Various bits of flotsam that washed up on our computers, before we moved to a better blog system in November 2004. Now a repository for YouTube videos and testing new tools. Go to for more recent content.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Lion of Zimbabwe

From todays WSJ we read of Thomas Mapfumo playing in Eugene Oregon.

It's noon in Oregon, but Thomas Mapfumo's watch reads 9 p.m. That's the time in Harare, Zimbabwe, the city Mr. Mapfumo, one of Africa's greatest musicians, left three years ago after performing one too many songs implicitly criticizing the government of dictator Robert Mugabe. Now nearing 60, Mr. Mapfumo has just completed a tour of the American Midwest and is back in Eugene, working on a new album before embarking on a West Coast swing and then a summer tour of Britain, Europe and Canada. But although he lives with his children in an unprepossessing suburban home in this medium-size college town, Mr. Mapfumo's heart resides in his homeland. Still Zimbabwe's biggest-selling musician, he returns to his spacious Harare house each Christmas just long enough to see his family, check on his business interests (including the soccer team and record label he owns), and perform for his legion of fans.

Mr. Mapfumo earned that acclaim -- and the nickname "the Lion of Zimbabwe" -- during the 1970s, when his chimurenga, or struggle, songs provided the soundtrack for the anti-apartheid movement in what was then called Rhodesia. He was briefly jailed in 1979, just before the white minority ceded power to the elected Mugabe government. "What he did in the 1970s was phenomenally powerful," says Banning Eyre, who's working on a biography of Mr. Mapfumo. "It helped to generate and coalesce a powerful cultural movement."

Ironically, this paragon of black African nationalism got his start in the 1960s singing in groups that covered American rock and R&B songs. "I was very much into foreign music -- American music, Great Britain, jazz from the Congo and South Africa," he recalls. Then, in the 1970s, Mr. Mapfumo found inspiration in the music he heard as a child, when he lived with his grandparents in the country and listened to the traditional mbira, the gourd-encased, metal-keyed "thumb piano" that plays a central role in the spiritual life of the region's Shona people. As black resistance to apartheid swelled, he began singing in the Shona language about the plight of black Zimbabweans and made his greatest musical innovation: translating the bubbling lines of the mbira -- which has been called the sound of tuned raindrops -- to the electric guitar. Adding concise, memorable horn charts straight out of James Brown and other American R&B stars, Mr. Mapfumo created an ebullient brand of Afropop.

But just as Mr. Mapfumo's '70s sounds reflected anticolonialism, his recent music documents the disillusionment so many Africans have experienced as black majority governments descended into corruption and repression. As Zimbabwe's economy deteriorated in recent years, Mr. Mapfumo's songs increasingly chastised the Mugabe regime.

Though he didn't directly support any political party, Mr. Mapfumo's concerts drew thousands of Zimbabweans who opposed the government's mounting repression, and he has met with opposition leaders and even mused about a role in a post-Mugabe government. The title of his new album, "Toi Toi," refers to a protest dance. "I am like a messenger of the people whenever I sing a song against my government," he rumbles in a bass register a couple of octaves below his singing range. "I'm not trying to blame anyone. I'm just saying, 'Let's be united, try to rebuild the economy of the country so the people can survive and prosper.'"

He paid a price for his protest: Some of his recent songs were banned from the radio, and other intimidation ensued; some former band members have lost family members to prisons and bullets. In 2000, when Mr. Mapfumo visited the head of his American record label, who was then living in Eugene, he realized the city would make an ideal home base away from the escalating threats and chaos of his homeland. "I'm here for my children," he explains. "I like America -- it is a good place to live for a while."
In fact, he's far better known [in Europe] than in Eugene, where he played a rare concert for a couple of hundred listeners on a recent warm spring evening. Alternating traditional-sounding numbers with pulsating Afropop, the Blacks Unlimited band unleashed classic, unforgettable call-and-response phrases on trumpet and saxophone, while the two amplified mbiras wove sinuous melodies over the bass and drum foundation. Except for Mr. Mapfumo and his brother, Lancelot, on keyboards and congas, the band is composed of musicians a generation or two younger -- including a pair of locally recruited horn players who look very young, very white, and very happy to be sharing the stage with a legend.

And Mr. Mapfumo is as open-eared as ever, recently embracing music from Mozambique and other parts of West Africa, some reggae and more to create an irresistible fusion. "If he hears something he likes, he appropriates it," says Mr. Eyre, who lived in Harare in the late 1990s and played guitar with the band; he's also contributed liner notes and guitar parts to recent recordings. "He makes it into something unique."

At the Eugene concert, the lanky bandleader presided over the whole bubbling brew with a glower, often crouching to mutter his lyrics of love and liberation. With his penetrating eyes and swept-back dreadlocks, Mr. Mapfumo looked more leonine than ever, but he gradually loosened up a bit, sometimes dancing stiffly next to his gyrating, purple-dressed female singer, occasionally allowing a brief grin to escape his sculpted visage. Despite the somber subject matter of many of Mr. Mapfumo's recent songs, his music's inherent joyousness seized the audience. As the crowd danced deliriously, swept along by the effervescent mbira rhythms, goosed by those strutting horn riffs, Mr. Mapfumo clutched the microphone and, swaying, closed his eyes. When he opened them again, his gaze seemed to stretch across the oceans.

I had the pleasure to see Mr. Mapfumo in New York a couple of years ago, at some benefit hosted by Bonnie Raitt. Excellent performance, and one of the highlights of that particular NYC sojourn.

Now playing in iTunes: My Love Is You, from the album David Byrne-David Byrne by Byrne, David (released 1994)


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