The Rumpus Interview with Banning Eyre


To most people Banning Eyre is the Senior Editor and Producer of the radio show Afropop Worldwide, the long-running program which this year received the Peabody Institutional Award. He’s also the author of books like In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali and the new book, Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music that Made Zimbabwe.

The new book is about the great Zimbabwean musician and his life, including his very public stands in the 1970s during the country’s war for independence, a rare combination of great musical innovation and deep moral commitment. Mapfumo’s career didn’t end in 1980, though, and he took great risks—to himself, his band, and his family—when he stood up against corruption and President Robert Mugabe and in the 1990s, which led the musician into exile in the United States, where he currently lives. Eyre first interviewed Mapfumo in 1988, and his music has had a profound influence on Eyre’s life and career. He spoke recently about this once in a lifetime project, some of the choices he had to make in the book, and the album of Mapfumo’s music, Lion Songs: Essential Tracks in the Making of Zimbabwe, he assembled to accompany the book.


The Rumpus: When did you first hear Thomas Mapfumo’s music?

Banning Eyre: I first heard it on a cassette that Sean Barlow sent me from England in 1984 when he was just starting to do research on what would become the Afropop radio program. It really struck a chord with me because I was familiar with mbira music. I’d heard The Soul of Mbira record back when I was in university, at Wesleyan, and I loved that sound. It was really the guitar style that hooked me in at first.

Rumpus: You were a guitarist.

Eyre: Yes, I was. I hadn’t really started trying to play African guitar. This was one of the a-ha moments that led to that whole direction.

Rumpus: I loved the book, but one thing that struck me as odd is that all of a sudden you’re in the story and using the first person. In that sense it’s an odd book to write because you occasionally appear in the narrative in a minor role.

Eyre: You’re right. It was the end result after I tried many other ways of handling that problem. The first drafts of this book had three whole chapters that were written in the first person and they were much more memoir-like. They had a really different voice. Those chapters began each of the three sections and various readers were confused by that or thought it just didn’t work. So I ended up removing most of that material, but condensing the essence of it into those first ten pages, the preamble. The idea would be that the preamble would establish in the reader’s mind that there had been many different research methods used here—reading, interviewing, but also being a participant/observer. By establishing that in the beginning, I made it clear that I had a role in the story. It was a difficult problem.

Rumpus: Reading the book I thought about Afropop Worldwide and the approach that the show uses where George Collinet or you or whoever will be setting the scenes and giving background but then at times it will be more personal and have a different approach in the midst of this larger story.

Eyre: It’s true. With the show, there’s a little bit more artifice involved because we always want to draw the listener in and make them feel like part of the story. Sometimes we create the illusion of George is in a place where he isn’t actually. With the book it’s a bit different because I really was trying to stick to real facts and real things happening and I really wanted to keep my presence in the narrative to an absolute minimum. By the time we got to this final version of the book, I had completely abandoned any notion of having a character presence in the book. There are times where I thought it was necessary for me to be there, but then there are other times where you have bits of dialogue and you have to deduce that that’s there because I was actually there to hear people say these things. I didn’t want to draw attention to that except when I felt it was necessary.

Rumpus: I can certainly understand that. You didn’t want to be a major character, but by being a minor character, it jumps out more when you do appear.

Eyre: It does. It’s a built-in problem, and I had to find a solution. I don’t think there’s a perfect answer, but that’s the way we went. It’s a hard one to win, but I’m not surprised that you draw attention to that. It hasn’t come up in other interviews, but there are a lot of things that are unusual about this book. I always knew from the beginning that it was going to be tricky to both be as inside the story as I am—because of the way that I’ve known Thomas and researched him—but also to be able to stand outside enough to be able to write with some third person authority. That’s a challenge. It doesn’t come up in that many books about musical figures although I think there are some parallels. I think of Timothy White and his friendship with Bob Marley.

Rumpus: Obviously you’ve been interviewing Thomas and known him for many years, but how long did you spend writing the book?

978-0-8223-5908-1Eyre: The difficulty with writing the book was that I never really had long stretches of time when I could do nothing else. The most I ever got was two or three months. I actually started writing what became this book in 2001. I think by 2003 I had the first three chapters—a quarter of which ended up being totally junked. In 2004 I had a chance to go back to Zimbabwe so I stopped working on the book and went back into doing research and interviews. I was collecting so much stuff that it was hard to get to writing for a while there. [Laughs] But really the span of time was about 15 years.

Rumpus: You said before what about his music first captivated you, but what about Thomas and his life captivated you and made you interested in writing a book?

Eyre: Obviously, just the barebones of what he did during the seventies and his role in the liberation struggle was a pretty compelling narrative and I felt that the way it tended to be told in press accounts and press releases was superficial. I felt that there was a lot more meat there and the more I interviewed people, the more I saw that. Then not that long after we met him, the song “Corruption” happened and that was when I knew that his personal story really had teeth. I remember someone saying to me at the time, and I think it’s in the book, that it was braver to turn against Mugabe then than it was to do what he did in the seventies. Everybody was against Smith, but for him to take such a strong stand on Mugabe and corruption was brave and really unexpected—it was something that broke the predictable plot line. That was when I really knew that his personal story was worth the effort to try to tell it. And just being around him so much, especially from the perspective of a musician and being in his band at times, I got a real sense of the complexity of his personality, his family interactions. I just became completely fascinated by all aspects of the man. The music was the glue that bound the whole experience together, but there were just so many side stories I would get caught up in. It because an all consuming fascination—and it hasn’t worn off, I have to say. Talking about it, presenting it, and dealing with the music again—all the obsession and fascination and enthusiasm returns. It hasn’t worn off.

Rumpus: Was it easy to get access? At what point did you say, I’m writing a book, can I talk to you, talk to everyone, basically?

Eyre: I think that I made the decision to write the book after the ’92-93 trip. In between I lived in Mali and wrote that book (In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali). All the time I was writing that book, I knew that this was going to be the next thing. I saw Thomas during that time, because he would come to the US during those years, and I told him that I was planning to come and live [in Zimbabwe] and research a book about him and he said, “Sure.” He didn’t seem to focus on it all that much. When I went on this long trip that’s described in that opening preamble, in ’97-98, then it was very explicit: Okay, we’re going to do interviews. There’s a whole narrative that’s not in the book about how surprisingly difficult it was to get interviews with him. Mostly just because his life was so busy and there was always so much going on. Something would be scheduled and he’d go, “Oh, I can’t do it now. I have to do this or that. Can’t we do it next week?” In the six months I was there I only interviewed him five times. At the end of it I knew that I didn’t have everything I wanted so I continued to do interviews after that when he would come to the US. 2012, I think, was the last official interview I did for this book, although some things he said in 2013 ended up in here.

I’m sure there are things he didn’t tell me. There are things that he didn’t want to talk about and there are things that he would give somewhat evasive answers about. I always felt like I had to try to get him to talk about some of these harder things, and I did, but any interview subject makes up their mind that there are going to be certain limits. He was not the kind of person who was going to tell you upfront: “I’m not going to talk about this, I’m not going to talk about that.” You just figure it out as you go. But I never felt that he was misleading me. I never felt he was being dishonest. I think he was, pretty much throughout, telling me how he saw things. I didn’t always think his view matched up with the facts, but maybe there’s just another way to look at it.

Rumpus: He may have been evasive, but he never lied to you.

Eyre: Exactly. Also, I think that his feelings about certain things have changed over time. How willing he was to talk about his resentment of Mugabe would ebb and flow. There’s that quote on the CD near the end where he starts out by saying that a lot of people in this country think Mugabe is a hero. He says, “I myself think of him as a hero.” That’s a very interesting quote because it shows the ambivalence. It shows how difficult it is for him to really take a stand against Mugabe. That’s important. You have moments like that seminar at WOMAD in Seattle where he’s asked about Mugabe and he basically punts and doesn’t criticize him. Chris Bolton was very disappointed by that and thinks of this as a big moral turning point. I didn’t see it that way so much. I just thought, well, there’s a time and a place for everything and it just didn’t feel like a place where he was going to go there. Again, I don’t consider that being dishonest or misleading. I consider that being discreet and choosing his battles. It goes to fundamentally how emotionally difficult it is to criticize Mugabe when you’ve had this history.

Rumpus: You write about this in the book, how it’s easy for us outside of Zimbabwe to see Mugabe in a very one dimensional way, but for people who lived through the war for independence and have this shared history, they have a much more complicated relationship to him.

Eyre: Right. And I don’t know how successful this is, but I really wanted to help the reader to understand why it would be so hard to turn against for Mugabe for someone who grew up with that history. Also, I want us to appreciate the mentality of someone who continues to defend him, someone who says, “Okay, he’s not doing it in the best way, but the ends justifies the means, basically.” I had some pretty intense verbal dustups with people I know whom I found supported Mugabe. I was sometimes shocked, but I gradually came to realize that a lot of people really did see it differently than Thomas sees it, or than I see it. I wanted that point of view to be represented and not just dismissed—or even argued with—because it is possible to look at all this in a different way.

Rumpus: Did you struggle with how or where to end the book?

Eyre: Oh god, yes. [Laughs] I was waiting for the ending where he would triumphantly go home. That’s the one I wanted. But it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen. I think it will happen, but who knows when. It was very difficult to end the book. It actually had a much darker ending at one point, and that was the stage at which I let him and the family read the manuscript. Then I flew out there and spent some time with them at the end of 2013, and I saw that life had become better with them. They had settled as a family and made peace with exile to a degree that had not been true just a few years earlier. Then I used that appearance in 2012 where he came to New York, which was interesting because it was one of the few times I’ve ever seen him completely on his own without any of his brothers or hangers-on or musicians. I saw a different side of him then. I don’t know. It’s very hard to have an ending to a story that’s still so up in the air—both the country and the man. I did what I could, but as you see, you can’t have a perfectly satisfying ending given the circumstances.

Rumpus: I would imagine that anytime one writes a biography of someone still alive, it’s a struggle to find the right ending.

Eyre: Absolutely. If he had gone home, I mean, even then it wouldn’t be the ending. I don’t know. Maybe someday there will be addendum to a future version of the book that will have more to say. I think it’s possible that he has a few more interesting chapters in him. He’s still really interested in stirring things up. Now he is somewhat repositioning himself to be a voice of Zimbabweans in exile in diaspora and that could lead to some interesting places. I know he’s going to perform in Mozambique and South African in the next few months. He was supposed to play in South Africa in May, and it didn’t happen because of the xenophobic violence against foreigners in South Africa.

Rumpus: You do mention in the book how that was your dream ending to the book, but you make the point that we’re used to musicians who prioritize music over family, but Mapfumo’s career was in Zimbabwe and he went into exile for his family and the last chapter is really about them having come to terms with what that meant.

Eyre: That’s exactly right. In some ways, it is a satisfying ending. It seems like the most satisfying ending I could see. Like I said, when I made that last visit there—I’d been out to Eugene a number of times before—their lives did feel much more settled. Like you said, people had made their peace. The kids in particular and his wife really missed home. At the same time, they had work, they had friends, they had social lives. It seemed like what he sacrificed had been worth it, in that his family really was okay. That seems to me the best way to wind up the narrative because as you say, it was a very fateful choice. Thomas’s benefactor Al Green always resented that I would say flat out that it was bad for his career to move to America. But I do think it was.

In Griot TimeRumpus: It may not have been a great career move, but it was the right choice.

Eyre: I think it was and I think it’s a choice you can admire.

Rumpus: You make the point that Mapfumo has struggled to be a voice in exile, and exile is hard on people and it really changes artists. I would imagine that as someone who has struggled to connect with a larger audience, it requires him to speak to his community in a different way.

Eyre: I think he’s reevaluating things as far as his artistic statement. If you listen to his new album, he’s doing different things in different songs. It doesn’t have a clear line, both in terms of his musical style and in terms of its messages. There are songs that come out of this period where he has this impulse to get away from politics and talk about life and dancing and being happy. At the same time, that doesn’t really ring true for a lot of his fans. Those songs have been criticized for being too light. At the same time he’s saying, politicians are all corrupt, don’t get involved with them. I think that if there’s any coalescing message in the recent songs, it’s more this idea that people shouldn’t rely on leaders so much. They have to take their fate into their own hands. I think it’s possible that going forward there might start to be a new, more coherent message. Especially if he were to go home. I know that if he were to go home and spend time there and make an album there, that it would have a different character. Even if that possibility is forever dangled and forever moved down the road, he’s always writing songs. The songs on that new record were written over a very long period and there were many other songs that were going to be on the record that went away. I heard them in different forms. To me it’s too bad to see him in a mode where that’s how he’s making records because it was never like that before. It was always a new record every year. It’s just not like that now because it’s too expensive and it’s hard to get all the musicians he wants. Also his standards have changed. He’s become a bit more of a producer in the sense that he sits there fussing over the mix. One week he thinks it’s good and a week later not. He’s really gets much more engaged with the details than he used to in the old days.

Rumpus: Mapfumo was always seen as better live and many of the recordings struggled to capture that energy and some of that may have been technical. Do you think some of the interest in producing comes from that?

Eyre: I don’t know. I don’t have a clear answer to that. I sense it was a function of the fact that the process itself got slowed down so much by the fact that he would get together enough money to record a few songs and then have to sit with those rough mixes until he had enough money to record a few more. That gave an opportunity for more listening and ruminating. I think that that process naturally led him into a whole new level of scrutiny of every little detail, because he had so much time to hear the songs over and over again. He started to become more critical of small points whereas in the past there was just a different rhythm to making a record. There was an urgency to have it out and he didn’t have time to sit and ruminate that way. I think it was somewhat a function of the process rather than a conscious decision on his part.

Rumpus: For Afropop you’re working on large ongoing projects. You do the Hip Deep series. The four part series about Angola was incredible. What’s the difference between the books and the radio show in terms of research for you?

Eyre: Yes, the Hip Deep shows are certainly research heavy, but one difference is that they have deadlines. Everything has to be ready within a certain period so you go crazy researching it but then there’s a point where you have to stop doing that and produce. Then it ends and you go on to something else. [Laughs] That’s something that never happened with this project! [Laughs] Well, finally it did when I got a publishing deal.

Buy coming back to Afropop, we’ll be doing more Hip Deep and we’re going to go back to Mali next year. I haven’t been in ten years so that should be really interesting. That will be picking up a thread. It won’t involve as much research, but I have to read a bunch of books and interview various scholars. That’ll happen for a few months but then we’ll go there and we’ll have these experiences and then come home and produce the shows. That is the wonderful thing about Afropop. You do have to complete things and then move on. With Hip Deep it’s interesting because you meet scholars who dedicate their whole lives to a subject or a set of related subjects. I value the depth of experience and knowledge that they have. It’s really exciting to live in that world for a while, but I don’t necessarily envy that life. I like the fact that I get to plug in and then unplug and go somewhere else.

Rumpus: You’ve been interviewing Mapfumo since 1988. You’ve been writing this book since 2001. It’s not like you haven’t written anything before this and won’t write another, but can you conceive of a project that approaches this?

Eyre: No. I think this is definitely a once in a lifetime experience. There’s no way I’ll ever write another book that’s like this. The book is the consequence of a very unique relationship and set of circumstances. While I’m very happy with the book, I don’t want to write another book that takes this long. [Laughs] I don’t exactly know what I’m going to take on as a next major project. I have a few ideas, but my work at Afropop keeps me pretty busy. The book is getting some notice and success, and that’s great, but it’s not going to be so successful that I’m going to be able to just drop my radio career and become an author full time. I do want to write more books and I want to write books that are more based on observation and experience and not involving so much research as this one did. Like I said, it was a unique circumstance, it was a very formative experience for me as a writer and as a musician and in my personal life, but there never could really be anything else quite like it at my age. [Laughs] And that’s fine.

Rumpus: As a final question, I have to ask, what is the best Thomas Mapfumo album, especially for people who aren’t familiar with his work?

Eyre: I think the one that I made to go with the book is the place to start: Lion Songs: Essential Tracks in the Making of Zimbabwe. It’s the only one that really goes through the whole breadth of his career so that you really hear the changing sound of the band and the changing sound of his voice. I think that those little clips of him talking guide you through the whole evolution. It’s an unusual way of presenting it. I have other albums that I think of as musical favorites. I like Chimurenga ’98 and I love Chamunorwa, but for people who don’t know his music and want to dive in, I would recommend Lion Songs because it really gives you the whole scope. I guess it’s a bit self-serving of me to say that, but that was the whole idea of making that CD. I didn’t feel like there was a CD that properly introduced his whole career. Some Zimbabwean music aficionados writing about it have been saying, this is the one CD that really gives you the whole picture in seventy-five minutes.

Alex Dueben's work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, The Poetry Foundation, The Comics Journal and many other publications. He is working on his first novel. More from this author →