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POP GOES THE REVOLUTIONARYTHOMAS MAPFUMO PREPS FOR AN INVASION OF THE WEST

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One reason these hearts-and-minds stunts failed, says Mapfumo, was his use of native languages and musical traditions. He says that even today his Zimbabwean audience views him not only as a musician and a bandleader, but also as an historian. (Chroniclers of African music have referred to him as the "lion of Zimbabwe.)

Mapfumo's interest in local culture began early. While still a teenager, he learned to play both drums and mbira. A small, buzzing thumb piano that's similar in some ways to the Western jew's-harp, the mbira (pronounced "beer-A) is the cornerstone of most traditional Zimbabwean music. (It transcends the many languages found in the country.) Years later, when Mapfumo formed his current band, Blacks Unlimited, he would pioneer the use of the mbira in modern African pop music. There are two mbira players traveling with Mapfumo on his current U.S. tour. Having mastered the drums and the mbira, Mapfumo began to sing with local groups in 1965. Covering the music of black American soul singers like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett was his first specialty. A devotee of that music even today, Mapfumo began to have a problem with singing in English, which he says he considered a symbol of British colonialism. Mapfumo's research into traditional Zimbabwean music and language led him to become the first modern Zimbabwean pop artist to write lyrics in Shona. At the same time, electric instruments and amplification had arrived and radically changed African popular music. Mapfumo has been credited as being the first to transcribe mbira parts for the electric guitar. At first his mbira-inspired guitar parts and Shona lyrics were scoffed at. He recalls that audiences enamored of American funk and soul music and Jamaican reggae considered him irrelevant and out of step. Today, Mapfumo himself giggles when he remembers how crowds laughed when they first heard him singing in Shona. Mapfumo eventually won over his countrymen.

The war helped open the world's ears to Zimbabwean music. As soon as Zimbabwe won independence in 1980, Mapfumo was signed to the London-based Earthworks record label. Earthworks licensed his music to labels in Europe and the U.S., and Mapfumo's music was soon widely available in the West. It was Earthworks that assembled the now-classic Mapfumo album Chimurenga Singles, which was subsequently released in the U.S. on Shanachie Records. In 1984 and 1985, Mapfumo toured widely in Europe and the U.S. for the first time. He wowed audiences with his beehive dreadlocks and lyrically dense but danceable music. In 1989 Mapfumo signed with Island Records, for which he released three records, the last of which, Chamunorwa, is his biggest seller to date. Mapfumo says he thinks that's funny considering that the music on Chamunorwa is the most traditional he's recorded since the war.

"Many musicians at home want to use more keyboards, even computers in their music," Mapfumo says with a chuckle. "Right after the war, when I first signed with Earthworks, I, too, experimented with keyboards. I did reggae. I even sang a song or two in English. "On Chamunorwa I went back to traditional music. Now it's only Shona you hear. No English. And now I'm traveling with two mbira players where ten years ago I had none."
Although making music remains his primary interest today, Mapfumo has revived some of his interest in political change. Not wishing to return to jail, his approach now seems to have more forethought and less aggression than in the past.

But that doesn't mean he's completely lost his edge. The master tapes that he's carrying around in his briefcase are from Hondo, which already has been released in Zimbabwe. Sound Wave execs want to retitle it Chimurenga Masterpiece for the U.S. market. That might have something to do with the fact that "hondo" is the Shona word for "war." (We'll have to talk about that, too," Mapfumo says in a serious tone.)

The war Mapfumo and most other African musicians these days are thinking of is the one in Zimbabwe's southern neighbor, South Africa. The singer has long believed in the violent overthrow of bad governments, and says that may be what's required in South Africa. On the other hand, he no longer sounds eager to incite people to violence.

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Robert Baird