The musical life of Zimbabwe is totally dominated by two giants with many things in common. Each one of them is now releasing a new album, where Thomas Mapfumo’s Rise Up is only appearing digitally through the US company Calabash Music.
Musically, they are close to each other. Both have very personal and expressive voices. The music is soft and melodic with a flowing, swinging, slightly hypnotic sound, simple on the surface but, at a closer listen, full of interesting details.
Both of them started their musical careers more than 30 years ago. In the 70’s Mapfumo left his current repertoir of rock’n’roll covers and started singing about the liberation struggle against colonialism, chimurenga. The word, meaning struggle, was later also used as a name for Mapfumo’s musical style, where he gave the traditional mbira (thumb piano) an important role, backed by modern electronic instruments.
Swedish SIDA (Swedish International Development Agency, www.sida.se) recently published the highly interesting anthology Sounds Of Change, about the impact of music for social and political change in Africa. The first contribution of the book is an article describing the important roles that Oliver Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo play in Zimbabwe’s political life.
Mapfumo, whose social criticism is more open and direct, lives in exile in the USA since the year 2000. His music is not officially prohibited in the public radio but in reality it’s still banned – it simply is not being played.
Mtukudzi is more subtle. Like so many other musicians living under dictatorship through history, he expresses himself in metaphors and often avoids answering questions about interpretations of his texts. Although recently he expressed strong criticism against Mugabe’s party having used one of his songs, Totutuma (We Are Boiling) and then also took the opportunity to directly criticize the conditions in his country.
Mtukudzi’s international career has blossomed in later years. He has toured the US frequently, and his new record should open even more doors. All the things that used to make his music good are still there, but the sound has been upgraded in a very obvious way. The sound is more clear and distinct than ever – all instruments have taken a step forward. Acoustic guitars, percussion, voices, everything is crystal clear, both when it comes to arrangements and sound. And the compositions are more varied. It simply sounds extremely good.
If you play
Mapfumo afterwards, you might first react to the sound being a bit flat and
muffled. Possibly caused by mp3-compression, but it can also be a result of production
and mixing. The instruments step back into the speakers again... except for the
horn section (and partly also the piano and the mbira) who will jump out now
and then. But this absolutely does not stop you from being hypnotized by that
flow. Mapfumo has a unique style, or rather mixture of styles.
Musically both records are real masterpieces, full of life and still so relaxed that you feel brainwashed all the way down to your feet.
Published in Lira Magazine # 3/2005