I am yet to recover from a tumultuous experience I had recently in coming in touch with When Three Sevens Clash, a book cum magazine conceived and published by veteran journalist, Percy Zvomuya, as his own initiative towards the end of 2022. The major focus of this work, largely in narrative form interspaced with drawings and pictures, was to highlight the life and music of legendary Zimbabwean musician, Thomas Mapfumo.
From a distance, Thomas Mapfumo appears to be generally intimidating but on the cover of this publication, there is a mug shot of him smiling. It is as if Thomas is a boy again; looking down at his peers from atop the bus window, just before a trip from the Chihota Communal lands where he spent part of his boyhood. In the 1950’s journeys by bus from any place to Harare, Salisbury, tended to be far apart. These were considered great occasions as one’s folks came to the bus stop to say goodbye. There would be tears of joy and pain, too.
We are fortunate that a group of renowned writers and artists; Farai Mudzingwa, Geraldine Mukumbi, Tony Namate, Tawana Mudzonga, Brooks Marmon… have just given us a cross sectional gaze at the life and times of Thomas Mapfumo. They delicately marry the music to the environment, explaining and clarifying the many things around Thomas Mapfumo.
The pieces by fictional authors, Musaemura Zimunya and Brian Chikwava are particularly most focused on Thomas Mapfumo, from the 1950’s to the present day. For me they make the pith of this magazine and should not go without mention.
Editor, Percy Zvomuya says the title When Three Sevens Clash comes from Joseph “Culture” classic Hill’s 1977 album Two Sevens Clash. When on 7 july 1977, whe actually four sevens clashed; seventh day, seventh month, seventy-seventh year, many in Kingstons did not venture out lest they be caught up in the apocalypse. Thomas Mapfumo, who was born in 1945, turned 77 in July, the seventh month of the year: three sevens clashing once more!
Percy Zvomuya meets Musaemura Zimunya at the funeral of Thomas Mapfumo’s musician young brother, Lancelot’s burial at Warren hills in Harare on 10 October 2022 and it becomes a moment to review the route and roots of Thomas Mapfumo and Chimurenga music. A kind of workshop is planned and this book carries such proceedings.
The longest rendition comes from renowned Zimbabwean poet, Musaemura Zimunya, himself a relative and once publicist manager of Mapfumo when Coen and Merz were attempting to do a documentary on Thomas Mapfumo in the mid 1980’s. Zimunya writes with care and precision.
Place and people are critical in Zimunya’s rnarrative. Born and raised in Chihota Communal lands amongst his mother’s people, it is indicated that Mapfumo has a Christian background, rather untypical for a man who eventually becomes the icon of Zimbabwean traditional music with mbira at its core.
It is all in order that during his early days in Salisbury, now Harare, Thomas played drums and the saxophone in the the African Christian marching Church where he went with his mother.. He was imbued in the Christian harmonies and vocal arrangements. But latter you learn that this was an unintended apprenticeship! Suddenly you notice that this s the same route that other Zimbabwean musicians tended to take.
Then there was the dramatic entry of rock and roll into the life of Thomas from the big world out there. Out goes classical jazz, and Thomas is now in Mbare, then Harari township. Thomas and his peers are found spotting the rockabilly haircut known as “the Elvis cut” after Elvis Presley of rock music, of course. Teenage radicalism and the windfall of sixties enter and Thomas escapes rather forcefully from the conservative Christian clutches of the family. He finds himself with a band, the Cosmic Four Dots which he forms with his peers. They are doing covers for various rock artists. Life is sweet. Thomas is good on stage and soon, he sings Prestley’s part for the Springfields at an event in Harari and they immediately smuggle him!
Thomas is now very active. he quickly helps compose and record Shungu Dzinondibaya, Anopenga Ane waya and Conie, in chacha style, songs that later became great hits in Shona music. But soon Jimi Hendrix dies, and with him, the hippies. Thomas had to move on musically.
Zimunya’s first encounter with Thomas was is in 1973 when he is sneaking out a politically turbulent University of Rhodesia. Just about the historic mukwembe demonstration that brough black students in collision course with Iam Smith’s bully boys. Thomas was at home busy learning to play the saxophone. His reason was that Jimi Hendrix and the guitar had been too mainstreamed in the community and that there was need to move on and create other sounds and other images.
By fusing the traditional Shona sounds of mbira and modern pop sounds such as Afro rock, Thomas helped to reconfigure Zimbabwean music
In their young men’s conversations, Zimunya works out that Thomas imagined starting on African rock in which the brass would play a central role almost in the mould of Osibisa, the Ghanaian British outfit of the times. More and more, the big black world was becoming radicalized. In the US, the great American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated in 1968. In Rhodesia itself, there was a growing political crisis that saw the detentionof nationalist leaders like Ndabaningi Sithole, Joshua Nkomo and many others. Accordingly the sociopolitical space naturally spawned new expressions, thrusts and genres.
Soon the emergence of the Hallelujah Chicken Run band at the Mangula Mine west of Salisbury, created space to experiment with traditional Shona rhythms. At the centre of this project were trumpeter Daram Karanga and bassist Robert Nkati and they needed a vibrant young vocalist and in came Thomas Mapfumo on vocals and drums. There would be guitarists, Elisha Jossam and Joshua Hlomayi Dube. The journey from rock and roll and pop music to African based sounds and rhythms was set.
There came the singles Hoyo Murembo and Torido Mutoridodo. The experiments were quite rich and soon Thomas Mapfumo the vocalist and front man of this band had opportunity to reenact the Shona svikiromedium during the shows. In one picture in this magazine, Thomas is shirtless, holding in one hand, the microphone and in the other, a gano, the traditional ceremonial axe and a spear. Below that Thomas is wrapped in retso, the spiritual cloth. At this moment, Thomas had crossed the threshold. In Highfield in 1965, Zimunya says Mapfumo mesmerized the urban revelers with his trance like performance of the revolutionary traditional song, Hoyo murembo.
Mapfumo and his musical peers; Zexie Manatsa, Oliver Mtukudzi and others become typical characters in typical circumstances. They started to forge music “that told of the cunning brutality of the settlers, their seizure of land and the suffering of Africans through forced labour, political detention and imprisonment.” A revolutionary spirit had seized them. Music is being actively directed by the events on the ground. Often they clash with the powers that be but the audiences across the country urge them on.
Musaemura’s critical view is that; by fusing the traditional Shona sounds of mbira and modern pop sounds such as Afro rock, Thomas helped to reconfigure Zimbabwean music and that “in the five short years it took him to rise to super star status, he dragged a brainwashed and reluctant people out of their confusion and defeatism.” No wonder his music became known as Chimurenga music. Murenga is the term for the radical and warlike great Shona ancestor.
This article also traces the key figures in Zimbabwean music who have worked closely with Mapfumo as his Chimurenga music develops. These are many watershed characters in Zimbabwean music. There is the guitar maestro, Jonah Sithole a co-founder of the Chimurenga music because Chimurenga is said to be based on his mbira guitar. In his moments of anger, he loudly reiterates this fact to Thomas Mapfumo himself.
There is also Charles Makokowa who was also good at adapting well known popular songs and sounds from the Shona folk tradition. There is Chartwell Dutiro, who could play the tenor saxophone, the mbira, ngoma, hosho and provide backing vocals. There is trumpeter, Ernest Ncube and trombonist, Cannan Kamoyo. There is the inimitable keyboard player, Lancelot Mapfumo, and the heavily disciplined bassist, Washington Kavhayi. For a musical form to develop there must always be consistent instrumentalists.
Thomas Mapfumo produced great hits that have become part of the Zimbabwean folklore like Pfumvu paruzevha, Dangurangu, Wakura, Bhutsu Mutandarika, Kariba, Corruption, Hanzvadzi, Chipo change, Pemberai and many others.
Zimunya is acutely aware of the ups and downs in the life and music of Thomas Mapfumo and his tendency to openly lampoon whether the country is under Ian smith or Mugabe or Munangagwa. This is his most consistent feature. Maqpfumo’s fall out with the ruling style of Robert Mugabe, whom he previously supported, is well known. Subsequently, Mapfumo goes into self imposed exile but exile appears to be the downsize as it coincides with the coming of age of the great artist.
Zimunya’s article dovetails principally with that of Brian Chikwava, a distant admirer of Thomas Mapfumo from a different generation and now living in the UK. He is the author of the prizewinning novel, Harare North. Brian Chikwava has very interesting observations. One of them is that Thomas Mapfumo, just like Robert Mugabe, is a proud and headstrong man, especially where sticking to principles is concerned. In Chikwava’s view, the two men are each other’s shadow! Two men with a rural and Christian background who find themselves supporting the same cause albeit from different angles and eventually clashing…
Chikwava writes that Mapfumo could not be short changed because, for example, he knew his real worth. Chikwava recalls one moment when Thomas arrives at the Harare Agriculture show with his band to play and asks the organisors, “So how much are we getting paid?” The organizers mentioned a number and emphasized that that it is what everyone was getting. “Saka mungatienzanise nana Pengaudzoke?” (Can you equate us with the little band Pengaudzoke?) and Mapfumo asked his band to leave the place immediately.
Using the iconic song Zuvaguru as the quintessence Thomas Mapfumo music, Chikwava says that song is “the soundtrack of my childhood post independence Zimbabwe.” Zuvaguru was that song which Chikwava’s father invariably put on the gramophone when they had visitors.
It is a song about the great day when what has been hidden in the bushes will come out. On the flipside is Motobika doro in which Mapfumo goes deep into the roots of the new nation, Zimbabwe, into the customs and traditions out of mbira out of which Chimurenga music emanates.
Brian Chikwava wonders why this record is never found amongst any of Mapfumo’s music on cd or vinyl, or to download or stream. “I have only the vinyl copy that once belonged to my father.”
About Mapfumo’s project of bringing mbira to the people through electric guitars in modern venues with Dube and Sithole, Chikwava has this to say, “(this is) the luminous discharge of energy that manifest when Africans brought their sensibility to bear on a space previously assumed not be theirs. At these crossroads, new identities are forged, there is an awakening, and we see new horizons beyond which the song persists, even after the physical object has varnished.”
When Three Sevens Clash is a critical read for those connoisseurs who wish to get accurate details on the development of Thomas Mapfumo as a musician in order to fill in the gaps. The other articles in this book dwell on musical venues of the times, the cultural setup from which Mapfumo derived his music and many other exciting things.
This review by Memory Chirere originally appeared on the writer’s blog on 10 April 2023 and it is republished here with the permission of the writer. No changes were made to the original article.