Chimurenga Music in Zimbabwe

Chimurenga Music in Zimbabwe

Chimurenga Music in Zimbabwe*

Anne Gibbs

When formal means of political representation are closed to a group of people, music can provide an outlet for their anguish and bitterness about the system. Resistance to oppressive rule becomes covert. A new artistic genre emerges dedicated to articulating the people's experiences under a new system, partly as a way to cope with the new challenge and also as a way to express their protest against it.

            In Zimbabwe, injustices against native Shona and Ndebele peoples and the conflict those injustices created fostered a new genre of political protest music that crystallized in the mid-1960s after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). This marked the birth of a music that came to be known as Chimurenga music, after the Shona and Ndebele uprisings of 1893 and 1896, which were known as the first Chimurenga. According to oral tradition the name Chimurenga was coined after a great Shona traditional warrior and legendary hero, Sororenzou Murenga, who was renowned for his fighting prowess. Great fighters after him were believed possessed by his spirit. They were believed to be fighting Chimurenga, which translated means “fighting the Murenga style.” Hence the Zimbabwean liberation struggle of the late 1960s came to be the second Chimurenga, and the genre of music that emerged from this spirit of struggle naturally acquired this nametag.[1]

            In 1889, the British South Africa Company, organized by Cecil Rhodes, obtained a charter to promote commerce and colonization in the region. Leander Starr Jameson, an associate of Rhodes, led a column of South African and British pioneers deep into the interior, where they founded Fort Salisbury in 1890. Fighting in 1893 resulted in the defeat of the indigenous
*This paper is the graduate student essay contest winner. 

people and the takeover of their territory by Rhodes's company. Both the Ndebele and Shona tribes staged unsuccessful revolts against the British in 1896-97. Settlers pressed the company for political rights, and in 1914 the British government renewed the company's charter on the condition that self-government be granted to the settlers by 1924. [2]

            Colonization, a legacy shared by most African societies, was a significant turning point in the history of the Shona people. It introduced new social and political structures such as urbanization, formal school education, the Christian religion, and new varieties of music such as Christian hymns. The traditional role of music as a medium of instruction was replaced by the introduction of a formal education system that was closely linked to the new Christian religion.

            The introduction of Christianity altered the people's religious songs and ritual music. Written church hymns replaced African religious songs. These hymns used traditional four-part harmony otherwise unknown to the African people. Hymns emphasized meter, a concept alien to African music traditionally based on rhythm and polyphony. It also came with certain dress codes, voice modulation rules, selected instruments and dancing styles that were foreign to the religious performances of the people. Catholic missionaries forbade the use of the mbira instrument in church ceremonies and dismissed it as unholy and heathen. The church choir concept created a clear division between those who could “sing” and those who could not, who consequently became the audience in a society where, beforehand, virtually everyone was considered a singer in his own way. [3]

            In late 1922, settlers voted in a referendum to reject proposals for incorporation into the Union of South Africa, electing instead to make Southern Rhodesia a self-governing colony under the British Crown—a status that became effective on Sept. 12, 1923. In 1953, Southern Rhodesia became a member of the Federation of Rhodesia despite African objections to a European-dominated federal structure.

            In the early 1960s, a new constitution was adopted that provided for limited African political participation; however, Africans remained unappeased. In 1963, the federation broke up as African majority governments assumed control in Northern Rhodesia and in Nyasaland (renamed Zambia and Malawi respectively). After the federation's demise, conservative trends hardened in Southern Rhodesia (which now became known simply as Rhodesia).

            The period between 1965 and 1979 was an important one in the history of colonial Rhodesia. The Rhodesia Front had taken over government in 1962 and quickly replaced Prime Minister Winston Field with the more authoritarian Ian Smith who introduced one repressive law after another. This led to mounting discontent among Africans and a general movement towards militant action. Africans started making more radical demands which resulted in the formation of nationalist political parties: the National Democratic Party (NDP) in early 1962, followed by the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Ian Smith responded to the creation of these parties by taking more drastic measures. He declared the independence of Rhodesia from Britain in 1965 with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). Britain and the rest of the world imposed sanctions on Rhodesia that worsened the living conditions of Africans both in rural and urban areas. These developments further strained relationships between blacks and whites, making an armed struggle for independence almost inevitable. In 1966, the first shots marking the beginning of the armed struggle in Rhodesia were fired.[4]

            The political developments in the period between 1965 and 1979 saw changes in both the form and content of music. Local musicians who since the mid-1950s had played cover versions of such rock 'n' roll, soul and pop artists such as Wilson Picket, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Otis Redding, and The Rolling Stones, were under pressure from both the worsening situation as well as nationalists to contribute in the struggle against oppression. Nationalists, for example, began to question why musicians had the luxury to stage shows while others had to take to the bush to fight. In response to these pressures, musicians adopted a more revolutionary stance in their music. In some cases, church hymn lyrics were replaced with revolutionary ones. In other cases Christian lyrics assumed new meanings under the new circumstances. Various categories of Shona protest songs assumed new interpretations in the new context. Songs protesting against unjust chiefs took on new meanings as political relationships changed. Similarly, traditional war and hunting songs assumed new meanings in the wake of an armed struggle and tightening tensions between the black majority and the white minority government.

            The Zimbabwean people's traditional music, which had been marginalized in the rock n' roll, soul and pop frenzy of the 1950s, was rejuvenated as a useful tool for mobilization in the political struggle for justice. In a situation where Africans were systematically excluded from the formal means of political representation, music became an alternative means of articulating their experiences.[5]

            Thomas Mapfumo coined the phrase “chimurenga music” to describe his revolutionary music which evolved during Zimbabwe's struggle to gain independence in the early 1970s. The war of liberation, which was dubbed Chimurenga Chechipiri, or ‘the second revolution,’ was a fulfillment of the prophesy of a great Shona spirit, Mbuya Nehanda, sister of the great Shona prophet Chaminuka. Mbuya Nehanda led the first war, Chimurenga Chekutanga against British colonial rule in Zimbabwe and was hanged in the late nineteenth century. However, before she died, she declared that her bones would rise and fight the second war of liberation. Her prophecy was not realized until almost a hundred years later during the seventies. While armed struggle raged along the borders of Zimbabwe, Mapfumo used his music to arouse revolutionary sentiment among Zimbabweans. Mapfumo has continued to use his chimurenga style of music to address a multitude of pressing political and social concerns in peacetime Zimbabwe.

            Characterized by biting social and political commentary and third person political innuendo, Mapfumo developed a style of music with roots in traditional Shona mbira music.[6] Played with modern electric instrumentation, his music delivers a more modern message adapted to current social and political affairs with a sense of urgency and a cry for justice.

            Thomas Tafirenyika Mukanya Mapfumo was born on July 2, 1945, near the town of Marondera in Zimbabwe. Even though his parents were staying in the capital city of Harare (then Salisbury), Mapfumo stayed with his grandparents in rural areas. Both sets of grandparents were avid traditional musicians. Mapfumo learned about his tribes’ music at an early age. Shona music is participatory. Unlike Western music where a few musicians perform for a large audience, the Shona concept draws every member into participation in their own capacity. Mapfumo learned by playing and singing with traditional masters.

            As Mapfumo approached school age, his parents summoned him to come and stay with them in Harare. In contrast to life in the village, he was now exposed to radio and television, media to which he had no access to in the village. Through these media, Mapfumo was exposed to other kinds of music. He was able to listen to music from South Africa, Zaire, USA, UK and many other parts of the world. Before long Mapfumo had a list of favorite regional and international musicians: Franco, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and many others. After school Mapfumo would spend time practicing cover songs of his favorite musicians, such as Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley.

            Mapfumo took his music seriously and wanted to be a rock star. In Harare, an annual rock-and-roll band contest was held. Mapfumo and his friends always participated. There were both white and African bands participating from as far away as Lusaka, Zambia, and Johannesburg, South Africa. However, no African band ever won these contests regardless of their talent. It was in this realization that no matter how good he was as a rock-and-roll artist, he was never going to win the contest, Mapfumo started to re-think what his music was supposed to represent. It was then that he convinced himself that, for the most part, Africans were losing their musical culture in pursuit of western music. As a result, he began to focus on Shona music.

            His upbringing had given him enough exposure to explore a new direction in his career. A local African comedian, Charles Dee Ray Tiger, had recorded a Shona song called “Shungu Dzinondibaya” in which he made fun of a rich man who lost his wealth overnight. Mapfumo decided to record it. The recording fell into the hands of an entrepreneur who decided to publish it as a single. Mapfumo heard his own voice on record while visiting a record store in Highfield, outside Harare. The record was very successful. This was Mapfumo's endorsement that he could succeed as a Shona musician.[7]

            In 1973, Mapfumo went to a mining town of Mhangura north of Harare to look for work. While he was there he met a few musicians who all worked at a chicken run, an enclosed farm for keeping poultry. Together they formed a band, The Hallelujah Chicken Run Band. Mapfumo began serious research on traditional Shonan folk styles, particularly that of the mbira. Together with guitarist Jonah Sithole, Mapfumo translated the mbira’s complex patterns onto electric guitars, dampening the strings to produce a near-precise copy of the mbira’s tonal quality.

            The beginning of chimurenga music saw a parallel shift in Mapfumo's stage attire. He discarded the flared pants, tight fitting T-shirts and high-heeled shoes, a style influenced by the rock era in the 1960s. Instead, he appeared on the stage bare from the waist up, wearing a loincloth and holding a small traditional axe in one hand and a microphone in the other, a gesture connecting his music with the liberation war. The axe was a symbol of war, since the first chimurenga war was fought with axes, bows and arrows. Sometimes he appeared on the stage with black and white robes typical of spirit mediums. The spirit of war was believed to possess the Africans during their struggle for liberation. Mapfumo's attire can be seen as a statement of his dedication to the liberation of the people and his faith in their ancestors’ guidance.[8]

            At first, Mapfumo’s innovations were not well received. After years of demoralization by white colonialists, most native Africans believed their own music to be inferior to imported white styles. Attitudes gradually changed, however, as the political situation in Zimbabwe worsened. Mapfumo’s lyrics, thinly disguised criticisms of the colonial government cloaked in the Shona language, aligned with emerging nationalist attitudes. By 1975, Chicken Run was no longer disdained but seen as chic and innovative. [9]

            Mapfumo left Harare and went to Mutare where he lived with a group of musicians. They played gigs in the Mutare area both in and out of the city. It wasn't until a local nightclub in Mutare contracted Mapfumo and his friends as the club's house band that The Blacks Unlimited was formed. The band consisted of Mapfumo, Leonard Chiyangwa, Jonah Sithole and Marshall Munhumumwe. The group stayed together for a couple of years until Jonah Sithole left the band to go back to Harare. After a few months the remaining members disbanded. Mapfumo arrived in Harare without a band. The owner of Mushandira Pamwe Hotel in Highfield asked Mapfumo to come and play with the hotel's band, The Pied Pipers. They were a rock-and-roll group with very little knowledge of Mapfumo's style of traditional music. On his breaks, Mapfumo would cross the street to listen to former Blacks Unlimited member Leonard Chiyangwa playing with another band, The Acid Band (The word “acid” refers to the band’s biting social commentary, not to psychedelic drugs).[10]  The Acid Band was performing some traditional Shona music to Mapfumo's liking. He persuaded Chiyangwa to practice with him and before long they recorded their critically acclaimed single, “Pamuromo Chete” in response to Ian Smith's declaration that Zimbabwe would never be ruled by Africans in his lifetime. The song, sung in the native Shona language and laced with political innuendo, ignited the nation. As if to thank the fans for their support and appreciation, Mapfumo recorded another song that became an instant hit, “Pfumvu Pa Ruzevha” (Hardships in the Rural Area). Because of the fighting that was happening in rural areas, people instantly identified with the song and Mapfumo's popularity soared. An English translation of the song taken from the album notes follows:


Ah hey, you see I am now a pauper.

Have you seen the hardships in the rural area?

The hardships at home?

Ah, hey that’s why I am a pauper.

You are lucky, you who have houses with heating.

You are lucky, you who go around in your cars.

You are lucky, you who live in towns.
You are lucky, you who have money in your pockets.


They have a hard life in the rural areas.

They encounter a lot of hardships at home.

That’s why I am now a pauper.


Did you know that granny is dead?

Did you know that mummy is dead?

Did you know that your brother is dead?

Did you know that there are no rains?

Did you know that your plot of land was taken?


Those are the hardships in the rural areas.

Those are the troubles at home.

That’s why I am now so poor.


You are fortunate you who have warm houses.

You are fortunate you who have hot meals.

You are fortunate you who have a place to sleep.

You are fortunate you who have pocket money.

You are fortunate you who live in the city.

You are fortunate you who are fit and well.

That is the hard experience they face in the rural 


Have you heard that mother is dead?

Have you heard that brother is dead?

Have you heard that father is dead?

Have you heard that the plots of land are gone?

Have you heard that there is a severe drought?


They have lots of hardships in the rural areas.

They are suffering at home.[11]


            The song begins with a disjoint mbira-like melodic pattern that continues unvaried to the end. This pattern is played with muted strings, imitating the tone quality of the mbira. The bass drum plays four beats per measure with triplet subdivisions played on the cymbals. The bass guitar plays a pattern of six quarter notes per measure that group themselves into three groups of two beats each. The song is transcribed in six-four meter but sounds metrically ambiguous.[12]

            The government’s interest in and concern with Mapfumo’s popularity grew. They realized that Mapfumo's music was galvanizing the African population and encouraging young people to cross the border into Mozambique for military training. In 1977, when it became apparent to the Smith regime that Mapfumo's music was subversive and politically inciting, he was detained for three months without charge.[13]  Mapfumo said:

I recorded all my war experiences on an album called ‘Hokoyo’ and it became quite popular. As I was frightened of the law, I sang most of the songs on the L.P. using innuendos and ambiguous language, but it was all there. The message was loud and clear to all Shona speakers, ‘We must topple the government.’ As I had half expected, the authorities banned my music from the radio.[14] 


            Once released from prison, Mapfumo began releasing a string of chimurenga singles offering support to ZANU freedom fighters and their supporters throughout Zimbabwe. In 1978, as the liberation war reached its pinnacle, Mapfumo renamed The Acid Band as Blacks Unlimited. After 1980, when Zimbabwe finally gained its independence, Mapfumo continued producing his politically charged style of music. In 1983, a compilation album, The Chimurenga Singles, was released, and in 1984 and 1985, Mapfumo made his first British and European tours. In 1986, he made what is considered his best work, Chimurenga for Justice. In this album, his updating of traditional Shona music reached maturity with keyboards as well as guitars reinterpreting the ancient songs of the mbira.[15]

            Mapfumo is not the only important chimurenga musician in Zimbabwe. Oliver M’tukudzi (b. 1952) is well known for his chimurenga-rumba-mbaqanga music and morally charged lyrics. Comrade Chinx, one of the leading conductors of chimurenga choirs during the war years has moved into synthesizer chimurenga. Also, Robson Banda, Simon Chimbetu, Leonard Dembo, Jonah Moyo, and Devera Ngwenya combine elements of chimurenga with Zimbabwean rumba.[16]

            Given the popularity of chimurenga music in the late 1970s, one might expect the genre to dominate the Zimbabwean music scene indefinitely. However, after Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980, the need for protest songs withered as a government elected by the African majority took hold. The revival of mbira and other traditional music grew stronger, but chimurenga faded away.

            Disillusionment set in, however, as the rising aspirations of Africans were not being met. Drought, political corruption, unemployment, and economic struggles fostered discontent. The ground was being laid for a revival of chimurenga music, which began in the late 1980s.

            Mapfumo and other musicians revived chimurenga by emphasizing the re-orchestration of mbira and other traditional songs for guitars and other Western instruments. This time, Mapfumo did not simply compose new music in the style of mbira songs. He transcribed existing traditional mbira songs for the guitar.[17]  The revived chimurenga became a more perfect blend of rural and urban life, and of traditional and modern styles. 

End Notes

[1] Alice Dadirai Kwaramba. The Battle of the Mind: International New Media Elements of the New Religious Political Right in Zimbabwe (Oslo: University of Oslo, 1997), 5.

[2]“Zimbabwe,” (Accessed 29 March 2004) <>

[3] Alice Dadirai Kwaramba, Popular Music and Society: The Language of Chimurenga Music: The Case of Thomas Mapfumo in Zimbabwe (Oslo: University of Oslo, 1997), 3-4.

[4]“Zimbabwe,” <>

[5] Kwaramba, The Case of Thomas Mapfumo, 31-32.

[6] The mbira is a musical instrument whose sound is generated essentially by the vibration of thin tongues of metal, wood or other material. It is played with the thumbs of both hands with the remaining fingers supporting the instrument. Traditional Shona mbira music is built on chord sequences between four degrees displaying bi-chords in 4ths or 5ths. Many cycles cover 48 basic pulses. From Gerhard Kubik. “Lamellophone,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 1 April 2004), <>

[7] Solomon Murungu, What Is Chimurenga? (Accessed 30 March 2004)

[8] Kwaramba, The Case of Thomas Mapfumo, 63-64.

[9] “Thomas Mapfumo,” The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3d ed. (London: MUZE UK Ltd., 1998), 3454.

[10] Ernest D. Brown, “The Guitar and the Mbira: Resilience, Assimilation, and Pan-Africanism in Zimbabwean Music,” World of Music, 36, no. 2 (1994): 106.

[11] Thomas Mapfumo, The Chimurenga Singles: 1976-1980. (Hokokus, New Jersey: Shanachie Records Corporation, Meadowland Records, 1985); 403.

[12] Brown, 107-8.

[13] Murungu, What Is Chimurenga? (Accessed 30 March 2004).

[14] Fred Zindi, Roots Rocking in Zimbabwe, (Harare: Mambo Press, 1985) quoted in John E. Kaemmer, “Music of the Shona in Zimbabwe,” The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988); 1:757.

[15] “Thomas Mapfumo,” The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3454.

[16] Angela Impey, “Popular Music in Africa,” The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music.

[17] Brown, 108-9. 


Brown, Ernest D. “The Guitar and the Mbira: Resilience, Assimilation, and Pan-Africanism in Zimbabwean Music.” Worlds of Music, 36, no. 2 (1994): 73-117. “Zimbabwe.” Accessed 29 March 2004.

Impey, Angela. “Popular Music in Africa,” The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 1 New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988: 415-35.

Kubik, Gerhard. “Lamellophone.” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. Accessed 1 April 2004.

Kwaramba, Alice Dadirai. The Battle of the Mind: International New Media Elements of the New Religious Political Right in Zimbabwe. Oslo: University of Oslo, 1997.

__________. Popular Music and Society: The Language of Chimurenga Music: The Case of Thomas Mapfumo in Zimbabwe. Oslo: University of Oslo, 1997.

Mapfumo, Thomas. The Chimurenga Singles: 1976-1980. Hokokus, New Jersey: Shanachie Records Corporation, Meadowland Records 403, 1985. Compact disc.

“Mapfumo, Thomas.” The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3d ed., vol. 5. London: MUZE UK Ltd., 1998: 3453-54.

Murungu, Solomon. What Is Chimurenga? Accessed 30 March 2004.

Zindi, Fred. Roots Rocking in Zimbabwe, (Harare: Mambo Press, 1985) quoted in John E. Kaemmer, “Music of the Shona in Zimbabwe,” The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 1. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988: 744-57.