Zimbabwe: Thomas Mapfumo

AAJ Staff By

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More than any other artist except perhaps Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi, Thomas Mapfumo has become Zimbabwe's musical ambassador to the world. That's ironic, because while the people of his country celebrate his music with the enthusiasm it deserves, the government—or more accurately, regime—of Zimbabwe really does not. So much so that Mapfumo eventually decided to leave and live the expatriate life with his family in Oregon, though he still returns on a regular basis.

"Chimurenga," the Shona word Mapfumo has adopted to refer to his work, means "struggle," and it's as accurate as any to describe his socially and politically conscious music. But it also masks the joy and celebration inherent in his swaying choruses, lilting rhythms, and hip-moving grooves. You don't have to struggle one bit to get into this stuff.

The mbira (which is unfortunately stuck with the English name "thumb piano") is a fundamentally important instrument in traditional Shona music, associated with healing and poetry, and it's a natural component of Mapfumo's music. Not just in a literal sense—because Mapfumo's Blacks Unlimited band features expert mbira playing—but also in translation through guitars and other instruments, whose interlocking patterns incorporate an intuitive polyphony.

One reason Mapfumo has developed such a strong international audience is that he is constantly writing and recording new music, as well as revisiting old favorites. The three releases presented here include two from 2005 which are only available as downloads from Calabash, which bills itself "the world's first free trade music company." Calabash offers an impressive international selection of downloads from Africa and beyond, including a total of fifteen Mapfumo titles. The final review in this collection examines an excellent CD compilation of recent music from the South African Sheer Sound label.

Thomas Mapfumo
Rise Up

Mapfumo's latest recording is billed as the first world music album to be released exclusively in digital form. These eleven tracks are available exclusively from Calabash on the net—you won't find them anywhere on aluminum, unless you burn a piece of it for yourself. Other than the fact that it's only available in relatively compressed mp3 format, Rise Up sounds great. That's important with a group like this, where many voices contribute key parts to a collective whole.

Mapfumo's lean, matter-of-fact delivery receives ample support from backing vocalists in unison, call-and-response, and counterpoint. It's also underpinned by a lush combination of keyboards, guitars, mbiras, drums, and percussion, though the mix never gets heavy or overcrowded. The overall pulse feels fat and liquid, though individual parts may be quite intricate, and that's part of the secret to Mapfumo's musical mastery—never overcrowding the message.

In addition to revisiting two songs about personal and political exile from his early '80s record Ndangariro, Mapfumo also includes a bunch of newer material. Listeners looking for a quick taste should start with "Handimrotya," "Zuacuwana," and "Hende Baba," but those are just the highlights of a characteristically even collection.

Be sure to check out Banning Eyre's online interview with Mapfumo about the music on Rise Up, including explanations and translations of key lyrics.

Thomas Mapfumo
Afropop Presents Thomas Mapfumo Live

The shine and polish of studio recordings like Rise Up are next to impossible to translate in live performance, but there's always an exception to the rule, and Mapfumo has a surprising knack for keeping things loose on stage. This 1991 show at New York's S.O.B.'s was broadcast in part on Afopop Worldwide, but this is the first time the entire material has been made publicly available.

Live it is, and just as fresh as it must have sounded fourteen years ago, on the group's second US tour. The energy level picks up a few notches ("Jo Jo" is nearly feverish) and the songs take a more naturally extended course, up to 16 minutes apiece. One can only imagine the audience's reaction to this invigorating music, but I'm pretty sure more than a few were singing along and most were moving freely on their feet. It's dangerous to overintellectualize and get distracted by the somber message of Mapfumo's lyrics, because you might just miss the pure joy that his music can communicate. No mistaking that here.

The trance-like aspect of Mapfumo's music also comes across much more clearly in live performance. The interlocking mbira and drums may form the core, but every instrument and voice serves a rhythmic role, and together they invite you to dance in your head. Where you go from there is uncharted territory, and that's one of the most satisfying parts of the whole experience.


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