It’s been some years since we’ve heard new music from Thomas Mapfumo, known as the Lion of Zimbabwe. During over a decade of exile in Eugene, Oregon, Mapfumo has had time to reflect on the twists and turns of his remarkable 40-plus year career. He’s written and recorded many more songs than he has released publicly during his time in exile. So it’s interesting that he has chosen to begin his re-emergence with two songs that mark a decisive departure from form, in both style and message.
“Music” and “Shabeen,” Mapfumo’s new digital single, available for purchase on CD Baby, projects contemporary dance-music aesthetics—not traditional African music—and puts forth a message of celebration—not politics. It’s not that Mapfumo has lost his sense of engagement with the affairs of the world. Nor that he’s moving away from traditional music, such as the Shona mbira music that has underlain some of his most resonant work. “We are from the old school,” he insisted in a recent interview, “but we have to take care of the young generation, what they are expecting today. These are modern times and things are changing. We have to be with the times, with what is happening today.”
The coming of age of Mapfumo’s three children in America has no doubt contributed to his interest in experimenting with new approaches. A few years ago, Thomas began collaborating with a Los Angeles producer, Charlie B. Wilder, aka DJ Charlie. “We are working together on a lot of projects,” said Mapfumo, “music projects. Because these days, I am concentrating on music, nothing else. I don’t want to be involved with anybody, or at anyone’s throat. I don’t want to do that. I just want to play music.”
That, pure and simple, is the message in the song, “Music,” a techno-looped dance track celebrating the bedrock genres of Mapfumo’s long career: “African music, American music, chimurenga music, reggae music. You know, we decided to just make a combination of all the different types of music on that song.”
DJ Charlie has been combing through the Mapfumo back catalog in search of songs they could make over in a more contemporary way. “Charlie came up with the idea of ‘Shabeen,’” recalled Mapfumo. This song, originally released on the 1989 album Corruption, drew on the swing of older African jazz as it told the story of a speakeasy, the sort of illegal pubs that thrived in the townships during colonial times. For this new version, Charlie bends the groove toward the swing of hip-hop and, most notably, Thomas turns over the microphone to a young singer from Eugene he has performed with in some of his recent shows.
“Her name is Natalie Rollins,” said Mapfumo, “and she’s got a hell of a talent. So on this new ‘Shabeen,’ I first recorded two verses, and then I asked Charlie if Natalia could do two more verses. She came in with her own idea, and she did very well. I’m thinking of taking her with me to Zimbabwe because she’s going to be a big attraction.”
It’s been over 10 years since Mapfumo has performed in Zimbabwe, although he has done shows in South Africa as recently as last month, and he is making plans to return home for what will be historic performances this coming September. What old-time fans will make of this unusual single is anyone’s guess. The style is certainly a departure, and the messages of celebration also mark a shift after a long series of Mapfumo songs implicitly and explicitly assailing the failures of the Zimbabwean government. Mapfumo has nearly completed his first full album since Exile (2010). The title, Danger Zone, clearly indicates that concerns about the world’s troubles remain important to him, but Mapfumo says that the new album is about celebration, not protest.
For him, there is no contradiction. Since the start of his epic career, Mapfumo’s recordings and performances have provided exuberant release and reassuring messages to the victims of flawed regimes—white and black—in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. He clearly hopes that the new music, and a new era of performing for his legions of fans back home, will do the same. “We want to be seen helping the poor people, not just talking. Let’s put politics aside, and help the people. There’s no clean government in this world. Everybody is under pressure. We know a lot of governments are full of crooks. But at the same time, we’ve got to think of the majority of the people. I want to sing for them.”