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Thomas Mapfumo - Hokoyo! / Gwindingwi Rine Shumba

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Artist: Thomas Mapfumo

Album: Hokoyo! / Gwindingwi Rine Shumba

Label: Water

Review date: Apr. 23, 2009

Africa has produced a wide variety of popular musics, many of them associated with political movements of some kind. Algerian Rai defended secularism in the face of militant Islam. African rumba grew out of national liberation movements. Afrobeat acts often opposed Nigeria’s history of corruption. One of the most potent has been the chimurenga (“struggle”) music of Zimbabwe, first associated with the anti-apartheid guerrilla movement of pre-liberation Rhodesia, and then, after independence, with the growing disenchantment with president-for-life Robert Mugabe. Pioneered in the 1970s by singer Thomas Mapfumo (“The Lion of Zimbabwe”) and a handful of musicians from his early R&B group, the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, chimurenga is an artful blend of American, Afro-Cuban and Congolese popular music with the mbira dzavadzimu music native to the Shona people.

Chimurenga is now relatively well known in Europe and the United States, having produced a number of newer stars including Stella Rambisai Chiweshe and Chiwoniso Maraire, and as a result, much of Mapfumo’s later work is easy to find.

The music that rose out of the early political struggle is largely stuck on out-of-print vinyl, which makes the arrival of these two reissues so exciting. Hokoyo! (Watch Out!) was first released in 1977 at the peak of the liberation struggle in Rhodesia, and Gwindingwi Rine Shumba (Lion in the Bush) came out in 1980 just after the establishment of an independent Zimbabwe. The classic chimurenga sound is created with interlocking guitars mimicking the two interlocking mbira of Shona ritual music, typically underlaid with a fast 12/8 shuffle on snare and high-hat, and overlaid with vocals that alternate high and low registers, interspersed with yodeling. (Apologies both to mbira dzavadzimu musicians and to ethnomusicologists Andrew Tracey and Paul Berliner for this greatly simplified description – readers interested in traditional mbira music are well advised to read Berliner’s Soul of Mbira, and listen to the Nonesuch albums of the same name). Listeners familiar with the distinctive sound of mbira-derived chimurenga will find many tracks on these two CDs reminiscent of Mapfumo’s later sound, albeit performed without the mbira itself – nothing but guitars, drums and horns on these recordings

The Western influence doesn’t end with the instruments. The title cut on Hokoyo!, for example, is a straight R&B shuffle, the only tip-off to its non-American nature coming from the lanky Shona vocals tossed back and forth between Mapfumo and the members of his Acid Band. Another striking R&B song is “Tinodanana” on Shumba, which features sweet vocals harmonies floating over guitars and horns stitched together with a basic 4/4 beat. A number of the cuts, however, would not be out of place on a Tabu Ley rumba recording, particularly “Zvandiviringa” (Hokoyo!) and “Chitma Cherusununguko” (Shumba). The latter disc also features a number of chimurenga-rumba hybrids, such as “Rita” and “Zimbabwe Yevatema,” which mix Franco-style guitars, a chimurenga-style 12/8 shuffle beat, and twisting horn lines that erupt through the vocals. All in all, both discs demonstrate the breadth and depth that went into the creation of chimurenga, and go a long way toward explaining the longevity and popularity of Mapfumo’s music.

The remastered recordings, enlivened with the occasional vinyl hiss, bring out the warmth of the ensembles. Unfortunately, the power of Mapfumo’s lyrics, which have now displeased Mugabe enough to drive the singer and his Blacks Unlimited band to exile in Portland, Oregon, are inaccessible to most listeners, as the publishers provide only the barest idea of the lyrics or, indeed, the song titles, and there are few reliable internet resources to bring to bear on Shona. The choice between having these recordings back with no lyrics, and not having them back at all, however, is simple: this is great music, and deserves to be heard.

By Richard Miller

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