Thomas Mapfumo &
the Blacks Unlimited,
(ZIMBOB, 1993)

Thomas Mapfumo hails from Zimbabwe, where decades of political and racial unrest in the latter half of the 20th century had a tremendous impact on his music. In fact, back in 1977 the government of Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then known, felt Mapfumo's song "Hokoya" was so incendiary that the singer was detained in prison for 90 days. While Mapfumo's music is no longer officially classified as dangerous, it has a power and a passion that is undeniable.

Thomas Mapfumo's music is built upon the cyclical rhythms and melodies of the mbira, the primary traditional musical instrument of the Shona people. The mbira consists of between 22 and 28 metal keys mounted on a hardwood soundboard placed inside a large gourd resonator. Mapfumo melds this traditional base to western musical styles through the addition of electric guitars and keyboards. There are also layers of percussion, jazz and reggae-influenced horns and a pair of female background vocalists who provide a wonderful complement to Mapfumo's voice. It's a big sound that's balanced by an understated, almost lazy lead vocal style -- grand and soothing at the same time.

One of the things that amazes me about much of the best southern African music, and Mapfumo's songs in particular, is that despite their circular, repetitive style the songs almost never feel overly long. Even when these tracks clock in at seven, eight or even eleven minutes they hold their appeal thanks to hypnotic rhythms and a strong melodic sense. "Chaka Ndechaka" is a prime example of this; seven-plus minutes of mesmerizing dance groove that will exhaust the feet without ever tiring the ear.

The booklet that accompanies Hondo features English translations of Mapfumo's lyrics, and I was struck by the juxtaposition of ideas contained on the album. Contrasting the lyrics of the opening track, "Hondo," and the description provided for the third song, "Buka Tiende," vividly illustrates the incongruities. "Hondo" includes the lyrics, "We said no to war long ago, we rejected war long ago, o lord ... only the poor get killed, and look the rich survive." Meanwhile, "Buka Tiende" is "an ancient Shona war song, sung by warriors just as they were about to go into battle."

This dichotomy is present in much of the southern African music I've run across. But on Hondo it extends beyond the celebration of both a proud warrior history and a pacifist vision of the future to a broader traditionalist/modernist tug of war. It's a battle that allows Mapfumo to update and electrify Shona music while declaring in his lyrics, "the good and the bad are mixed up in shame, twisting the minds of the children with foreign things ... we are not in America, we are here in Zimbabwe ... teach your children the culture of Zimbabwe, tradition and human dignity" (from "Vanhu Vekwedu"). Thomas Mapfumo strikes a delicate balance between the old and the new creating, in the process, music that moves the heart and the head with equal intensity.

Unfortunately, Hondo isn't an album you'll find front-racked at the mall, but if you're at all interested in African popular music, if you're looking for great grooves and music with a message, it's a disc that's well worth hunting down. Outlets that stock a good supply of world music may well have it on hand, or look for it online.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 26 March 2005

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