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Many say 84 year-old Robert Mugabe will stop at nothing to get reelected in tomorrow’s elections in Zimbabwe. He used to be one of Africa’s great hopes for self-determination and unity.

So what happened?

Well, you can trace the rise and fall of Zimbabwe’s fortunes under Mugabe through music.

In April 1980, a month after Robert Mugabe became the first prime minister following the end of white rule, a massive independence celebration was held in the capital Harare.

Stevie Wonder flew in, and sang a reggae tune he wrote for the occasion, “Master Blaster.”

Bob Marley also came with his own composition.

Bob Marley had written “Zimbabwe” almost a year before. He’d been elated by the idea of Robert Mugabe and the freedom fighters defeating Ian Smith and colonial rule.

But as Marley sang that night, a crowd tried to climb into the stadium filled with those freedom fighters and dignitaries, which included Mugabe and Prince Charles.

In writer Timothy White’s excellent biography of Bob Marley, “Catch a Fire,” Marley was distressed by what he witnessed that night.

Here’s an excerpt:

((“The wind suddenly shifted and billows of tear gas being used by police outside the arena to control the throng had blown across the grounds to inflame the eyes of the man performing on the small stage in the center of the arena. Momentarily disoriented, he darted about, eventually stumbling through an opening in the stinging fog�Marley pushed the thick ropy strands of his dreadlocks away from his swollen eyes, peering into the darkness beyond the blinding lights onstage.)) There were shouts, screams and the muffled thuds of police batons against bodies as what looked from a distance like a swirling tide of people was beaten back from the crest of the stadium’s parapets�”Madness,” Marley muttered�The scene he had witnessed�had shattered the vision of black African solidarity he had brought with him to Zimbabwe.”

Bob Marley performed around midnight. Another artist, Zimbabwean singer and songwriter Thomas Mapfumo came on later…much later.

Banning Eyre is the editor of, and is writing a biography of Thomas Mapfumo.

�The independence celebration where Bob Marley sang, Thomas always tells the story about how they were told to show up at eight o’clock, and then they were kept there til five in the morning, and they were the last band that played. And only a few of the fighters left dancing in the dust at sunrise with their AK 47s.�

Mapfumo knew Robert Mugabe a little better than most Zimbabweans at the time. He respected Mugabe for ending white rule in Rhodesia. But as Banning Eyre explains, Mapfumo wasn’t totally sold on Mugabe for a number of reasons.

�One was the whole Marxist connection that Mugabe put out. Thomas was, because of his own upbringing, was rather suspicious of that. He was a huge fan of American music, and he kind of identified a lot with things American. So a Marxist was automatically a little bit suspicious to him.�

Still, early in the 80s, Thomas Mapfumo wrote one song “Nyarai”. Mugabe is president, sang Mapfumo. And Zimbabweans need to pull behind him for the sake of national unity. It’s one of the few tunes Mapfumo ever wrote where he actually mentions national figures by name.

But the good vibes of Zimbabwean independence didn’t last long. Struggles between Mugabe and his main rival Joshua Nkomo would soon lead to bloody massacres around the country. The foundation of Mugabe’s one-party state was set in place.

Corruption became headline news there.

And despite some economic and social gains in the 80s, Mugabe embarked on an economic austerity program to make up for a shortage of hard currency. Thomas Mapfumo watched and listened, and wrote songs about it all.

Here’s Mapfumo biographer Banning Eyre again.

�Through the nineties you get a series of songs that talk about poverty and that basically continue to point to ways in which the promises of the revolution have not been fulfilled. They all sort of add up to this persona that Thomas is developing as someone who is not just going to sit by and be a cheerleader, but is going to point to problems.�

�And then it really becomes very very problematic at the end of 1999 when Thomas releases the album called “Chimurenga Explosion.” And it has two songs on it, one called “Mavemve” which basically says the country has been reduced to tatters. “Mavemve” means tatters. And then this other one which is even more blunt because it’s in English, and it’s called “Disaster.” And it is all aimed at Mugabe, he’s saying the government has failed.�

“Disaster” was never officially banned in Zimbabwe. But DJs didn’t dare play it. Thomas Mapfumo ultimately left for the United States after “Chimurenga Explosion” was released. He refused to subject his family to the worsening conditions back home.

Today Mapfumo lives in Oregon and still has harsh words — and music — for Mugabe.

Today in Zimbabwe, singer-songwriter Oliver Mtukudzi tries to carry the protest singer torch. Tuku, as he’s known, performs songs like “Wongororo.”

The words come from an old parable that reprimands the greedy: “You rushed to swallow,” sings Mtukudzi, “when you still needed to chew.”

It’s not quite the full-frontal assault that Thomas Mapfumo provided. Still, most Zimbabweans draw their own conclusions from Tuku’s songs.

The ills of Zimbabwe’s history have been well documented in music. When voters go to the polls there tomorrow, the most hopeful soundtrack may still be Bob Marley’s idealistic song he wrote for Zimbabwe back in 1979.

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