Zimbabwe: Mhangura Residents Recall Thomas Mapfumo's Heyday

20 October 2021

Conrad Mupesa Mashonaland West Bureau

Chimurenga music guru Thomas Mapfumo, who has earned international recognition for himself and the nation through the genre, is where he is today because of perseverance and bravery.

Many who started the journey with him in the 1960s have either quit music or were taken by death.

Thomas Mapfumo was born Michael Munhumumwe in 1945 in the farming town of Marandellas (now Marondera).

According to "Lion Songs", Banning Eyre's 2015 biography of the legend published by Duke University Press, Mapfumo had to grow up with his mother's parents after his father, Tapfumaneyi Mupariwa (Makore), disappeared after impregnating his mother, Janet Chinhamo.

When it was time to get a national identity card, Mukanya, as Mapfumo is known, had to change his name.

His uncle (maternal grandmother's brother) took him to Marondera town to get the document.

"I went to the district office with my uncle Chiwara," said Mukanya in an interview with the late veteran journalist, Godwin Muzari, in 2019. "He was my grandmother's brother. He used his name to facilitate the processing of my ID.

"That is how I became Thomas Chiwara. I have not changed the name since then. It is the name that is in national records."

Mapfumo later reunited with his father who was a tractor driver at a farm in Beatrice when he was 17 before his death in 1973. Mapfumo's story after the death of his father would force him to visit his paternal relatives at Mupinyuri village in Guruve.

The history of his mother and his upbringing is already well-documented, including how he continues to speak highly of his now late stepfather for taking care of him. While Mapfumo's life story takes him to various areas, some residents of the now defunct Mhangura mining settlement still believe the mining town played an important role in his rise to stardom.

A lot of people who saw him start his music career there are feeling hurt by how the artist has seemingly overlooked the town that first managed to bring him into the spotlight:

Francisco Mariano, a former mine worker, who saw a young Thomas Mapfumo start his career in the town said: "It is very embarrassing to hear Thomas narrate his life and leave out his stay in Mhangura.

"Ever since he rose to fame, he never came back to perform to the people who first saw talent in him, people who knew how good he was, even though the world knew little about him."

Mapfumo was employed by the Mangula Copper Mines as a kindergarten teacher and general worker, and due to his not-so tight work schedule, he practiced his music using local Women's League instruments.

"During the afternoons, Thomas would assemble his group to practice at Mhangura's '7 Million' beer hall using instruments of the Women's League," said another local, Makoshore, who also witnessed the rise of the icon.

In the 1960s, it is believed, Mapfumo together with his band mates, who were employed to keep chickens by the mine, renamed their outfit from Acid Band to Hallelujah Chicken Run Band.

"The youthful outfit caused a stir in and around Mhangura, with workers from surrounding farms also trooping to the famous Seven Million Beerhall which was owned by the mine every weekend," chronicled Isaac Banda, who turned 62 this year.

Mapfumo's first songs that he performed live with the band included 'Hove Yangu' and 'Wariyambutsa Dindingwe' and some of his songs were sung in riddles and satiric.

The singer, who migrated to the United States in the early 2000, returned in 2017 for a show for the first time since he left.

Mapfumo sings in Shona, but language has done little to prevent him from singing for foreign audiences.

Back in the 1970s in Mhangura, Mapfumo is believed to have promised his hand in marriage to Esther Mpalasa, although he later ditched her when he moved to the capital, Salisbury, now Harare.

Said Mr Mariano: "A local girl named Toripa Katomba was also a girlfriend of the musician at some point."

During his stay in Mhangura, Mapfumo lived at house number R-49.

Later, in the late 1970s after moving to Harare, Mapfumo's music was banned from the state-owned radio station as then-ruler Ian Smith felt it promoted the liberation struggle. Other popular musicians to be influenced by his music include mbira music queen Stella Chiweshe, the late Bundu Boys frontman Biggie Tembo, Farai Macheka and Brian Muteki, who incorporated mbira-derived rhythms into their music while commenting on political, social and economic issues.

Mapfumo now resides in Oregon in the US.

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