Liberation Music: South Africa, Zimbabwe & Zambia

Chris May By

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Protest music has a long and honourable tradition in southern Africa. In the colonial era, it began at least as long ago as 1897, when the South African songwriter Enoch Sontonga wrote his classic "Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika" ("God Bless Africa"). The song went on to become the anthem of the country's African National Congress and, translated into Shona and Ndebele, a rallying cry too for the liberation movement in neighbouring Zimbabwe. (Eventually, after the fall of apartheid, it would become part of the South African national anthem, fittingly enough.) Throughout the 20th Century, Sontonga and his successors played an important role in defying, and eventually overthrowing, European colonialism, and music remains in the vanguard of opposition to evil and oppression in the region.

Two outstanding compilation albums—Golden Afrique Vol.3, which collects South African, Zimbabwean and Zambian township music recorded from 1939-88, and Choice Chimurenga, which cherry-picks tracks from six more recent albums by the Zimbabwean singer Thomas Mapfumo—demonstrate different responses to repression by rebel musicians; the first by standing tall and laughing in its face, the second by recording explicit protest material. Both have produced uniquely stirring music.

Various Artists
Golden Afrique Vol.3

If anyone has put together a better compilation of pre-independence southern African music than the magnificent Golden Afrique Vol.3, I've never heard it. The first of the two discs is devoted to South African recordings, the second to Zimbabwean and Zambian ones. It is a curatorial masterpiece, containing well-known hits and lesser known rarities, and covering all the major styles and many of the leading artists of the era. There are 34 tracks in all, and there isn't a dud amongst them—each is indeed pure African gold.

The South African disc dominates the collection artistically, just as South African music dominated the region through much of the period. It kicks off with two jewel-like examples of ingoma ebusuku (or "night music") a capella choral singing, starting with Solomon Linda's seminal 1939 hit "Mbube" (aka "Wimoweh," aka "The Lion Sings Tonight"). There's a singular majesty to black South African township music, and its defining elements are already present here, from the straight-backed nobility of the singer and his song through the heavy bass grounation which underpins most South African music, be it vocal or instrumental. This piece is followed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo's more recent "Hello My Baby," a gorgeous love song in the group's ingoma ebusuku variant, cothoza mfana—literally "to walk proudly, as if on tiptoe."

Kwela, an up-tempo street boogie music played on pennywhistles, acoustic guitars and box bass, is represented by Donald Kachamba's "Musandinene" and Specks Rampura's "Solo Jump," and its later electric variant, sax jive, by West Nkosi's "Dubaduba" and Sipho Mabuse's "Jive Soweto." Both are simple musics which rely on repetition for their invigorating power—as in Fats Waller's famous dictum, "the more you hear it, the more you hear it."

First-generation mbaqanga is showcased by two sublime girl groups, the Dark City Sisters with "Langa More" and the Mahotella Queens with "Thina Siyakhanyisa." Both are fragrant, easy-swinging tunes of enduring charm. To my ears, nothing Berry Gordy produced in the roughly contemporaneous early days of Motown holds a candle to these tracks, and "Langa More," in which the vocal quartet's exquisite harmonising is accompanied by loose-limbed guitar, bass and brush-stroked kit drums, must be one of the simplest yet loveliest pop records ever made.

"Thina Siyakhanyisa" is further distinguished by the presence of the iconic bass "groaner," Mahlathini. Also known as The Black Sea Giant, Warrior With A Tomahawk and, referring to the cascading pre-Bob Marley dreadlocks he wore in his youth, Jungle On His Head, Mahlathini was reputed to cast spells and do potent voodoo. Listen to the last thirty seconds of his own "Umona" and you can well believe it.

There are magnificent examples of Afro-soul and Afro-funk from the Soul Brothers ("Bayeza" and "Akabongi"), Miriam Makeba ("African Convention"), and Hugh Masekela & Letta Mbulu ("Mahlalela")—wailing, throbbing, four-on-the-floor dance music with the power to shake the earth. Chris McGregor & South African Exiles' Thunderbolt do the same with the extended jazz and mbaqanga workout "Mra," which closes the disc. Recorded live in Europe in 1986, it was one of the last performances together by the late Dudu Pukwana (alto saxophone), Johnny Dyani (bass) and Chris McGregor (piano) of the trailblazing Blue Notes township jazz band.

If the South African tracks on Golden Afrique Vol.3 generally outperform those from Zimbabwe and Zambia, as they do, that is because South African musicians carried the swing throughout southern Africa until at least the late 1970s, while Zimbabwean and Zambian musicians were still in some thrall to mbaqanga and Congolese rumba. But disc two packs some heady stuff too, in particular from Oliver Mtukudzi ("Rugare Rwamangwana") and the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band ("Mwana Wamai Dada Naya"), two early modernisers of traditional Zimbabwean music, and the shebeen jazz of Zambian singer Dolly Rathebe ("Kitty's Blues"), in which Rathebe sounds delightfully like a cross between Peggy Phango and Louis Armstrong.

If you don't hit the repeat button as soon as each volume of Golden Afrique Vol.3 has finished—and return to these two discs many times thereafter—I'd be surprised. As a bonus, the set comes with a well-illustrated booklet containing useful track annotations.

Thomas Mapfumo
Choice Chimurenga
Sheer Sound

Vocalist and songwriter Thomas Mapfumo's chimurenga ("struggle") music was the soundtrack of the liberation movement in Zimbabawe (then Southern Rhodesia) in the years leading up to independence in 1980. Translating the intricate patterns of the mbira (thumb piano) onto hard-edged, twin lead guitars—and later adding amplified mbiras to the front line—and driven by assertive, rhythmically complex kit drum patterns, Mapfumo's late 1970s chimurenga was the first wholly Zimbabwean electric-age music. A perfect English speaker, he sang almost exclusively in Shona, something then dismissed as very low rent, partly to disguise his rebel message (it didn't stop him being jailed for three months in 1977), but mainly as a statement of cultural pride.

Choice Chimurenga, now released in the UK for the first time, cherry-picks thirteen tracks from six albums recorded by Mapfumo in the US (he now lives in Oregon) from 1998-2003. The sound is more refined than in the early days, with rock guitar featured on a few of the more recent tracks and horn sections prominent pretty much throughout, but it is still top-drawer, heat-seeking chimurenga. All that has really changed is the target of Mapfumo's music—the colonial era's separatist regime now replaced by the tyrannical, mad-as-a-badger Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe.

The track titles tell you where Mapfumo is coming from, even if you don't understand the Shona lyrics—"Marima Nzara" ("You Have Ploughed Hunger"), "Havasevenzi Vapfana" ("The Youth Are Unemployed"), "Manhungetunge" ("Tweaking Stomach Ache"), "Mamvemne" ("Tattered Rags") and "Disaster." Other tracks, like "Timothy" and "Kuenda Mbire" ("You Have Left Us"), deal with Zimbabwe's AIDS epidemic.

If all that sounds like a downer, it isn't. This is gloriously upbeat, body-rocking music, and you'll likely feel a lot better by the end of the album than you did at the beginning. Mapfumo has already helped bring down one vicious regime—now he seems intent on doing it again. More power to him.

Tracks and Personnel

Golden Afrique Vol.3

CD1: Solomon Linda's Original Evening Birds: Mbube; Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Hello My Baby; Abagqomi: Bakhuzeni; Donald Kachamba: Musandinene; Brenda Fassie: Sum'Bulala; West Nkosi: Dubaduba; Dark City Sisters: Langa More; Specks Rampura: Solo Jump; Sipho Mabuse: Jive Soweto; Mahotella Queens: Thina Siyakhanyisa; Reggie Msomi's Hollywood Jazz Band: Midnight Ska; Mahlathini: Umona; Soul Brothers: Bayeza; Miriam Makeba: African Convention; Mparanyana And The Cannibals: Hlotse; Soul Brothers: Akabongi; Hugh Masekela & Letta Mbulu: Mahlalela; Chris McGregor & South African Exiles' Thunderbolt: Mra.

CD2: Master Chivero: Black September; The Four Brothers: Guhwa Uri Mwana Waani; Hallelujah Chicken Band: Mwana Wamai Dada Naya; Devera Ngwena: Mandinyadzisa; Jairos Jiri Kwela Band: Take Cover; Oliver Mtukudzi: Rugare Twamangwana; Elijah Madzikatire: Gukua Hundi; Safiro Madzikatire: First Aid; Dolly Rathebe: Kitty's Blues; Kassongo Band: Vajubwa Wainchi; Masasu Band: Uwaume Wa Bufuba; The Big Gold Six: Copper Ebuboni; Nashil Pitchen Kazembe: Chuma Chivuta; Smokey Haangala: Ba Kuluna; John & Joice Nyirongo: Charity; Oliya Band: Chenda Mundeke.

Choice Chimurenga

Tracks: Sweet Maria; Timothy; Marima Nzara; Zimbabwe; Havasevenzi Vapfana; Manhungetunge; Pamuromo Chete; Mamvemne; Kuende Mbire; Disaster; Nyama Musango; Usatambe Nenyoka; Chimurenga.

Personnel: Thomas Mapfumo: vocals. Other personnel unlisted, but probably including Mavis Mapfumo, Felistas Bisiwasi, Memory Makuri, Rosa Sande, Tendai Ruzvidzo: vocals; Abel Chipango, Ohj Tavallai, Willard Kalanga: trombone; Allan Amitayi Mwale, Tsepo Makhaza: bass; Banning Eyre: acoustic and electric guitars; Brooks Barnett, Edson Mbaisa, Zivanai Masango: trumpet; Chaka Mhembere: mbira; Sam Mukanga, Gordon Mapika, Marven Sarutawa: drums; Christopher Muchabaiwa: drums, vocals; David Rhodes: tenor saxophone; Dirck Westervelt: banjo; Everson Chibhamu: trumpet, vocals; Gilbert Zvamaida: guitar, percussion; Joshua Dube, Woody Aplanalp: guitar; Lancelot Mapfumo: conga, percussion, piano, vocals, keyboards; Ngoni Makombe, Chaka Mhembere, Bezil Makombe: maracas, mbira; Njwaki Batista Nyoni: percussion; Paul Prince: acoustic guitar; Philip Domingo: keyboards; Philip Mandizvidza Svosve: saxophone; Zivai Guveya: acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, marimba, maracas, mbira.


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