabwe and acoustic guitarists. These guys did everything including rumba, from Cuba, which was popular in Africa via the Congo and lots of different sources. Strikingly, there was very little sort of acoustic blues from the US that they took up. I found a few recordings, but not very many. Country music was huge. Jimmy Rodgers was a major model for some of these acoustic guitar players, but others had come out of playing indigenous musical instruments, like bows, like mbira, karimba, and other instruments like that.
Some had actually been mbira players, or played other Shona instruments of that type. And they would just adapt that music that they already knew, and the indigenous singing style that they knew, to the acoustic guitar. So that was one-man, for instance, John Nkomo, who played acoustic guitar with a bottleneck, or slide, like Delta blues players would in United States. But he played mbira music. There’s a particular piece that he recorded with the radio station, a guitar version of “Karigamombe.” So in this case, what we have is a musician taking a new technology, and basically just adapting it to indigenous musical practices and aesthetics. You have that kind of example in Mali, certainly, among the Mande. Well, it happened in Zimbabwe, and it happened in lots of places, including South Africa, were bow music was transferred to the guitar.
In the 1960s, something starts to happen in urban Zimbabwe. A distinctive youth culture begins to grow up, based on sort of teen culture in the cosmopolitan formation, in United States, in England, in France, and so on. And so rock-and-roll, and television shows like Teen Time start to happen. Stories of the Beatles’ wealth, the Rolling Stones’ wealth start to influence people in Zimbabwe. Concert groups, like the Black Evening Follies, all had middle class day jobs. This was art for art’s sake. They never had the idea of making a living playing music, or most of them did not. In fact what they told me is that when they made money, they either put it back into costumes and so forth, or they would donate it to charity. Another feature that came with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones was the notion that the singer-songwriter, performers who write their own music. This was part of the rock-and-roll idea. So by the mid-to late 1960s, you start to see this valuing of musical originality. Also around this time, a change in liquor laws meant there was more nightclub work for musicians.
So there is starting to be pressure in the Zimbabwean, middle class press, for groups to develop their own styles. This is another force behind the use of indigenous musical practices. These young, budding guitar band musicians tried all sorts of different formulas. When they only covered foreign records, they were often criticized for not having their own thing, for not being original. So groups started experimenting to try to come up with an original sound. And Thomas was certainly one of these. And one of the things they hit on, even as early as 1966, was to use indigenous musical styles, and even indigenous songs that were associated with village music making. So that for instance, in 1966, Thomas Mapfumo records a very, very popular song and all sorts of indigenous settings called “Chemtengure,” but he records it with an electric guitar band, with a group called The Springfields. Thomas’s version of “Chemtengure” sounds to my ear like a garage band version of rock-and-roll, but singing a Shona song.
So these groups—Beatsters, Zebrons, Springfields—they were taking lots of different elements from indigenous music making, sounds, pieces. And each group, on various songs, either used a high-hat in imitation of a hosho Shaker, or in another song the guitarist came up with the idea to rest his hand against the strings, to get the damped guitar technique that sounds like the mbira, or in another song really almost use this indigenous style of huro singing, that high, yodeling singing that John Nkomo used to do. But these were all bits and pieces that were later put together. When we get to the early 1970s, there were different groups like MD Rhythm Success, the Limpopo Jazz Group, and Thomas Mapfumo with Hallelujah Chicken Run. For the first time in 1973 and 74, these groups really put all the elements together.
B.E: I think the song Thomas created with Joshua Dube, “Ngoma Yarira,” was the first one.
T.T: This was the first time I know of that classical mbira pieces were used and playing in an electric guitar band format, where the mbira piece was really rendered in the same metric form of 12 eighths, with the same harmonic progression, and what Thomas adds, I think in an important way is the indigenous singing style on top of this electric guitar base. And they didn’t just do mbira songs. This is also a misconception. Because of the mbira-centric view of Zimbabwean music, everyone thinks that mainly what Thomas records is mbira music. Well, that’s not true. He records lots of different kinds of genres, both indigenous and reggae, and new experiments and new creations.
B.E: At that time, Afro rock was his thing. He was into Osibisa and he really though that was the new direction for Zimbabwean music.
T.T: He also said that he wanted to play the saxophone like Stan Getz.
B.E: Yes, but that was earlier on. Once he hears Osibisa, he really thinks he’s found the formula. This is it, Afro rock, mixed with tradition. He told me that he thought those were the songs are going to hit, but that when they played the Skyline Motel contest in 1975, as he put it, “The people chose ‘Ngoma Yarira.’” For him, that was a major revelation.
T.T: Here’s a context where people want to become professionally successful. They are experimenting with different kinds of sounds. Thomas says to Josh, “Here, sit down and see if you can do something with this mbira music.” And Josh, by his statement, works it out on the guitar. And they come up with this song, “Ngoma Yarira,” and record it as a 45, a commercial recording. On the other side, is another indigenous song called “Murembo,” and the text could be read as a song about war. The liberation struggle that was getting underway at that time. What Thomas says, and what Josh has said, is that they were playing lots of different kinds music, but when they got those two songs out, those were the things that the audience responded to. And so Thomas said to me, well those hit, so we decided to do more like that. Again, this notion that artists are working with their audiences. They are paying attention to their audiences, and they are guided by their audiences. And I think that’s the case here. And this turn to the performance of indigenous music in a very classical way, that is, really maintaining the aesthetic basis of it, and combining those aesthetic bases with cosmopolitan aesthetics and instrumentation—that was the formula. And that was the place they were led to, I think, by their audiences.
B.E: By the way, Crispen Mutema, the producer of this and many of Thomas’s early singles deserves a good measure of credit here too. Thomas has said he was one guy who really saw where things were going. Let’s talk about an interesting song from a few years later, “Tumirai Vana Kuhondo.” “Send Your Children to War.”
T.T: My friend and teacher, Chris Mhlanga, told me that this had originally been a threshing song, and it was actually a song of complaint that there weren’t enough people around to help with the work, because the Chiefs had sent them all of to war. So the original context of the song was not a political song, or it was political in its own way. It’s a complaint to the Chiefs that their constant warring with each other is diminishing people’s labor supplies at home.
B.E: That’s interesting. But you know, Thomas got the song from the Rhodesian army. Soldiers used to sing it as a marching song. He was very pleased about the fact that he didn’t have to change any words, but just the fact that it was him singing changed the meaning. But I’m curious about lyrics vs music in delivering the message of rebellion. The poet Musa Zimunya said of Thomas’s songs that the “African melody” was the important thing. I believe the quote was, “He could have sung these words to rumba and they wouldn’t have meant a thing.”
T.T: In terms of the three top artists of that late seventies., when the liberation war is really going on in a hard way, you’ve got Zexie Manatsa, Oliver Mtukudzi, and you’ve got Thomas, among many, many other bands. Like in the late sixties, when there were all these different combinations of things, that was also the case in the late seventies. Experimentation continued. But there were a lot of groups doing electric band versions of indigenous music, some of these with texts that could be read, or heard, as political statements, and so on. And I talked to Oliver, Zexie, and Thomas about these things. And Oliver said to me, “You know, popular artists are like a window to what’s going on, and our songs should express what’s going on.” And he felt that if there was political content within the songs, it was in the texts. He thought the texts were what was very important, not the music.
I was very interested, being mbira centric myself, in the use of those kinds of musical indices of indigenous music, and that fits our notion of what musical nationalism should be. But he said, “No, it was really the texts where the action was. The musical sound wasn’t that important.” So that was his opinion. Other people have other opinions. I think what’s important, though, is the kind of overall sense that what is unique to us, and what is local, and ours, is legitimate, and it’s beautiful, and important. So the use of indigenous elements in this cosmopolitan context, this blending of the new and old, as a middle class African reporter put it writing about the African nationalist rallies of the early sixties, actually, that blend, I think it supported peoples’ feelings about themselves, and feelings of self-worth, which is a hard thing to really… I mean, you can’t pinpoint where this is. It’s cumulative. And my argument is that has been going on for more than a decade, really since the late 50s, this kind of move from the source that I describe, this kind of changing mood, changing attitude, not segmenting the cosmopolitan from the indigenous, but joining them together and having that become the model of where things are going. So these artists who did this, they contributed to that. Whatever their own political leanings were, the sound alone contributed to that.
B.E: The writer Alexander Kanengoni was fighting in Mozambique in the 70s, and he told me about hearing Jonah Sithole’s song “Sabukhu,” one of these mbira guitar songs. He said that everyone around the table fell silent. They all knew that a new direction had been set for the country’s music.
T.T: Well, you have to be careful about how scholarly discourses feed back and influence peoples visions of what was, and what was important. Again, it’s always the mbira example that gets highlighted. It’s not Thomas’s Jerusarema arrangements, right? Because it’s the cosmopolitan attention to mbira. That’s the real thing. That’s the real Zimbabwean thing, whereas in fact, as I said in my book, it is a minority of what Thomas’s output is. I mean if you count how many songs come from mbira, as opposed to other things, album by album, it’s not the majority. But that’s what gets the press. So the fact that people are making a statement about an electric mbira record may be hindsight. This is what really hit. This is what has gone cosmopolitan attention, so that was the important moment. If it had turned out to be arrangements of Jerusarema, that might have been song that the statement was made about.
B.E: Perhaps. I certainly accept your position that Thomas was one among many. But I do think you have to say that something that separates Thomas from the others is his fidelity to the general formula of adopting indigenous music. Whatever he said or did along the way, once he gets there, he clearly knows this is what he is about, and he doesn’t let go. Even though he records a lot of other songs, he never lets go of the idea of remaining loyal to traditional music.
T.T: But is that really true? Chimurenga for Justice, that album for instance, I take is a very experimental moment where he’s really trying to move in another direction.
B.E: Sure, and there are other times when he tried new things. He always does that. But I don’t think he ever does this with the intention of leaving the past behind.
T.T: Well, maybe. Or maybe he plays this other, music, reggae for instance—actually, some of the songs on Chimurenga for Justice are among my favorites by him. And they weren’t mbira based. At least one of them was based in a dance drumming genre that nobody would recognize. So there wasn’t the index there of Zimbabwe that the mbira thing is. So you could argue that no matter what he wanted to do, he was then moved back to this other thing by his audience. That’s what they wanted. And here’s a hint on this. One of the guys in the Bhundu Boys told me that when they were living in London and doing shows, they had become completely associated with the term “jit.” How much jit they actually did is another matter. But at one point they wanted to do country music, you know US-based kind of country style, and when they tried to do that, they got slammed, because their audience in London was the world music audience. They wanted clear indices of Africa. “Don’t give us this country stuff.” He was really frustrated. He wanted to make another stylistic move and turn, but wasn’t really allowed to by his audience.
B.E: I think Thomas does get this pressure to play mbira, but he doesn’t mind. That’s what he loves most. Drive around with him and his car and that’s the music is most likely to be listening to. I remember interviews from the very first time I met him in 1988, when they had just made Chimurenga for Justice and Zimbabwe Mozambique. Chartwell had recently joined the band, and they were talking about wanting to other Zimbabwean sounds. It was, “Yeah, we do the mbira, but people don’t realize all the other Zimbabwe traditional sounds there. And we’re trying to find something on every album that we can add in.” I think this is going on right up to the present. If you listen to Thomas’s albums, right up to now, there isn’t one that doesn’t have at least one complete surprise on it. I don’t think he’s that constrained by his audience. He likes the idea of the theme album, and he likes the idea of always hitting people with something they don’t expect. About ten years ago, he did a cassette called Afro Chimurenga, where he went back to his old Afro rock idea. There isn’t a whiff of mbira on it. He’s always looking for something new to pull in, but he doesn’t abandon what he’s done before. I also think that he would agree with your notion that it’s the localizing of the foreign sound that makes it Zimbabwean.
T.T: It’s a complicated thing. I don’t think we are disagreeing. I see the experimentation thing. But look at the presence of the mbira players onstage. There weren’t any mbiras in the band until he went into the world music market. And then the very clear indices of this instrument. It is the instrument that is known of that country, despite the fact that this is a minority tradition in that country. Because it’s unique, and because it fits cosmopolitan aesthetics, here’s one, two, three mbira players onstage, moving to the center of the stage. In one tour, Chartwell is spirit medium robes, which he actually said to me he felt kind of sheepish about. Because I met him on that particular tour and I said, “Are you spirit medium?” He responded a little sheepishly and said, “Well, no, but…” This is not a criticism, but there’s definitely a playing to what that audience expects, and playing up the elements that they can recognize that make you distinct. That’s all I’m saying. And it makes total sense to me.
B.E: About political content, and the idea of Thomas as a freedom fighter, I always remember you’re telling me only met in 1992 that you thought Thomas was braver to sing songs like “Corruption” against Mugabe, than he was to sing against Smith during liberation struggle. How do you think about all that now?
T.T: Well, I’ll give you a possible interpretation. Certainly Thomas is the only one who can answer this really, because it’s hard to know another person’s motivations. As I’ve said in print, and as Thomas said to me once, it starts with “Murembo,” that 1974 single. I think maybe Thomas, initially, is looking for a sound, and is looking for themes that will work with audiences, and he discovers them with that 1974 single. As he says, those songs hit and he decided to do more of them. As the seventies progress, there were all sorts of texts. One of the stories about Thomas was that he always couched his political there’s an oblique terms so that he wouldn’t be picked up in the country. Well, in some cases that’s true. In some cases they were pretty clear I thought, and pretty bold. But, whether the impetus for doing this is his own political convictions for his professional aspirations, I don’t know. But I do think that as he goes, and as he becomes known as someone who has song for the black nationalist cause, a common process is that you start to internalize your own image. I think a lot of people do this. We tell stories about ourselves, about the past. We remember the past couched in what is important in the present. By the 1980s, I think Thomas is very political. The political motivation for doing “Corruption” was coming from him, whatever the genesis of it is. I certainly can’t speak for him, but if he’s brought to this by his audience initially, by the time or in the eighties, I believe he has taken this as part of who he is himself, and he begins to be very, very active in his music, and politically concerned, as a self-motivated thing, which he remains to this day.
B.E: Do you have thoughts about the Muzorewa incident, where he was arrested and released on the condition that he play at a Muzorewa rally? He says that at that point he did not support Muzorewa, but felt OK about playing the rally because he was still singing songs about the struggle.
T.T: Well, again, there’s this hindsight that Muzorewa was bad and, at least in the eighties, Mugabe was good. So anybody who was for Muzorewa is a sellout, and so on and so forth. I talked with other middle class cosmopolitan Zimbabweans, and I said, “Was Thomas for Muzorewa then?” And this guy said, and I don’t think he can speak for Thomas either, but he said, “Tom, we were all for Muzorewa then.” There were a lot of conservative middle class Africans in the urban areas. They thought Mugabe was this crazy guy out in the bush. He didn’t have this mass support necessarily. Other people tell the story that when he was first elected, there was a fair amount of coercion then. Certainly African Parade, and the other middle class journals were not supporting him. So who knows? Was Thomas pushed into doing it? I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. But there are so many motivations we have. One is that he was professional musician, and he wanted to be a successful professional musician. You know, I danced with a Jerusarema group, guys in Mbare. They were the ones who performed those initial nationalist rallies. And they were up there being part of the imagery that the nationalist were constructing, and I asked them, “Were you guys nationalists?” and they said, “No, it was just a gig. They wanted us to play and we really didn’t know it was all about. Okay, you want us to dance. We’re happy to dance.” And they went.
B.E: Thomas was pretty clear with me that he him very much admired Muzorewa earlier on, because Muzorewa came from the church. And that was Thomas’s background. He also said he was suspicious of Mugabe from the start because Mugabe was a Marxist, and Thomas was very skeptical about that. Now, of course, there’s a whole new kind of revisionism going on where people try to distance themselves from Mugabe. But I have quite a bit of evidence that Thomas was not comfortable with Mugabe from the beginning.
T.T: Lots of people felt that way.
B.E: I believe Thomas mentions Mugabe in only one song, “Nyarai.” But he sings a lot of songs celebrating the victory, and implicitly supporting Mugabe.
T.T: Yeah, well good then. It was a honeymoon period. It was a glorious moment. There was so much hope. But you know, there was an article in the ZANU party paper that was published out of Mozambique in the late 1970s, by a comrade, a combatant. And this was published in the ZANU paper, which is really kind of interesting. And the article said, “Look who the leadership is. Look at the class makeup of the leadership. And watch what is going to happen to this revolution. The class leadership will take us right back down the wrong road.” And in fact, that’s what happened. This guerilla in Mozambique had it tagged. In fact, lots of people thought this, but the criticism was not from the Marxist point of view, rather from the fact that all the leadership were from the African elite. And so the transference from a white elite to an African elite has not helped the majority of the population, and some people had it tagged pretty early on.
B.E: That is interesting. I find that even Muzorewa’s words look pretty good in retrospect. If you read the article with his speech that he gave at the rally were Thomas played, he warns about the leadership’s “fascist” tendencies, and in number of ways predicts what was going to happen.
T.T: Yeah, but we also have to be careful not to be revisionist about Mugabe now that he’s come out as the international villain. People are very complicated. The multiplicity of motivations a different points in their life. He was socialized in the Christian and capitalist cosmopolitan formation. The fact that he was going to accumulate later in life, that’s part of that socialization. That’s what’s normal in the capitalist tradition. If we think of ourselves in the hippie days, when that generation comes out for revolution, but then in the next decade come out as bankers and college professors, and so on. They rejoin the establishment. That’s sort of more my image. He was socialized in the capitalist formation, has this moment of turning to the Socialist cosmopolitan formation, in counter distinction to the subtler government, but goes back to his roots ultimately, in old age. That is not an uncommon process.
B.E: Well, if it were just a matter of being a capitalist and accumulating, that would be one thing. I think there’s more to say about Mugabe, given his tragic childhood. His father was exiled from the village where they lived by the local Jesuit priest, whom he couldn’t get along with. Then Robert’s two older brothers died of illnesses they might have been able to have treated had the family stayed in the village. Then the father, in shame, left, only to return some years later with more children. He then promptly died, and Mugabe was left at a very young age with responsibility for the whole family, and a lot of chips on his shoulder. I think there’s some serious psychohistory there to untangle as well.
T.T: Part of my thing is I think we have these different moments in our life. I mean, were all those hippies fighting for social justice who later became bankers, wasn’t false or a lie that they were doing it? No. It was a moment in time. There were a lot of forces that led them to that. The fact that they reverted back to the banking world is normal. The habits reformist kids are strong. And all those different things are in us. Sometimes they work in consort, and sometimes not.
B.E: Thanks a lot, Tom. This has been great.
T.T: Thank you.
Editor’s Note: Much of the music featured on the Afropop Worlwide program, Thomas Mapfumo: The War Years comes either from Zimbabwe’s National Archives, by way of Thomas Turino’s personal archive, or else from private collections of no-longer-available singles from the 1970s in Zimbabwe. There are some fine compilations of early Mapfumo music and other related music, listed below. Also, visit the Afropop Music Shop and check out the extensive Thomas Mapfumo catalog available through the Afropop Music Shop, including Afropop Worldwide’s unique 1991 recording of Thomas Mapfumo, Live at SOBs in New York City.