The voice of Zimbabwe
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The voice of Zimbabwe

Thomas Mapfumo gets direct like never before on his latest album

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
The voice of Zimbabwe

Thomas Mapfumo, the Zimbabwean singer, bandleader and songwriter, is one of Africa's most respected musicians known not only for his hypnotic chimerenga music but also for his steadfast support for human rights, political dignity and social justice. Chimerenga is the Shona -- Mapfumo's ethnic group -- word for liberation and is based on the sacred and iconic instrument, the mbira (thumb piano or sanza), which is at the heart of Mapfumo's music.

Born in 1945 in a small town outside the capital Harare, Mapfumo lived in the countryside until he was 10, during which time he soaked up the sound of the mbira and the ngoma drum.

He joined his first band in the early 1970s, playing US soul covers to miners. He also tried his hand at chicken farming and this led to The Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, through which Mapfumo experimented with the mbira sound of Shona traditional music and electrified Western instruments. Guitarists Joshua Dube and Jonah Sithole worked with him on transcribing mbira riffs to the guitar.

The process of transcribing mbira playing to the guitar is also the story of popular music in the Congo region, Central Africa and East Africa. It is one of the reasons why guitar music in these regions is so potent and catchy.

Mapfumo quickly began to incorporate what he had learned from Western rock music. He began to sing in Shona, which at the time when Zimbabwe was white-dominated Rhodesia was a punishable offence, and sure enough Mapfumo was sent to jail for subversion. He stonewalled by saying that he was just playing music in his own language. He was released and began putting out inspirational chimerenga singles.

Eventually, perhaps after writing the searing Corruption with the title track and its famous line "Something for something, nothing for nothing … that's the slogan of today", Mapfumo had to go into exile in Eugene, Oregon. He did not return to Zimbabwe for two decades until 2018 to perform there.

Mapfumo and his band The Blacks Unlimited have continued to record and tour and although he has cut back on long tours due to his age, Mapfumo continues to record prolifically. His latest album, Ndikutambire, features a close-up photograph of the dancing feet of The Blacks Unlimited on the cover, which tells you that the trancelike waves of sound, trilling guitar lines, punchy brass and percussion of the distinctive Mapfumo groove relentlessly marches on, all the while exhorting people, especially Zimbabweans, to stand up.

The new album Wake Up Zimbabwe, which features singer Ratie D, is direct in a way that Mapfumo was unable to do when he was living in his home country, when he had to write and sing lyrics metaphorically as direct language was banned. He tells his compatriots "No more corruption, no more dictatorship".

The title track is my favourite one so far. It starts with a simple guitar line and Mapfumo's slow delivery, then the singing sisters of The Blacks Unlimited kick in with chorus harmonies. The music smoulders along with the irresistible Mapfumo groove -- if you listen to it I guarantee you'll be shuffling in no time. Highly recommended. You can also hear a recent Mapfumo interview with the folks at Afropop.org. More information at thomas-mapfumo.com.

There is a lot happening in the African music scene at the moment but one album to look out for later this year is the expected release of one of World Beat's favourite Malian duos, the husband-wife superteam Amadou & Mariam who are slated to release a retrospective compilation of their work, La Vie Est Belle, covering the past 20 years during which time they have not only taken their music around the globe but have also collaborated with Stevie Wonder, U2 and Coldplay among many others.

During the announcement of the forthcoming compilation album, the duo outlined a tour including WOMAD festival and released a teaser single, Mogolu, which is a driving, funky rack shot in Dakar that features the hugely popular dancer and TikTok star Akamz. Look out for the new album in August. More information is available at amadou-mariam.com.


John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.

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