Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe, by Banning Eyre (Duke University Press):
Lion Songs, by Banning Eyre, is an authoritative biography of Thomas Mapfumo that narrates the life and career of this creative, complex, and iconic figure. Eyre ties the arc of Mapfumo’s career to the history of Zimbabwe. The genre Mapfumo created in the 1970s called chimurenga, or “struggle” music, challenged the Rhodesian government—which banned his music and jailed him—and became important to Zimbabwe achieving independence in 1980.
“People, there is corruption” he sang in the 2000 hit “Disaster.” “People, there is corruption here.” Unsurprisingly, police raided kiosks in the markets of Harare and destroyed Mapfumo’s albums, and Central Intelligence Organization agents threatened to beat Mapfumo if he played protest songs in concert. His family—Thomas and his wife, Verna, son and daughter Tai and Chiedza (then teenagers), and daughter Mati (then a toddler)—no longer felt safe.
In 2000, the family boarded a plane out of Zimbabwe, to settle in Eugene, Oregon.
The author asserts from the outset that “in the end, there is no way to understand Thomas Mapfumo without understanding Zimbabwe, and no better way to know Zimbabwe than through an examination of the life and work of Thomas Mapfumo.”
Yet both the complex, contradictory artist and his country, the former Rhodesia, defy easy understanding. Many of those closest to Thomas and his story are left with the nagging sense that he could have, should have, counted more.” Eyre is plainly one of them, and this biography is the result, though it gives ample space to those questioning Mapfumo’s originality, politics, business dealings, and decision to leave Zimbabwe for Oregon almost two decades ago, with even the author acknowledging, “Thomas’s career was certainly compromised, if not ruined, by his move to America.”
The transition to life in Eugene wasn’t easy. A late-night stranger wandered into their first home. Feeling unsafe, they moved into another house, where mold left their drummer laid up sick for months. Mapfumo’s wife traded her lucrative old job as a real estate agent in Harare for caregiver in a retirement home. And Mapfumo’s musical output slowed from roughly one new album release per year to just two in six years, the result of contract problems, lengthy recording sessions brought on by his own perfectionist streak, and difficulty finding and keeping savvy handlers.
But still, Mapfumo says, the decision to go into exile was a good one, and Eyre agrees, with a caveat. “I think that as a person, he did a very honorable thing—he put his family first—and he has nothing left to prove as a musician,” he says. “But he’s been away long enough now that the culture back home is starting to move on.”
A labor of love, Lion Songs is the product of a twenty-five year friendship and professional relationship between Eyre and Mapfumo that demonstrates Mapfumo’s musical and political importance to his nation, its freedom struggle, and its culture.