It has been 14 years since singer Thomas Mapfumo
went into exile from his native Zimbabwe. And in those 14 years, Zimbabwe has changed dramatically, becoming a wretched symbol of a failed African nation. Unemployment is at least 80 percent. Inflation has skyrocketed for years. And the country has no currency of its own, relying on the U.S. dollar and other foreign money. Ruled over by the autocratic Robert Mugabe, the once-proud nation, which liberated itself of white colonial rule in 1979, is desperate for a fresh beginning. They're also desperate for Mapfumo, with a collective of Zimbabweans -- among them political activists – urging Mapfumo to come home. Some have even asked him to run for office in Zimbabwe, to become an activist politician instead of an activist musician.
"Yes, I've been asked to do that," Mapfumo says in a phone interview from his home in Eugene, Oregon, "but I don't want to do that."
Instead, Mapfumo continues to do what he loves best: Performing his unique brand of African music from his base in Oregon, which allows him to tour across the United States and to get as close to Zimbabwe as possible without stepping foot there. In April, he will perform in South Africa, which borders Mapfumo's landlocked homeland. On Saturday, February 15, Mapfumo returns to the Bay Area, to perform at Berkeley's Ashkenaz club.
A Thomas Mapfumo concert is a celebration of Zimbabwe's traditional Shona music culture, where the thumb piano called "mbira" occupies a central role. Mapfumo's legacy was to marry that culture with instruments like guitar and saxophone, to marry it with lyrics that were both direct and indirect commentaries on Zimbabwe's leaders and the world at large, and to marry it with a deep, resonant voice (his) that remains one of Africa's most distinct. Mapfumo called his music Chimurenga, which means "struggle" in the Shona language, and it has long been a fixture in the pantheon of world-music genres.
Known by the affectionate moniker, "The Lion of Zimbabwe," Mapfumo should be thought of in the same league as Bruce Springsteen and Bono -- musicians who are committed to making a difference with their songs. One of Mapfumo's best-known tunes, 1988's "Corruption," slammed the level of "corruption in the society" and the "nothing for nothing" environment that Mapfumo says Mugabe has fostered in Zimbabwe. Many of Mapfumo's songs continue to be banned on Zimbabwe's radio stations.
Mapfumo, who is 66, says his music is applicable to global issues, not just those in Zimbabwe. "I'm focused on what is happening on the whole world," he says. "There are some issues that people are bypassing these days. We have a lot of people who are suffering. We have war going on in syria. We have problems in Egypt. We have problems in countries like Palestine. These are some of the problems we're facing today. People need to be free and lead a free life."
And that freedom, Mapfumo says, includes the necessity to take a break from politics and social issues. On Mapfumo's upcoming album, Danger Zone, Mapfumo and his backup singers croon: "I need music, reggae music, African music, freedom music, Chimurenga music, rock 'n' roll music, I want some music, any kind of music."
The song, titled simply "Music," is vintage Mapfumo: catchy, danceable, full of vibe and gusto. It mentions a lot of the music that Mapfumo first embraced as a young singer in Zimbabwe -- rock 'n' roll was an especially big influence, and Mapfumo once covered hit songs by Elvis Presley and other American artists. But he is concerned that younger Zimbabwean artists aren't following in his footsteps. These artists, he says, are making music that sounds too much like rap and rock and other genres and not enough like Zimbabwean.
"Most of our (musicians), they seem to be following other people's cultures," Mapfumo says. "They like to play music from Jamaica. They like to play music from America. A musician like Oliver Mtukudzi, he's still playing in a Zimbabwe style. We have other musicians who are doing the same thing. But the rest of the musicians, they are mislaid. They think, 'If i can play hip hop,' or 'If i can do dancehall music.' . . . We really have to promote our own culture, our Zimbabwean culture."
As it happens, Mtukudzi is also performing in the Bay Area on Saturday, February 15 -- at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael. At age 61, Mtukudzi is another elder figure in Zimbabwe's music scene, another inspiring cultural ambassador for a country that, in the decade after its independence, flourished as a meeting point in southern Africa while South Africa still struggled with apartheid. In those years, Paul Simon performed a series of Graceland concerts in Harare, which is Zimbabwe's capital, and Amnesty International brought Springsteen, Sting, and other Western stars to Harare as part of a worldwide tour. In 1980, Bob Marley performed there (along with Mapfumo) to celebrate the country's transition from its previous period, when it was known as Rhodesia. It all seemed so promising. And now, 34 years later, Mugabe is still in power and considered one of Africa's last remaining "strong men." Mugabe is 89 and has held onto power through elections that have been widely seen as rigged.
"He's an old man," Mapfumo says. "Some people (in Zimababwe) want him to be there, because they're trying to make him protect them from what they are doing to our people."
Music continues to be one of Zimbabwe's bright spots, an exhilarating export that offsets the stream of distressing news headlines that emanate from the southern end of the African continent.
Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited perform Saturday, February 15, 9:30pm at Ashkenaz in Berkeley. For
tickets and more information, visit ashkenaz.com.