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Dubbed the Conquering Lion of Zimbabwe, Thomas Mapfumo has been Zimbabwešs most consistent musical figure over the past three decades. Through his music and poetry, he delivers uncompromising social and political messages. Thomas Mapfumo was born in 1945 in the countryside near Harare (called Salisbury in pre-independence times). He grew up close to traditional Shona music in a family where singing and playing instruments was highly valued. When he went to the capital to study, he listened to everything from Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba to Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley, and was soon playing rock-n-roll music in a band. In his early years, he played many different styles, but always came back to traditional Shona music.

In 1976 while playing at clubs and hotels in Harare, he formed a band called Black Spirits, which soon broke up, and the same year he formed The Blacks Unlimited, the band that would accompany him on his rise to stardom.

Three early singles, "Pamuromo Chete" (a harsh critique of the white government), "Pfumvu Paruzevha" (a description of the trouble in rural areas) and "Hokoya" (meaning "Watch Out!") recorded in the mid-70s, galvanized the working class blacks, and made Thomas Mapfumo a target of state repression. He was imprisoned for three months, which resulted in a huge increase in his popularity.

When he got out of prison, he devoted himself wholly to the development of his new brand of music, which he called "chimurenga" meaning "struggle". Chimurenga music is a mixture of traditional Shona mbira music ­ with its cyclical rhythms and melodies ­ and western instruments. The result is powerful, hypnotic music with Mapfumošs raw, yet highly versatile voice riding the waves of complex sound.

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival

Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited
Thomas Mapfumo In 1980, Robert Mugabe was elected and a new nation was formed. That year Mapfumo shared the stage with Bob Marley, and idealism reigned. Mapfumo was not seduced into complacency, however, and he continued to analyze the political and social landscape of his country, lashing out at corruption and extolling the virtue of the ancestral ways.

In the late 1980s, Thomas Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited began to tour internationally, making landmark recordings for Chris Blackwellšs Mango Records, "Corruption" (1989) and "Chamunorwa" (1990). Since then Mapfumo has made about a dozen international releases, through various labels, and never fails to deliver new singles to Zimbabwe, where has had always chosen to live and where he remains the favorite national artist. His show is an amazing communal experience, where the mbira (thumb piano) meets the electric guitar, deep grooves meet African jazz virtuosity, and each person feels touched by the incredible illuminated personality that is Thomas Mapfumo.

 

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