A deep, detailed biography of a complex African musician and the homeland that has shaped his artistry.
There’s no questioning the ambition of this biography of Thomas Mapfumo (b. 1945), a musical figure who might well be to Zimbabwe what Bob Marley was to Jamaica. Eyre is certainly well qualified, as a guitarist who has long known his subject (and performed with him) and as a journalist, radio producer (PRI's Afropop Worldwide) and musicologist (Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali, 2000). 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. His musical accomplishment has been controversial from the start, as he appropriated spiritual music and brought it into the secular marketplace, updated it with electric guitars and added nonnative elements such as reggae and rumba, and had contentious business dealings with practically every musician and most managers with whom he has worked. Mapfumo’s “music has never riveted the larger world the way Bob Marley’s reggae or Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat have. 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.”
An essential book for those who love the artist’s music and want to know more, but it won’t likely win converts as an introduction.