The Heights of Mapfumo

Thomas Mapfumo – Rise Up
Thomas Mapfumo

Rise Up (Real World Records, 2006)

This album was originally available in 2005 only as a digital download. My best efforts notwithstanding (having attempted no downloading before or since), I was unable to obtain it. Perhaps I should have tried harder, since the disc (which will be available July 18th in good ‘ol CD-encased-in-plastic form) is the Lion of Zimbabwe at his finest.

Despite being Zimbabwe’s most legendary musician, Mapfumo no longer resides there. He was a thorn in the government’s side even back when Zimbabwe was the British colony of Rhodesia. During the fight for independence, Mapfumo put aside success as a rock and roll cover singer to begin writing and performing songs in the Shona language, songs rooted in ancestral spirit music that utilized the thumb-plucked mbira as its primary instrument.

His style, known as chimurenga (“struggle”) was basically a contemporary take on tradition, something that for its time and place was as sincerely simple as it was politically potent. After independence, the increasingly despotic rule of president Robert Mugabe gave Mapfumo new and bitter inspiration for his songs of struggle, the lyrics of which were not always overt but seen as weapons against corruption and tyranny regardless.

Now living in exile in Eugene, Oregon, Mapfumo is still making music with his usual understated intensity on Rise Up. Many original members of his band the Blacks Unlimited died as a result of Zimbabwe’s AIDS epidemic, but the current
lineup carries on superbly. Their smoldering groove combines mbiras with sonically similar guitar riffing, conjuring up that entwined Shona spirit sound.

Drums and bass skitter playfully but are never less than totally locked in, horns and keyboards sweeten and dramatize, and backing vocals that no doubt sound a lot like the very spirits the mbiras are meant to invoke answer the call of Mapfumo‘s weary bass tones.

Some reggae-like tracks, including the opening “Kuvarira Mukati,” create a meditative solemnity while songs such as “Marudzi Nemarudzi” and “Hende Baba” have healthy traces of the rock and Afropop leanings that Mapfumo has revisited during his long career. Like his best works of years past, this one’s themes of street-level hardship resonate because Mapfumo is still living them. And like his best work, the music here is beautifully captivating stuff that grabs your attention like an urgent whisper and keeps you happily
under its spell.

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