Thomas Mapfumo, regarded as sort of the Bob Marley of southern Africa, has lived in the Northwest for nearly five years.
Tonight at 8, Mapfumo and his band, Blacks Unlimited, headline the kickoff night of the Pig Out in the Park food and music festival at Riverfront Park’s City Hall Stage. Admission is free.
Mapfumo moved from his native Zimbabwe to Eugene, Ore., to avoid threats of arrest from the Zimbabwean government, to secure a solid education for his children and to continue to produce the inspiring protest music that has established him as a near-national hero in his homeland.
Much of his music speaks to universal themes of human rights, disenfranchisement, economic recession and cultural integrity. Specifically, Mapfumo makes subtle commentary on the regime of Robert Mugabe, whose 24-year rule of Zimbabwe has been described as corrupt and violent.
Though Mugabe is credited for leading the country to freedom from British rule in 1980, many human rights groups say he regularly arrests opposition leaders and resorts to violence.
In 1979 Mapfumo was arrested for songs that the Rhodesian government believed were subversive. Many of his songs have since been banned from Zimbabwean radio, but he still performs there once a year.
Mapfumo first started performing in Zimbabwe when the country was ruled by whites and called Rhodesia. At the time he sang covers of songs by Elvis Presley, Little Richard and other Western artists. Soon Mapfumo worked protest messages into his U.S.-influenced pop repertoire to create a unique style of music called “chimurenga,” which means “struggle” in the Shona language of his people.
The sound combines Western influences with multiple mbiras (thumb pianos native to Zimbabwe), congas, saxophones, guitars and other instrumentation, while Mapfumo’s deep voice is used challenge corruption in society.
Mapfumo has said in interviews that he hopes to return to Zimbabwe when conditions are better. He owns a soccer team there and has many relatives in the land where he was raised.
Since forming his group in the 1970s, Mapfumo has lost many musicians to AIDS and other calamities. Two long-standing members died in 2000 of illness, as did a band member’s spouse. Despite the loss Mapfumo hired other Zimbabwean and American players to complete the tours in southern Africa.