The three mbira players of Blacks Unlimited work at their thumb pianos, creating hypnotic, interlocking riffs. Then the band kicks in over the top with a tune from their new album, Chimurenga Explosion.
Center stage, unmoving, completely focused on his words, stands the "Lion of Zimbabwe," singer Thomas Mapfumo, who has been touring the United States this summer.
"This is chimurenga music. Chimurenga means struggle, and the struggle continues," Mapfumo explained
Mapfumo, 55, lives the struggle. At one point he was imprisoned for the political content of his music. Even now, a musical icon in his country, he can still feel the hand of censorship. Two tracks from his new album, including "Disaster" (RealAudio excerpt), have been banned from the national radio station for criticizing the government of the country's president, Robert Mugabe.
"He's experiencing a huge new relevance because of his willingness to publicly defy Mugabe," journalist and Mapfumo biographer Banning Eyre said. "A lot of his songs through the '90s talked about the problems of AIDS and poverty, and he gradually became more direct in his criticisms of Mugabe. In London, he told newspapers flat out that Mugabe had to go."
Throughout the late '70s, Mapfumo's chimurenga music, with guitar and bass mimicking the rippling of the mbira, was the soundtrack of the native population's fight to end the colonial era in what was then Rhodesia.
"I had always been suspicious about Mugabe's people because of the way they operated during the liberation struggle," Mapfumo said. "So many innocent people lost their lives, and some of them were killed by our own boys from the bush."
After many years of playing covers of white rock 'n' roll, Mapfumo joined forces in 1973 with the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band to record in his own language, Shona. This, he felt, was "a way of identifying myself with my own people."
That group fell apart, but it planted the seed for the music he recorded with another band a few years later. It was the songs on the album Hokoyo that led to Mapfumo's imprisonment after the government came to the conclusion that his traditional music was encouraging insurrection.
Mapfumo was arrested in 1979 and spent three months in a prison camp. "Then they decided to let me go, because they found no case with me," he said. "To be released, they made me play for a political rally. But my music remained revolutionary." In fact, at the show he played his most revolutionary material. "I'd been jailed, and had no time to write new songs."
Mapfumo was a hero by the time independence arrived in 1980. He shared a stage in Harare, the country's capital, with reggae legend Bob Marley, a man of similar principles. Marley's music, Mapfumo said, "is like my music. It stands for those who can't speak for themselves." Marley's lingering influence still shows in the reggae-ish kick of "Musanyepere" (RealAudio excerpt).
Although the rhythms and patterns of the mbira had long been the base for Mapfumo's music, it wasn't until the late '80s that the instrument actually became a part of his Blacks Unlimited band.
"We had to find the right people who could work well with modern instruments," he explained. "We finally found them. The way we mix those things, nobody else could ever do it. They're the heartbeat of the band." That heartbeat is especially strong in songs such as "Chisi" (RealAudio excerpt).
Adulation At Home And Abroad
Now an international star, Mapfumo still shines brightest at home. While he's out of the country, "people are missing our music and phoning here, asking when we're going back," he said proudly.
"He's become the top artist in Zimbabwe once again," Eyre said. "At a time when people can barely afford to eat, his shows are sold out."
For now, Mapfumo is looking forward to completing a new album before he returns to Zimbabwe. He recorded recently in Eugene, Ore., with guitarist Henry Kaiser and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, musicians who have lately been playing the '70s electric music of Miles Davis.
With elections looming in the next two years, Mapfumo expects to be a vocal presence in Zimbabwean politics.
"Part of his strength is his willingness to say what's on his mind," Eyre said. "He's a real danger. He's creating the cultural and rhetorical space where people can reject Mugabe."
"I want to live in a democratic country where everyone has a voice," Mapfumo said. "And I want my music to keep being something that brings a change to the people."