Volume II, Issue I Spring 2003

Thomas Mapfumo: Spirits and secrecy

My wife and I recently attended a free lecture/performance by Zimbabwean Thomas Mapfumo. He just had four accompanists with him: three guys from his own band, two of whom played the mbiras and one on percussion; and our local legend, Gene Perry, the conga-playing San Diego State University groundskeeper.
Turbula recommends Chimurenga Forever
Chimurenga Forever
By Thomas Mapfumo
HEMIsphere; Culver City, Calif.: 2002

To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.

It was a real mellow, spiritual sound, with the voice blending in with the mbiras and percussion, simple but communicative.

Mapfumo talked a little about his background, his involvement in the independence movement, his personal progression from an imitator to creator. There was a question-and-answer session, which he patiently and graciously submitted to.

A couple things were vivid. Earlier in the show he mentioned that at one time, the people would not allow the Mbira to be recorded or broadcast because of its role as a communicator with the spirit world. So somebody asked him how it came to be acceptable to record it and while most of his answers about things were somewhat vague and circumspect, I thought he replied, "Because the whites bastardized it." The lady who asked the question didn't catch what he said, and asked him to repeat it. But the moderator/translator seemed somewhat taken aback and explained something like, "I think what Thomas is trying to say is that the whites destabilized the culture" and then she went on to talk about how various white musicians had played a role in popularizing African music. She more or less didn't give Mapfumo a chance to elaborate and I don't think he understood the exchange. He spoke English well, but he apparently has a hard time understanding it fluently.

Then there was an extreme moment of weirdness when some guy stood up and said he was a representative of something like the World Society for the Protection of Secret Tunings, whose role is to encourage and abet people in keeping secret tunings secret so they don't become part of the "Earth matrix."

I'm not sure Mapfumo understood the point, because it had to be translated to him in Shona, but he had a great answer. He just said there are some things that we should keep secret because it's our business what we do in our own homes, and he added there are some things that the public wouldn't really want to know about us anyway.

He didn't really get into the issue of secret tunings directly. He could have been avoiding the question because maybe a Shona musicians' or rebel cult does believe in using secret tunings and he didn't want to talk about it. It's possible, based on historical precedent with other African cultures, that they've hidden certain things from any alien ruling classes. Or he might have thought the question was absurd, because the Shona don't believe in any such thing.

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