Thomas Mapfumo, 'Lion Of Zimbabwe,' Returns From Exile With Triumphant Homecoming : The Record Mapfumo performed a homecoming show in the country last month, after spending over a decade-and-a-half in self-imposed exile.

Thomas Mapfumo, 'Lion Of Zimbabwe,' Returns From Exile With Triumphant Homecoming

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Thomas Mapfumo is an icon in his home country Zimbabwe.


THOMAS MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language).

CORNISH: The 72-year-old singer had not been home in 14 years. He moved his family to exile in Oregon to escape President Robert Mugabe's regime. Now with Mugabe out of power, Mapfumo finally returned. To mark the occasion, he and his band threw a massive all-night stadium concert attended by thousands. Banning Eyre was there.

BANNING EYRE, BYLINE: I arrived in the capital Harare two days before the show and got a warm greeting in the rehearsal studio.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Welcome, welcome, welcome. Good to see you. Hey (Unintelligible).

EYRE: Mapfumo and 17 musicians and dancers were preparing for the big night. He'd assembled artists from three continents. And they sounded sharp as they worked through numbers from his vast 40-year career.

MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing in foreign language).

EYRE: There were a few old-timers in the lineup, but mostly fresh faces too young to have experienced Zimbabwe's turmoil in the '70s and in the '90s. Mapfumo and his band The Blacks Unlimited used to perform four or five nights a week all over the country.

PRISCILLA SHUMBA: It is such an honor to work with such a great man. Yeah. What I remember about him - he's so blunt. He tells the truth like what it is. Yeah. That's very, very unusual - so very unusual.

EYRE: That's Harare-based Priscilla Shumba, one of four singer-dancers in the lineup. That bluntness comes through best in barbed songs pointing out the failures of the Mugabe regime.


MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language) Disaster.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing in foreign language) Disaster.

EYRE: During his exile, Mapfumo's new work was scarce on the airwaves in Zimbabwe. Young people were more apt to hear his music in public transport vans called kombies rather than on the radio.

SHUMBA: People always play his music in their houses...

EYRE: In their cars.

SHUMBA: ...In their cars. Yeah. That's where you hear it, in most kombies.

EYRE: So all those kombie drivers, they're going to want to be at the show tomorrow.

SHUMBA: That's - oh, yeah (laughter).

EYRE: Mapfumo traveled from Oregon with his wife, two brothers, two daughters and his lead guitarist. None of them had been home in those 14 years. And the moment of return was emotional.

MAPFUMO: You know, the welcome was so huge. When I got by the airport, I couldn't even move (laughter). People were screaming.

EYRE: But Mapfumo says the conditions in his country have gotten worse. This summer, Zimbabwe will hold its first elections since Robert Mugabe stepped down. For now, members of his ruling party still run the country. And Mapfumo, like most Zimbabweans, is waiting to see what happens next.

MAPFUMO: I don't know them. I have no clue who they are. But some of them were part and parcel of the Mugabe regime. But we expect them to do the right thing. We are not siding with anyone. Let's see what they're going to do.

EYRE: He may not side with any party, but he is siding with the next generation.

MAPFUMO: If we are genuine, the youth of today should be given the chance to lead the country. This is their future. For 37 years we have failed them.

EYRE: On the day of the show at soundcheck, I caught up with lead guitarist Gilbert Zvamaida.

GILBERT ZVAMAIDA: I'm ecstatic. I'm so excited. I don't even know where to start. I keep on pinching myself. Is this real (laughter)?

EYRE: At 8 p.m., a series of opening bands kicked off, and the crowd swelled hour by hour. It was clear that the youth Mapfumo so believes in were turning out in big numbers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're having fun. And we're so happy. And it's a concert we've been waiting for for a decade.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I started listening to Thomas Mapfumo 6 years old. People who were surrounding me were into his music.

EYRE: By the time Mapfumo and his band hit the stage at 2 a.m., some 18,000 tickets had been sold.


MAPFUMO: Zimbabwe.


EYRE: Mapfumo held the stage nonstop for nearly four hours...


MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

EYRE: ...Finishing only as the sun rose at dawn.

FRED ZINDI: It was magnificent. Suddenly he comes with the same bang that he had in the '80s and the '90s. That was really cool.

EYRE: Fred Zindi is a veteran music writer.

ZINDI: The biggest show I've seen compared to last night's one was Paul Simon and before that Bob Marley. Bob Marley was a free show, and the crowd was almost the same as last night. And last night, people were paying $20 minimum.

EYRE: Blessing Evanvavas, one of the show's organizers, seemed in awe of what the team had accomplished.

BLESSING EVANVAVAS: Just him coming to Zimbabwe, it was a very big political statement. It silenced a lot of critics.

EYRE: And as for Mapfumo himself...

MAPFUMO: I feel very, very good. I thought maybe I wasn't going to be able to come back here whilst I was still alive. I would like to thank everyone. I'm not fighting to be a leader of this country, but I want to stand with the poor people. That's where I belong.

EYRE: For NPR News, I'm Banning Eyre.

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