Thomas Mapfumo and the polularization of Shona Mbira

  • Banning Eyre


The music of Thomas Mapfumo is frequently described as a pop adaptation of traditional mbira music, the ancient ceremonial performance art of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. While this is an oversimplification of Mapfumo’s varied repertoire, mbira is an important, perhaps the most important, aspect of the artist’s work. My book, Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe (2015) interweaves Zimbabwean history with the biography and music of this under-recognized African innovator, composer, and bandleader.1 This article, adapted from the Lion Songs manuscript, attempts to clarify Thomas’s role first in helping to revive the status of mbira music in his own country, and then in developing an audience for it internationally.


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Brenner, Klaus-Peter 1997 Chipendani and Mbira. Musical Instruments, Implicit Mathematics and the Evolution o f the Harmonic Progressions in the Music o f the Shona o f Zimbabwe. Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Gottingen, Philologisch-Historische Klasse, third series, vol. 221. With 2 audio CDs. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
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Eyre, Banning 2015 Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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Kubik, Gerhard 1988 “Nsenga/Shona Harmonic Patterns and the San Heritage in South Africa.” Ethnomusicology 33(2): 39-76. 1998 Kalimba, Nsansi, M bira - Lam ellophone in Afrika (Veroffentlichungen des Museums fur Volkerkunde Berlin, Neue Folge 68, Musikethnologie X). With Audio-CD. Berlin: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preubischer Kulturbesitz, Museum fur Volkerkunde.

Sibanda, Maxwell 1993 “Leonard Dembo, the Music Man of Today,” Sunday Gazette, February 21 .

Thram, Diane 2006 Patriotic history and the politicisation of memory: manipulation of popular music to re-invent the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe. Critical Arts 20(2): 75-88.

Tracey, Andrew 1989 “The System of the Mbira.” Papers Presented at the Seventh Symposium on Ethnomusicology, Andrew Tracey, ed. Grahamstown: International Library of Music, Rhodes University, 43-55.

Turino, Thomas 2000 Nationalists, Cosmopolitans, and Popular Music in Zimbabwe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zimunya, Musa 1996 Proposal to Honour Thomas Mapfumo with Honorary Degree. University of Zimbabwe.
How to Cite
Eyre, B. “Thomas Mapfumo and the Polularization of Shona Mbira”. African Music: Journal of the International Library of African Music, Vol. 10, no. 1, Nov. 2015, pp. 84-01, doi: