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Thomas Mapfumo's mbira magic.

By Banning Eyre

MARCH 23, 1998:  HARARE -- Wherever you go in Zimbabwe's sprawling capital, you see large mimeographed posters that read "Chimurenga Music King, Thomas Mapfumo and Blacks Unlimited." Heavy traffic inches along crowded roadways past glass-and-steel high-rises and fast-food shops hawking burgers, chicken, and meat pies. But those ubiquitous posters speak of a past that all this modernity can't bury. The dates and venues change from one poster to the next, but the graphic always shows the same electric guitar, ngoma drum, and a metal-pronged mbira placed inside a big resonating calabash. Twenty years after he first formed the Blacks Unlimited, Mapfumo remains the hardest-working bandleader in Zimbabwe, putting on four or five shows a week, each one lasting between six and nine hours. People call him "Mukanya," literally the monkey, a respectful reference to his ancestral totem. In a country dizzy with change, Mukanya is an anchor of cultural stability, and the devotion of his fans has the force of religion. The West's only comparable cultural/political figure is Bob Marley.

Back in the '70s, Mapfumo's "chimurenga" or "struggle" songs made him the muse of the liberation war that transformed Southern Rhodesia into Zimbabwe. Today, he provides a voice of solace to a society suffering the ravages of post-independence hangover -- broken dreams, economic travail, rampant corruption, alcoholism, drought, and now a scourge of AIDS. For a six-week period I've been watching Mapfumo and his band woo audiences all over this landlocked, mostly rural country. The crowds vary in size, but their ardor never wanes. Holding beers aloft, shabbily dressed or bare-chested young men dance together, backs hunched over, feet working the floor in quick, light steps, eyes closed, lips mouthing song lyrics. There are women in the crowd as well, but most are with a man. As dawn nears at an all-night show, or pungwe, people become possessed by the music, like mourners at a New Orleans funeral. In that moment, there is no doubting Mapfumo's grip on the Zimbabwean psyche.

Mapfumo has not been in the US since 1995, when he toured with just the six-piece core of his 16-piece folk orchestra. He originally based his sound on the idea of using rock-band instruments to play the traditional music of the mbira, an ancient instrument whose sinewy, interwoven melodies call forth the spirits of dead ancestors in Shona religious ceremonies. In the late '80s and early '90s, he added three actual mbiras to his line-up of guitars, keyboards, horns, singers, and percussion instruments. On the '95 tour, the metamorphosis was complete -- he left the guitars and horns at home, bringing with him only the mbiras, bass, and drums, and having the mbiras playing both traditional music and the swinging Afropop once reserved for the band's Western instruments.

Since his last international release, 1993's Vanhu Vatema (Zimbob/Stern's), Mapfumo and his full band have produced five cassettes in Zimbabwe. Now WOMAD Select has broken the fast with Chimurenga: African Spirit Music, a live-in-the-studio session that hews close to the stripped-down line-up of that historic '95 tour. Recorded a year ago in the UK, the WOMAD session includes the legendary Zimbabwe guitarist Jonah Sithole, one of the first to tease the elusive melodies and rhythms of mbira out of a guitar. Sithole has collaborated famously with Mapfumo off and on since the mid '70s. Disputes over money kept him out of the band for most of the '80s, but in 1995, he joined forces with Mapfumo once last time.

Sadly, Sithole has now joined a long list of Blacks Unlimited musicians to die of complications from AIDS. Some fans here in Zimbabwe listen to this nearly final Mapfumo/Sithole recording and hear a mere shadow of the guitarist's true capability. But to my ear, this is one of Mapfumo's richest recordings, mostly because the songs find him at the height of his composing and singing powers. Sithole's trademark precision, economy, and soul are also evident as he gracefully negotiates dense passages of mbira music.

"Jonah was the best," Mapfumo tells me as we drive toward Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, for a show. A tape of the WOMAD session is playing on the car stereo and I ask Mapfumo about one song whose plaintive melody has haunted my days here, "Wenhamo." "Wenhamo is the sufferer," he tells me. "The song says, 'I grew up with suffering and poverty.' That is why I can talk to people who are suffering now. I know what they are experiencing."

In the past five years, the Blacks Unlimited have lost their drummer, their bassist, a back-up singer, and a trumpeter, as well as Sithole and the band's previous lead guitarist, all to illnesses, mostly AIDS. Among the dead were some of Mapfumo's closest friends. Now, when "Wenhamo" plays in the taxis, bars and minibuses of Harare, Sithole's plaintive guitar lines also sound from the realm of the ancestors.

By some estimates, 30 percent of Zimbabweans are HIV positive, so the country is full of sufferers. It is also full of survivors, and Mapfumo addresses them with an equally keen sense of their psychic needs. He dwells relentlessly upon the hypocrisy and shortcomings of today's increasingly autocratic Zimbabwean leaders. One recent hit featured in the WOMAD session, "Asingade Anenge Asingade," asserts, "He who does not want to follow the king must not be forced." Mapfumo plays this song at every show, and even before he sings, the crowd chants the defiant refrain.

Despite the losses, Mapfumo's band sound remarkably good. Their youthful majority is bolstered by two sterling veterans of the Harare music scene, Joshua Dube on guitar and Allan Mwale on bass. The new line-up plays faithful renditions of songs from all phases of Mapfumo's expansive career, but even in the oldest material there is a feeling of renewal. The WOMAD session features a ruminating mbira remake of the song "Pfumvu Pa Ruzeva," a 1978 classic describing hardships in the rural areas during the war. The original, guitar-based version appears on The Chimurenga Singles (Shanachie), and you get a vivid sense of this music's evolution by listening to the two recordings side by side.

Mapfumo currently plays revamped, mbira arrangements of four or five '70s chimurenga songs. Crowds rally to these nostalgic reminders of the liberation struggle, with its optimistic fervor. Much of Mapfumo's audience and his band are in their 20s; they were mere infants when these songs first aired. "People need to be reminded," he explains.

In Harare, Mapfumo draws his biggest crowds in so-called "high-density" suburbs like Highfield, Glen Norah, and Kambuzuma. Professionals able to manage the ever-rising cover charge mingle with tsotsis (hooligans), pickpockets, and prostitutes. Often I am the only murungu (white person) in the crowd, and people feel compelled to sound me out. "Are you enjoying?" they slur at me drunkenly. One guy tells me, "This old man is our savior." Strangers come to me constantly to translate the words to songs. "He is singing about money. We must have money!" Or, "He is saying the rains must come. He is asking God to bring the rains."

Mapfumo would be celebrating his 53rd birthday this year, except that "I have no time for celebrations, because while you are celebrating, someone else is crying." His words can be stern, but in person he's the soul of light-hearted joviality. Between sets at his shows, you generally find him laughing it up with his uncle and his brother backstage while his band warm up the crowd. When he goes on stage and summons the deep vocal tones that convey warning and solidarity, it is a moment more of catharsis than celebration. He hovers near the speakers in order to hear with his good left ear. Showmanship slides in favor of the music and the message. Over and over, Mukanya tells people that they are suffering because they neglect the old African ways, especially the ritual appeasement of ancestors.

"Everyone you see here tonight is trying to forget his problems," one reveler explains, but with Mapfumo's stark words in the air, forgetfulness seems as off the mark as celebration. As the night wears on, people can become very drunk, even though Mapfumo, who gave up drinking in the late '70s, warns his "brothers" about the evils of alcohol, as in the traditional mbira song "Hwa Hwa" ("Beer") -- paradoxically a huge hit with Mapfumo's hard-drinking fans. The music may help people forget their troubles, but within it they find themselves, imperfect, struggling, afflicted, yet also recognized and affirmed.

In this season of death, some fans openly contemplate a world without Mukanya. "When he is gone," one young professional muses, "What will become of our traditional music? He is the best thing that ever happened to us." Indeed, no other figure in this country's music rivals Mapfumo, despite the popularity of rising star Leonard Zhakata with his inspirational rhumba anthems, and also Mapfumo's fellow veteran Oliver Mutukudzi. "Tuku," as his fans call Mutukudzi, has also consoled people from countless stages over the past two decades. His rich, raspy soulman's voice sounds craggy with wisdom and experience. Mutukudzi blends Shona traditional music with other pop sounds, notably South African township jive. One of the few Mutukudzi releases you can find in the US, the recent Ndega Zvangu (Shava/Stern's), is a spare, satisfying acoustic set.

The giddy, guitar-based jit and Zimbabwe rhumba music that have appeared on so many compilations over the past decade mostly play in Zimbabwe's rural areas these days. Harare's radio waves are dominated by American rap, British and Jamaican ragga, and a proliferation of local and South African gospel singers. Inevitably, some urbanites complain that Mapfumo's chimurenga music has nothing new to offer them. But as that young professional tells me, "People never recognize what they have until they lose it. When Mukanya is gone, they'll be crying for him."

Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited weathered Harare's recent food riots gracefully, playing gigs as usual just before and after the troubles. Even as the city was still jittery with rumors of civil strife, Mapfumo convened his band at the 7 Miles Hotel in Highfield, near the epicenter of the unrest, to rehearse a tough new number accusing the leaders of the liberation struggle of reneging on promises and betraying their followers. The chimurenga continues.

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