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Zimbabwe: Roots And Legends

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Modern Zimbabwean music, which is still quite rooted in tradition, has successfully penetrated the international scene through the efforts of global stars like Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi. In turn, these sounds have motivated listeners to dig into the golden era of popular music in Zimbabwe during the '70s, with the first appearance of local recordings and the contagious (but often risky) optimism of the independence movement.

These three recordings all feature heroes of that era. The first two volumes in Alula's new, definitive Analog Africa series, each packaged with extremely fat and informative liner notes, spotlight the Green Arrows and the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band respectively (the latter perhaps most notable for a handful of early appearances by Mapfumo). A third release, combining brand new and archival material from mbira player/vocalist Stella Chiweshe, makes interesting connections between the roots and future directions of Zimbabwean music.

The Green Arrows
4-Track Recording Session
Alula
2006

In a sense all modern popular music in Zimbabwe owes a certain debt to the first Zimbabwean group to record an LP there, and so this first edition in Alula's Analog Africa series is particularly timely. The Green Arrows picked up their name in 1968, shortly before jumping into a freshly painted Volkswagen bus to tour the country in support of various vocalists.

In 1974 South African producer West Nkosi convinced the Green Arrows to record a series of singles which became extremely popular through the mid to late-'70s. Among them is Zimbabwe's first gold record, "Chipo Chiroorwa," which is marked by catchy, interlocking lines. This collection features twenty tracks recorded from 1974-78, including the landmark mono Chipo Chiroorwa album.

The '70s were a time of musical experimentation in Zimbabwe, as in much of Africa, since independence was close at hand. Traditional Shona mbira music, the most obvious influence in this music, acquired a new identity as it was translated to the language of electric guitars. Other musical flavors from South Africa (mbaqanga), Malawi and Kenya (benga) became part of the mix. A new style called chimurenga ("struggle"), later popularized by Thomas Mapfumo, can be traced to early roots in these joyous, polyphonic, polyrhythmic songs.

Listen to "Madzangara Dzimu" for the characteristic intertwined lines on guitar and bass guitar, matched by shaker-like percussion (on hi-hat), and topped off by almost instrumental vocals that dip into occasional low-key yodeling. The song's revolutionary Shona lyrics escaped the censors but caught the ears of security forces at a concert down the road, earning the musicians torture and imprisonment.

Though the Green Arrows underwent several personnel changes, the Manatsa brothers—Zexie, the band's bassist, lead vocalist and primary songwriter; and Stanley, the lead guitarist—remained at the group's core. Zexie Manatsa wrote the words for "Chechule" (in the Nyanja dialect of Malawi), which apparently describe a psychedelic vision about a frog in bellbottoms. The song's direct, folk-like simplicity made it a massive hit in Zimbabwe.

Stanley Manatsa's guitar playing, especially when he liberally applies the wah-wah pedal, is quite distinctive (check the early material, like track two, for some of the strongest evidence). It was only natural, given the audiences at Green Arrows gigs, that his approach become known as "hwahwa," the Shona word for beer. Whatever topics the lyrics may touch upon, this is good-times music all the way—made to move hips, feet and hearts into collective motion.

Hallelujah Chicken Run Band
Take One (1974-79)
Alula
2006

The legend behind the name of the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, founded in 1974 to entertain mostly illiterate Malawi mineworkers, is both absurd and revealing. As the story goes, two members of the group found day jobs working at a local chicken run. Upon hearing this, the mine's boss man, one Mr. Walker, shouted "Hallelujah!" and proceeded to christen the band with a name that was destined to become an acronym. Several months later, after he cut the musicians' salaries, a young Thomas Mapfumo went to complain and was fired on the spot, but thankfully Mapfumo still had the day job with the chickens. Or so the story goes.

And so began the ups and downs of the HCRB.

Since Mapfumo is the biggest name on this release, having gone on to revolutionize Zimbabwean music and lead excellent groups of his own, it's good for listeners to be aware that Mapfumo only managed to make one recording session with the HCRB before Mr. Walker sent him on his way. At the time, he played drums and sang. Those four tracks, among the best on this eighteen-track collection, are eerily light and soulful.

The other members of the shifting group—from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi—were quite competent musicians in their own right, and the presence of horns (trumpet and saxophone) among all the guitars definitely peps up the overall vibe. They appear in fanfares or occasionally on their own, acting almost as much like a rhythm instrument as the guitars, but in a far more melodic way. (More legend: sometime around the end of the '70s, saxophonist Robson Boora was actually struck by lightning. This appears to be true.)

The HCRB got a big boost when it won a 1974 contest for Best Traditional Zim Style, attracting the attention of producer Crispen Matema and resulting in the Afro Soul releases that form the heart of this collection. But if for no other reason than geography and practical thinking, the band became quite adept at Malawi music and other local styles. And just like the Green Arrows and other Zim groups, they had to invent a new vocabulary in the process of translating traditional music to guitar and horn-based instrumentation.

Check out the jazzy, fully kwela-ized South African horns on track eleven, leading into a calypso-like section with sing-song vocals. Track seven is as pure as traditional Shona mbira music can get on electric guitars. (Which brings us to one final legend, relating to guitarist Elijah Josam. After being put in charge of the bar by an unsuspecting manager one night, he proceeded to give everyone all the free drinks they wanted... and get himself fired from the band almost immediately thereafter.)

Obviously these guys were serious, but they also knew how to groove and have a good time, and this hour-long tour through their hits from the era offers the same to modern listeners with receptive ears.

Stella Chiweshe
Double Check: Two Sides Of Zimbabwe's Mbira Queen
Piranha
2006

The so-called Queen of Mbira, Stella Chiweshe, saw her first single go gold in 1974, around the same time the Green Arrows and the HCRB were breaking out, so she really deserves to be considered in the same light. Chiweshe adapted traditional Shona mbira music to an electrified, thoroughly modern performing context, and she continues to sing and play the mbira today.

It seems almost parenthetical, given the warmth of her music, that she had to struggle far more than her share to make it as a female artist in a male-dominated style. Or, at this point, to appreciate the fact that she actually recorded a great album last year in Harare—no small feat given the severity of the daily situation that faces Zimbabweans today.

That new material, called "Trance Hits," makes up the first disc of this double set. It's more focused around a traditional sound than her 2002 recording Talking Mbira. The dense drumming and percussion that underpins the music takes it in a new direction (for her), which Chiweshe calls "more rooted" in the sounds she grew up with. The opening "Wanyanya" features shifty, polyrhythmic drumming as its foundation. She sings through all but one of the pieces, also playing mbira on four tracks and hosho (shaker) on most. Her voice can sink to impressive depths, but she prefers to sing in the midrange, with a direct and soulful sound that's also a bit raw around the edges.

Chiweshe plays an incredibly resonant bass mbira on the fourth track, a meditation on the fish world, with surreal echoes and ripples surrounding trance vocals. To the extent Shona mbira music is infused with spiritual energy, this song really radiates an amazing amount, all at a medium pace. But it's a stark contrast to the more overtly song-like music that follows, and an interesting trance healing experience. As a whole, this material is better suited for contemplation than dance, but you can certainly do both.

Piranha has done itself and Chiweshe a service by providing the second disc in this set, a "Classic Hits" collection of thirteen pieces mostly recorded from 1988-1990 in Europe with her Earthquakes band. (Chiweshe made the first recording on the German label, which is now celebrating its 100th release by returning to where it started.) It's interesting to hear how much this archival material is oriented toward danceable rhythms, song form and the electric mbira sound.

If, as the liner notes claim, "Zungunde" (disc two, track seven) was improvised in the studio, then this band had a really impressive natural chemistry, because it comes across as a fully organized—but also spontaneous—jam. "Chachimurenga" takes political struggle to a plateau of reverberant bass and mbira-based groove. The liner notes go a long way to explaining the message behind the music, as well as Chiweshe's own ideas about things, and they're a mandatory stop on the way to fully appreciating this music.

See Chiweshe's own words on this subject at Piranha.

Visit Stella Chiweshe on the web.


Tracks and Personnel

4-Track Recording Session

Tracks: Mwana Waenda; Bambo Makwatila; Chitima Nditakure; Amai Mandida; Towering Inferno; Nkosi's Intro; Chipo Chiroorwa; Dororengu Rononaka; No Delay (Bullitt); Nhengure; Infalilibe Chisoni; Madzangara Dzimu; Nherera Zvichengete; Musango Mune Hangaiwa; Nyoka Yendara; Hurungwe; Chechule Wavala Botom; Chimamuna Chamimba; Vaparidzi Vawanda 20. Wasara Wasara.

Personnel: Zexie Manatsa: bass, lead vocals; Stanley Manatsa: lead guitar; Givas Bernard: rhythm guitar, bass; Fulton Chikwati: rhythm guitar; Raphael Mboweni: drums; Wilfred Nyoni: vocals.

Take One (1974-79)

Tracks: Mudzimu Ndiringe; Kare Nanhasi; Ngoma Yarira; Manheru Changamire; Tamba Zimba Navashe; Mutoridodo; Mukadzi Wangu Ndomuda; Sekai; Gore Iro; Murembo; Mwana Wamai Dada Naye; Musawore Moyo; Alikulila; Ndopenga; Ngatiende Kumusha; Shumba Inobva Mu Gomo; Tinokumbira Kuziva; Chaminuka Mukuru.

Personnel: Thomas Mapfumo; Elisha Josam; Joshua H. Dube; Patrick Mukawamba; Daram Karanga; Patrick Kabanda; Robert Nekati; Abdulah Musah; Elias Jingo; other musicians.

Double Check

Tracks: CD1: Wanyanya (That's Too Much); Kuseniseni (Early In The Morning); Madzokero (How He Came Back From His Hunting Spree); Mhandu Ye Hove (The Fish's Enemy); Vana Varikuchema (The Children Are Crying); Zvinonhamo (Here Comes Poverty Once More); Mutonga (The Old Lion); Kusvotwa (Boredom); Mazorodze (Relax). CD2: Mese Maikwana (An Invitation To Dance); Mapere (Hyenas); Ndinogarochema (I Will Always Cry When I Think Of Samora Machel); Mikono (Bull Or Strong Man); Kudara Kwangu (When I Was a Little Girl); Machina; Zungunde (The Village Drinker); Chachimurenga; Chapfudzapasi (Music Earthquake); Mudzimu Dzoka (Spirit Come Back); Huya Uzoona (Come And See).

Personnel: CD1: Stella Chiweshe: mbira (2,6,9), mbira dze guruwuswa (4), lead vocals (1-8), ngoma (5), hosho (1,2,4-9), backing vocals (1,3,7); Taurai Chinama: ngoma (1,3,7,8); Gideon Zamimba: guitar, synthesizer (5). CD2: Stella Chiweshe: lead vocals (1-13), mbira (8,13), hosho (3,7-10,13), ngoma (3); with Alphias Chikazhe, Charles Willie, David Tapfuma, Ephraim Saturday, Eric Makokora, Gilson Mangoma, Gordon Mapika, Joshua Areketa, Leonard Ngwenya, Maruva Chikwatari, Michael Kamunda, Samson Mirazi, Tonderai Zinyawu, Washington Masango, Virginia Mukwesha. Special guests from 3 Mustaphas 3: Houzam Mustapha, Sabah Habas Mustapha.


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