5 Questions with Banning Eyre

LionSongsCvrThis Tuesday at City Lights Bookstore, we welcome musician, writer, and producer Banning Eyre to discuss the music of Thomas Mapfumo and his new book on the man, Lion Songs. Banning’s answers to our 5 questions are below but first, a little bit about him and his new book.

Event: Tuesday, June 23, 2015 @ 7:00PM at City Lights Bookstore. A special evening of word and song celebrating the new book Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe (Duke University Press) by Banning Eyre.

About the Book: Like Fela Kuti and Bob Marley, singer, composer and bandleader Thomas Mapfumo and his music came to represent his native country’s anti-colonial struggle and Like Fela Kuti and Bob Marley, singer, composer, and bandleader Thomas Mapfumo and his music came to represent his native country’s anti-colonial struggle and cultural identity. Mapfumo was born in 1945 in what was then the British colony of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The trajectory of his career—from early performances of American rock n’ roll tunes to later creating a new genre based on traditional Zimbabwean music, including the sacred mbira, and African and Western pop—is a metaphor for Zimbabwe’s evolution from colony to independent nation. Lion Songs is an authoritative biography of Mapfumo that narrates the life and career of this creative, complex, and iconic figure.

Photo by Robert Ebstein
Photo by Robert Ebstein

Banning Eyre ties the arc of Mapfumo’s career to the history of Zimbabwe. The genre. Mapfumo created in the 1970s called chimurenga, or “struggle” music, challenged the Rhodesian government—which banned his music and jailed him—and became important to Zimbabwe achieving independence in 1980. In the 1980s and 1990s Mapfumo’s international profile grew along with his opposition to Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship. Mugabe had been a hero of the revolution, but Mapfumo’s criticism of his regime led authorities and loyalists to turn on the singer with threats and intimidation. Beginning in 2000, Mapfumo and key band and family members left Zimbabwe. Many of them, including Mapfumo, now reside in Eugene, Oregon.

A labor of love, Lion Songs is the product of a twenty-five year friendship and professional relationship between Eyre and Mapfumo that demonstrates Mapfumo’s musical and political importance to his nation, its freedom struggle, and its culture.

About the Author: Banning Eyre is a freelance writer and guitarist and the senior editor and producer of the public radio program Afropop Worldwide. He is the author of In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali (Temple University Press), Playing With Fire: Fear and Self-Censorship in Zimbabwean Music, and Guitar Atlas: Africa, and the coauthor of AFROPOP! An Illustrated Guide to Contemporary African Music. Eyre is a contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and his writing has been published in Billboard, Guitar Player, Salon.com, the Boston Phoenix, CMJ, Option, Folk Roots, Global Rhythm, and other publications. He has also performed and recorded with Thomas Mapfumo. His official site is http://banningeyre.com/

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?

Banning Eyre: An atmosphere of funky elegance, redolent with San Francisco’s brilliantly rebellious culture, and a curious audience game to discover something new.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

BE: Well, as it happens, my book does have a soundtrack: the CD by Thomas Mapfumo Lion Songs: Essential Tracks in the Making of Zimbabwe. The compilation covers four decades of remarkable musical evolution, and includes Mapfumo’s speaking voice, “booming with moral clarity,” as some wag once put it.

CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?

BE: I believe it was Stuart Little. Still haven’t got over it.

CL: If you didn’t have your current profession, what might you do?

BE: Either I’d be a filmmaker, bringing all my skills in writing, music and photography together in one endeavor. Or, I’d be a carpenter, fulfilling my desire to have a simpler, more physical work life.

CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no Wi-Fi).

BE: Well, no wifi would be the first thing on my list, so thanks for taking care of that one up front. Beyond that, I’d need my guitar, a box of books I’ve always meant to read, and an inexhaustible supply of red wine and single malt whiskey.


Join Banning as he discusses the life and music of Thomas Mapfumo at City Lights this Tuesday. It will be a special evening indeed of music and reading, and not to be missed. For more about Banning and Mapfumo, check out Banning’s official site and follow him on Twitter.

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