Tales of Zimbabwe

AAJ Staff By

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Various Artists
Tales of Zimbabwe
Sheer Sound

It's deeply ironic that a country like Zimbabwe, which has been in the iron grip of an evil dictator essentially since independence, could be such fertile musical territory. The answer to that riddle, of course, is that there was music in Zimbabwe before Mugabe, before Rhodesia. Back in the days before the place was a colony, the mbira (thumb piano) was an essential instrument of Shona ritual, mystery, song, and culture, and its interlocking metallic tones continue to reverberate, even as they are being translated to the electric guitar and other modern instruments.

Modern music from Zimbabwe (which is 82% Shona, 14% Ndebele) has ancient roots, and it still sounds remarkably different from what you'll hear in other parts of Africa, even South Africa, which is directly below it on the map. Shona mbira music is the most obvious influence, but West African highlife is also a big factor, as are rhumba and soukouss from Zaire and the gospel harmonies and cycles of South Africa.

As part of its continuing Sheer Africa series, Sheer Sound has assembled this two-disc, thirty-track collection featuring the so-called "modern age" of Zimbabwean music. It's pure joy from start to finish, a sampler without a single bad pick, which is enough to make you want to learn more about (and hear much more of) many of these artists. The bestselling record in the history of Zimbabwe is represented by Alick Macheso, the king of sungura music—lightly percolating, interlocking grooves driven by bass and guitar, carried by soaring vocals; a piece in the same style by Musik Ye Afrika follows, from that group's essential album United We Stand.

The two megastar ambassadors of Zimbabwean music, Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo, are each represented in a way that reveals their personal strengths—in Tuku's case, beautiful harmonized vocals, and in Mapfumo's, deliciously light polyrhythmic interplay. More jazz-oriented sounds come from the smooth guitar of Louis Mhlanga, now a resident of South Africa, and the horns of the '80s hit group Manzana Movement.

Ndebele music is represented by Busi Ncube and Lovemore Majaivana, who appear on catchy, pop-oriented dance numbers, and Solomon Skuza, whose gritty vocals have a wonderful tendency to spread out like melting butter when the time is right. Actual real mbira playing shines through in authentic fashion on the final track but also appears notably as the backbone of Chiwoniso Maraire's own gospelized neo-traditional contribution.

A wonderfully diverse, entertaining, and inspiring program—from start to finish—backed by informative liner notes. Beautiful!

Note: this recording is available from One World on the web.

Track Listing

CD1: Bhundu Boys: Chemedzevana; Robson Banda & The New Black Eagles: Ngoma Ngairire (Let The Music Roll); Oliver Mtukudzi: Rirongere; Zig Zag Band: Vamashumba; Thomas Mapfumo: Mamvemne; Edwin Hama: Dreams Of A Home; James Chimombe: Zvaitika; Andy Brown & The Storm: Shungu; Chiwoniso: Nhemamususa; Louis Mhlanga: Hona Ka; Too Open: Matida Hostel; Manzana Movement: Munonza Sei?; Jonah Sithole: Chenjerera Upenyu; Dvera Ngwena Jazz Band: Devera Ngwena Zhimozhi; Machanic Manyekure & The Puritans: Murazo Wamoto.

CD2: Alick Macheso & Orchestra Mberikwazvo: Mundikumbuke; Musik Ye Afrika: Rumba Afrika; John Chibaduda: Zuva Rawakandida; Simon Chimbetu & Orchestra Dendra Kings: Ndaremerwa (One Week); Ilanga: Mfanyana; Busi Ncube & Band Rain: Chipembere; The Four Brothers: Wadiwa Musamzonde; Lovemore Majaivana: Mkwenyana; Leonard Dembo: Mugove; Leonard Zhakata: Mugove; Khaima Boys: Mabhauwa; Solomon Skuza: Ilanga Malishona; Don Gumbo: Thank You Lord; Albert Nyathi: Eulogy To A Political Martyr; Mbira Dzenharira: Toputika Neshungu.

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