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Chimurenga : a musical struggle in Zimbabwe

When Bob Mar­ley per­for­med a his­to­ric concert to cele­brate Zimbabwe’s inde­pen­dence in 1980, did he ima­gine that the country’s “chi­mu­ren­ga”, or fight for free­dom, was only just begin­ning ? Let’s tune into 40 years of history…


It was exact­ly 40 years ago, in 1980 : Zim­babwe final­ly gai­ned true inde­pen­dence. The long years of vio­lence came to an end. Ian Smith, the archi­tect of the country’s segre­ga­tio­nist regime, com­pa­rable to that of apar­theid, had even sworn that “never in a mil­lion years” would the Blacks have power, but the Mar­xist guer­rillas had taken the sys­tem apart. It was time for cele­bra­tion. Prince Charles, the heir to the Bri­tish throne, was in Salis­bu­ry (Harare), but the uncon­tes­ted star of the cele­bra­tions was Bob Marley.

On the night of 17 April 1980, the Jamai­can sin­ger per­for­med at the Rufa­ro Sta­dium around mid­night. Tra­ve­ling via Lon­don, he had char­te­red a plane at his own expense to bring with him 21 tonnes of equip­ment. After the speeches, after the slow and solemn repla­ce­ment of the Union Jack with a new green, yel­low, red and black flag, more than 30,000 people dan­ced and sang like cra­zy, accom­pa­nying the reg­gae ambassador’s calls for Afri­can Uni­ty with their legs, arms and voices. When the backing sin­gers star­ted to sing “Zim­babwe”, from the Sur­vi­val album relea­sed the pre­vious year, the crowd went men­tal. The atmos­phere was elec­tric ; the moment his­to­ric. If it were pos­sible to list the most impor­tant concerts of the XXth cen­tu­ry, this per­for­mance by Bob Mar­ley – who had only a few months to live – would sur­ely rank at the top.

Bob Mar­ley sings  Zim­babwe on the scene of the Rufa­ro sta­dium, in the night from the 17th to the 18th of April, 1980 .


Recor­ded in King­ston with some of the best local musi­cians (Aston “Fami­ly Man” Bar­rett, his bro­ther Carl­ton, Tyrone Dow­nie, Junior Mar­vin…), “Zim­babwe” opens with a remin­der of a population’s right to self-deter­mi­na­tion : “Eve­ry man got­ta right to decide his own des­ti­ny”, as well as urging Afri­can lea­ders to avoid power struggles. Had Bob Mar­ley alrea­dy gues­sed what was going to unfold ? The new prime minis­ter, Robert Mugabe, who had deli­ve­red a recon­ci­lia­tion speech on 17 April, accu­sed his inter­ior minis­ter, Joshua Nko­mo, two years later of plot­ting against him and mas­sa­cred his sup­por­ters. After beco­ming pre­sident fol­lo­wing a consti­tu­tio­nal reform, he esta­bli­shed an autho­ri­ta­rian regime that qui­ck­ly led to the eco­no­mic col­lapse of the country.

During his 37-year rei­gn, one of Mugabe’s main oppo­nents was a musi­cian, the intran­sigent Tho­mas Map­fu­mo, although, prior to inde­pen­dence, the sin­ger had sup­por­ted Mugabe. In the 1970s, one of his songs, Hokoyo!, a war­ning to the white govern­ment, ear­ned him three years of impri­son­ment. While he may have hel­ped bring Mugabe to the power, he did not think twice about cri­ti­ci­sing him as soon as it became clear that the for­mer guer­rilla would stop at nothing to stay in power. Map­fu­mo is one of those musi­cians who, like Tiken Jah Fako­ly, finds it easier to write poli­ti­cal fire­bombs than half-hear­ted love songs. And an impres­sive num­ber of his musi­cal Molo­tov cock­tails have been ins­pi­red by Mugabe, such as “Zim­babwe”, relea­sed 23 years after Bob Marley’s song. In the video, scenes of jubi­la­tion in 1980 are repla­ced by chal­len­ging images of bur­ning streets run­ning with blood.

Twen­ty-three years after Bob Mar­ley, Tho­mas Map­fu­mo sings of his vision for Zimbabwe


The musi­cal style that Tho­mas Map­fu­mo for­ged in the 1970s is known as “chi­mu­ren­ga”, which means “libe­ra­tion” or “struggle” in Sho­na, the most wide­ly spo­ken lan­guage in Zim­babwe. For the musi­cian, this struggle has a cultu­ral dimen­sion as well as a poli­ti­cal one. Map­fu­mo, who, like many young Afri­cans of his gene­ra­tion, began by cove­ring nor­thern Ame­ri­can soul clas­sics, final­ly chose to express him­self in his mother tongue and put the hea­dy notes of the mbi­ra, a tra­di­tio­nal thumb pia­no, at the heart of his music. His orches­tra some­times includes two or three players of this lamel­lo­phone, as well as a bass player, drum­mer, seve­ral gui­ta­rists, one or two key­board players and a thun­de­rous brass section.

Mari­ma nza­ra, a song from 2002, the sto­ry of a father who ban­krupts his family.


After cut­ting his teeth in one of Tho­mas Mapfumo’s first groups, the Wagon Wheels, Oli­ver Mtu­kud­zi for­ged his own path and made the voice that defi­ned him resound around the world : force, deep, harsh, pre­ci­pi­tous and ins­tant­ly reco­gni­sable, it opens imme­dia­te­ly with com­for­ting huma­ni­ty. Oli­ver trans­po­sed the stut­te­ring of the mbi­ra to the gui­tar and made it the other half of his signa­ture sound.

Todii : the voice of Tho­ma Map­fu­mo rises to call for pru­dence in the face of AIDS


Des­pite genuine inter­na­tio­nal recog­ni­tion, Oli­ver Mtu­kud­zi chose to conti­nue living in Zim­babwe, unlike the exi­led Map­fu­mo. Oli­ver was more of a mora­list than a pole­mi­cist. He some­times sang for the ruling par­ty, as well as for Mor­gan Tsvan­gi­rai, a his­to­ric poli­ti­cal opponent. He didn’t hesi­tate to say what he thought, but always in ethi­cal terms. His song “Wasa­ka­ra” was taken as a cri­ti­cism of Mugabe because its lyrics repea­ted “accept you are old ; admit you are worn out”. But he never confir­med this inter­pre­ta­tion, nor denied it. When the poli­ti­cal police ques­tio­ned him (cen­sor­ship was in place at the time), he sim­ply replied : “Don’t you unders­tand Shona?”

Wasa­ka­ra, a song from 2000, year of Robert Muga­be’s 76 birthday


With Stel­la Chi­weshe, chi­mu­ren­ga took on a female slant. As evi­den­ced by a recent reis­sue of her ear­ly singles by Glit­ter­beat, she was the first Zim­bab­wean woman to record the mbi­ra. During her ado­les­cence, not only was the ins­tru­ment a male pre­serve, but cere­mo­nies gui­ded by the mbi­ra were bro­ken up by the segre­ga­tio­nist regime’s police. Stel­la bra­ved these pro­hi­bi­tions and lear­ned to play the ins­tru­ment secret­ly. She acqui­red her own ins­tru­ment only after the release of her first album in 1978, when it became clear that she was the flag bea­rer for Sho­na spi­ri­tua­li­ty. By joi­ning the Natio­nal Dance Com­pa­ny of Zim­babwe after inde­pen­dence and embar­king on inter­na­tio­nal tours, Stel­la Chi­weshe paved the way for other women.

Cha­chi­mu­ren­ga, a song from the album Tal­king mbi­ra (Piran­ha, 2001)


Chi­wo­ni­so died in July of 2013, under 40 years of age. In Novem­ber 2017, at age 93, Robert Mugabe was over­thrown by a mili­ta­ry coup, while he was trying to make his wife his suc­ces­sor. He died in Sep­tem­ber 2019 in Sin­ga­pore, where he was recei­ving treat­ment that no Zim­bab­wean hos­pi­tal could have pro­vi­ded. Oli­ver Mtu­kud­zi died a few months before him, in Janua­ry 2019. Tho­mas Map­fu­mo is now 75 ; Stel­la Chi­weshe bare­ly a year youn­ger. The heroes of chi­mu­ren­ga have pas­sed away or become wea­ry, but their struggle will go down in history…

Zvi­cha­pe­ra by Chi­wo­ni­so : a cover of a song by Tho­mas Map­fu­mo, publi­shed post­hu­mous­ly by Nya­mi Nya­mi Records


Howe­ver, nothing has fun­da­men­tal­ly chan­ged in Zim­babwe. Robert Mugabe has been repla­ced by his ex-prime minis­ter, Emmer­son Mnan­gag­wa. Just last year, pro­tests against the rising cost of living have been vio­lent­ly repres­sed, the army once again has been accu­sed of mur­ders and rapes against oppo­nents. Last sum­mer, Harare has dura­bly lacked drin­kable water, since the main water treat­ment plant couldn’t acquire the neces­sa­ry pro­ducts for fil­te­ring. A new gene­ra­tion of artists is taking part in these conver­sa­tions. They are cal­led Pop­tain, Win­ky D, Tocky Vibes or Lady Squan­da. Their music, cal­led « Zim­dan­ce­hall » comes from reg­gae, but the images in their video sad­ly recall those of Tho­mas Map­fu­mo in the clip Zim­babwe. Even if it isn’t cal­led « Chi­mu­ren­ga » any­more, the struggle of Zim­bab­wean musi­cian continues…

Zvi­to­ri Nani (Zim Sol­diers Diss) de Tocky Vibes : atten­tion aux images qui peuvent choquer

François Mauger


Born in Parison a Year of the dog, François Mauger was commercial director of a private Burkinabe radio, worked for Lusafrica, Cesaria Evora's record company, co-wrote an essay on fair trade in the music industry, conceived many compilations (such as "Drop the debt" and recently "L'Amazone" for Accords Croisés), co-led the magazine Mondomix, co-directed a documentary on black music (France Ô), was part of the editorial committee of the festival Villes des Musiques du Monde... Besides AuxSons, he currently collaborates with A/R Magazine voyageur.

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