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The first thing you hear are the rhythms: bass drums, snare drums, high-hat cymbals, rattles, even stamping feet. Then the guitars begin--intricate melodies, picked instead of strummed, repeated until they become a groove. In the background, a bass guitar rumbles just behind the beat. Finally, a singer begins to sing, almost to chant, in an African tongue.
Intrigued? It's Zimbabwe pop star Thomas Mapfumo and his band, Blacks Unlimited. Do you want to hear more? No problem. Mapfumo's new album should be out in the U.S. this October. That is, if it ever leaves his briefcase.
Fresh out of his contract with Island Records, Mapfumo is about to sign a deal with Warner-Elektra-Atlantic-affiliated Sound Wave Records. But until the ink dries and his check is cut, he's hanging onto the master tapes.
"I will keep them with me until we meet," Mapfumo says of his upcoming negotiations in Los Angeles. "There will be no Federal Express to California."
Mapfumo's problem is much like the one the NFL's William "The Refrigerator" Perry is having with the Chicago Bears. The Bears won't offer Perry a contract until they check his weight. Sound Wave won't offer Mapfumo a deal until they hear his tapes. Mapfumo's reluctant to give up his tapes until he has a deal in hand. In Mapfumo's case, both sides say it's only a matter of time.
The Mapfumo-Sound Wave story is a textbook example of why most Americans don't realize there is African music beyond Paul Simon's Graceland album--let alone that the huge continent produces a wide variety of popular music. Recorded in Africa, mixed and mastered in either Europe or the U.S., most African popular music takes years to reach U.S. stores. Mapfumo's current album, Hondo, for example, has been out in Zimbabwe for over a year, time enough to spawn a hit single, "Magariro--a word meaning "the way we live."
To Thomas Mapfumo, though, tangling with a record label is a brush burn compared with the political collisions he's survived. In some ways, Mapfumo's story is like that of Nigerian singer-songwriter Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Both Mapfumo and Fela rose to prominence on the strength of their protest songs--inspired in both cases by personal clashes with state authorities. But whereas Fela ran afoul of Nigeria's ruling black elite, Mapfumo became the target of what was then Rhodesia's white minority government. And though there are similarities in their initial musical motivations, the present-day realities for Fela and Mapfumo are very different. One of the world's most compelling and original musical performers, Fela continues to maintain a high political profile, using music as a vehicle to attack the social ills of Nigeria. Fela's albums routinely consist of a handful of long, groove-heavy diatribes. His live shows contain as much political rhetoric and overwrought drama as they do music.
After years in the political spotlight, Mapfumo is more concerned today with selling albums and filling clubs than with changing Zimbabwean politics. Although he's still proud of his political recordings, the colonial rulers of Zimbabwe are now gone, and Mapfumo's overtly political past is not his favorite topic of conversation.
"It's been ten years since the war [of independence]. Zimbabwe, my music and myself have all moved on," he says in a telephone interview from a Toronto tour stop. "I feel good now that people are finally beginning to hear my music. Before, everyone listened to my political statements. They defined me in terms of my politics, not my music. It's time that changed."
Born in 1945 in Rhodesia, Mapfumo grew up during the period when the African nations each gained their independence. By the late Seventies, when Mapfumo came of age musically, pressure was building on the white minority government in Rhodesia. Because literacy among blacks there was low, music with highly politicized lyrics became the call to arms. Taking the form of seemingly harmless dance singles, this new music was called chimurenga, a word meaning "music of the struggle." Chimurenga was sung almost exclusively in Shona--a Zimbabwean language that at first was unintelligible to most English-speaking whites.
"Contrary to what many people think, there were whites in Zimbabwe who understood Shona and so knew what my songs were about," Mapfumo says with an ironic laugh. "I guess that's why they put me in prison."
In 1977, with a group he dubbed the Acid Band after its biting political wit, Mapfumo recorded Hokoyo! (Watch Out!), an album whose title Mapfumo says he meant as a threat. Hokoyo! was immediately banned and Mapfumo was imprisoned.
But by then, other musicians like Oliver Mtukudzi had seized on Mapfumo's chimurenga and were cranking out politically charged singles of their own, according to Afro-rock historians Chris Stapleton and Chris May. The Rhodesian security forces released Mapfumo after 90 days in prison--because they feared he would become a martyr, Mapfumo says. In a switch in tactics, the government then began a Tokyo Rose-style campaign to discredit the singer, who, despite the government's efforts, had become the towering figure in Rhodesian music. "Unfortunately, when you look at the world, look at South Africa, what happened to me really doesn't sound that far-fetched even today," Mapfumo says. "The government used helicopters that played my music over loudspeakers. After the music got people's attention, they would announce that I no longer supported the rebels fighting for independence. It didn't work. No one believed them."