NEW YORK Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited launched their eighth U.S. tour Thursday night with a long, late set at the New York club SOB's.
The dreadlocked creator of Zimbabwean chimurenga music has seen a lot of action since he began fitting political and social themes to the sacred music of the Shona people in the early '70s. "Chimurenga" means "struggle," and back then it described the music of an upstart rock singer with a yen for roots culture and a hold on the heartstrings of a people striving for freedom.
Today, Mapfumo, 55, is proving as much of a headache for Zimbabwe's failed black leaders as he was to the racist Rhodesians of old. Though Mapfumo's new recording, Chimurenga Explosion (Anonymous Web), is loaded with barbs aimed at President Robert Mugabe's government, it's the top-selling record in the country.
Mapfumo spoke scarcely a word to the New York crowd, but he exuded eminence and warmth. An earlier SOB's show had ruled out a sound check, so when Mapfumo's eight musicians took the stage at about 11:30 p.m., it took a few songs for the music to settle in.
Mapfumo's deep, clear, whispering vocals and rich harmonies from five singing bandmembers carried the opener, "Pfumvu Paruzeva" (RealAudio excerpt), a reworking of his '70s chimurenga classic. "Mvura Ngainai," a prayerlike song calling for rain and featuring the metal-pronged mbira thumb pianos the traditional heart of the Blacks Unlimited sound sounded a bit scattered. But all the elements came together by the third number, "Titambire," a romping guitar feature based on a Senegalese riff.
Instrumentally, the Blacks Unlimited strike a delicate balance of spiky mbira plink, singing and stabbing guitar melodies, bass pump, deep melodic ngoma (Shona hand drums) and a relentless downbeat and sizzling high-hat play from one busy drummer. When the mix is right, the music has a nearly medicinal effect on audiences.
"The usual brilliance," said Jim Pittman, a longtime fan from New York. "The music gets deeper as it gets older."
The crowd soon packed around the stage, shifting their feet to the dance-happy "Vanhu Ku Hondo" and swaying rapturously when the band went to the heart of mbira tradition for the spiritually charged "Chisi" (RealAudio excerpt). Whenever dancing singers Memory Makuri and Rosa Sande bustled and shimmied to the beat of new drummer Gordon Mapika, listeners raised their arms and roared. Mapfumo stood by, occasionally joining the dance with the dignified gait of a village elder.
The Blacks Unlimited have lost key players throughout the years, mostly to premature death. Only Mapfumo's singer/percussionist brother Lancelot Mapfumo was on hand when the band first performed here in 1989. Former lead mbira player Bezil Makombe left the group earlier this year, and the weave of mbira melodies is thinner for his absence.
But the Blacks Unlimited also have uncanny regenerative powers. The SOB's set downplayed traditional mbira songs, which allowed the group's sensational veteran guitarist, Joshua Dube, to shine.
"For me, this is something new," said Mamadou Diabate, a Malian kora player recently settled in New York state. "It's beautiful."
Mapfumo was in top voice, and with so many of his young musicians singing, too, the band's layered vocals have never sounded better.
The set featured five songs from the new album, notably "Chisi," the South Africanflavored "Moto Uyo," and the dark, foreboding "Zvichapera" (RealAudio excerpt), which asks, "When will it end?/ Where shall we go for solace?/ Our country is finished." Mapfumo's traditional closer, the deep roots chugger "Mukadzi Wemukoma," and encore, the new "Wachiona Chirombo," had the crowd pulsing as one, enraptured and still clamoring for more after a solid two hours of music.
Yet Saki Mafundikwa, a Zimbabwean who has seen the band "countless times," found the set "prepackaged" in comparison with Mapfumo's six-hour-plus shows in Zimbabwe. "We know what 'Mukanya' [a reference to Mapfumo's totem, the monkey] can do," he said.
Still, for all his personnel changes and the constraints of an international tour, the "Lion of Zimbabwe" is undiminished as a visionary creator and uniquely inspired performer.