Angry as hell

Angry as hell

Angry as hell

A demand for change

Rise Up

Thomas Mapfumo & Blacks Unlimited

Real World

Cat: CDRW136

For around three decades, Thomas ‘Mukanya’ Mapfumo has been the most politically influential entertainer in Zimbabwe. Now living in selfimposed exile in the US, he continues to articulate a demand for justice, a call for change and a renaissance of the values that in the 1970s powered a popular revolution to overthrow Rhodesia’s illegal racist white regime.

It cannot have been an easy decision for Mapfumo to leave his homeland to settle in the northwestern state of Oregon in the US, but he judged it essential in the face of the growing threat to the safety of his wife and children.

They were the targets of an alleged plot aimed at persuading the singer to ease-off on his cease-less criticism of the Zimbabwean leadership.

Even before his family had been threatened, the powers that be in Zimbabwe, having failed to co-opt him into their circle, had done what they could to silence Mapfumo, banning his recordings from the state-run broadcasting stations and harassing him with trumped-up criminal charges.

You might have thought the current Zimbabwean leadership would have learned something from the last man to take exception to Mapfumo’s rebuke, i.e. Ian Smith, leader of the illegal Rhodesian regime. As Zimbabwe’s liberation war reached a crescendo of repression and violence, Smith’s internal security forces belatedly realised that the country’s favourite singer was using traditional songs, sung in the indigenous Shona language, to deliver subtle messages that served as encouragement for, and solidarity with, those fighting for freedom.

Arrest and jail

They picked up on one song that encouraged parents to send their children to war, and arrested and jailed Mapfumo. Mapfumo calmly insisted during interrogation that the song was traditional and could equally apply to the young white Rhodesians who were being called-up by the armed forces.

Nearly 30 years later, Zimbabwe’s rulers are facing a similar challenge from a populace that is demanding change.

As Mapfumo observes in one song, Zvirwere (Afflictions) the government “has caused countries that had friendly relations with Zimbabwe no longer wishing to be associated with it”. And in Ndoya Marasha (Angry as Hell) he has a pertinent message for those that have stolen the country’s wealth. He warns: “You won’t take it with you – ultimately it will pass to others.”

Even as Mapfumo calls for change, he has embraced change himself. Apart from cropping his waist-length dreadlocks and shaving his head (due, it seems, to a rapidly receding hairline), it is evident from this album that he and his band, The Blacks Unlimited, have broadened their musical remit.

The music on this recording still has strong, unmistakably Zimbabwean roots (Mapfumo sings all the songs in Shona) but there are now inflections, in a much richer production, that incorporate American RScB, South African jazz, a hint of Jamaican reggae and even heavy-metal influences.

Mbiras shimmer

The shimmer of the mbiras – the steel-keyed thumb-piano central to Shona traditional music – are evident throughout the album; but what is something of a revelation is a new horn section that regularly chips in with breaks that Hugh Masekela or the late Dudu Pukwana would have been proud of- and guitar solos that, in places, might be termed heroic.

And through it all is Mapfumo’s mellifluent, authoritative and deeply moving vocals, complemented by counterpoints from the three-piece female chorus. In his songs he chides those that remain silent in the face of injustice and challenges all to stand up and be counted.

Rise Up was in fact recorded nearly two years ago and released last year only as an on-line download. Since then, the economic situation in Zimbabwe has become even worse with southern Africa’s former ‘bread-basket’ suffering triple-digit inflation, and an acute shortage of basic commodities (see P54 Country file Zimbabwe).

Before he left his homeland, Mapfumo made at least one new album each year, but for the past five years Zimbabwean fans, unless on-line, have only had the odd compilation and a single boot-legged live recording to sustain them.

This album should reassure his millions of African fans that Mapfumo is back – although, in spirit, he has never really been away.

Copyright International Communications Oct 2006

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