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Friday, June 23, 2006


Thomas Mapfumo "Rise Up"

Recorded in exile from his homeland Zimbabwe, Thomas Mapfumo's latest recording "Rise Up" is one of his best. With a 14-piece band of traditional and modern African musicians recording at a studio in Oregon, his voice and music sound as vibrant -- and angry -- as on his groundbreaking African recordings from the 1980s.

Mapfumo's "chimurenga" music deplores the current state of Zimbabwe. Unequivocal criticism of social problems and a lack of freedom, though, landed him in prison during the Rhodesian years when he sang in Shona (instead of English), and later earned him harassment from the Robert Mugabe regime as well. He was forced to leave Zimbabwe in 2000.

Though these are protest songs, topically much like those of Bob Marley, with whom he shared a stage in the '80s, the hypnotic grooves and dense rhythms are soothing. Many of the songs, such as the opener "Kuvarira Mukati" ("Suffer in Silence"), are profoundly, even elegantly sad. Others, like "Nododya Marash" ("I'm Mad As Hell"), are pure, simmering defiance.

Winding through the rich sonic landscape is the distinctive sound of the traditional mbira, the African thumb-piano made of metal keys attached to a wooden soundboard. Said to invoke the ancient deities, the mbira combines wonderfully with the intricate percussion, delicate horns, surging guitars, and, crucially, Mapfumo's voice of wisdom and peace.

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