Mapfumo at the zoo
of struggles and hardship
has been a hard year. I'm emotional. And my penchant for responding
emotionally to music is at an all-time high, as evidenced by a recent
sobbing fit during the Counting Crows' version of "Big Yellow
Taxi" on the radio.
Mapfumo: creating tapestries of buzzing, sweet melodies. [Michael
I'm lying about the sobbing fit, but it's hard not to get choked
up watching Thomas Mapfumo and all the dancing babies at the Oregon
Zoo on a recent Thursday night. The swifts dive for bugs in the
dusk. The mbira bubbles rhythms. Mapfumo benignly grooves in fedora
and silk bowling jacket.
The Oregon Zoo has been sponsoring concerts on the green for 25
years, which is apparently some kind of record. You'll forgive me
if I can't remember the exact nature of the statistic.
As the kind lady who introduces Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited
mangles his name into "Mapoofo," I lose my concentration.
Mapfumo, born in 1945, was raised (like most Zimbabweans) in the
rural countryside, where meditative farming activities and the traditional
music of the Ngoma drums and the mbira thumb piano formed the character
of his being.
His musical career encompasses two main threads formed by his upbringing
and the struggles of his country. The first thread is the integration
of old-fashioned instruments (like the mbira) and traditional African
sounds with modern instruments (electric guitar and bass) and musical
styles such as reggae.
The second thread leads him to sing about the struggles and hardships
of his people, often with open political critique. In a country
where President Robert Mugabe seemingly ignores such problems, even
exacerbating them to maintain his grip on power, the music of Mapfumo
is banned. Today, the "Lion of Zimbabwe" lives in self-imposed
exile in Eugene, Ore.
to parents: don't miss Mapfumo at the zoo. [Michael Rubottom
Exile apparently hasn't hurt his band's ability to create spellbinding,
toe-tapping music. The polyrhythmic interplay between the traditional
instruments and the modern ones creates songs that exist on a singular
plane, coursing along in circular fashion. The songs spill from
the slowly boiling witch's cauldron of the Blacks Unlimited, creating
tapestries of buzzing, sweet melodies that move in loops, generating
power while never really ending.
The drums keep it funky, but it's all on the wheel as patterns
of different lengths harmonically pass each other by, waving every
now and then. The songs beg not to end.
Mapfumo improbably chants singsong plaints of the suffering of
his people on a beautiful night in a place where we don't even know
how good we've got it. And the babies dance. There is one dancing
baby or spazzing toddler here for every four people, because the
almost childlike, shimmering melodies and bouncing beats are tot-nip
for the little ones. Parents: don't miss Mapfumo next time he plays
Adult hippies and dreadlocked admirers (Mapfumo seems to have lost
his locks ...) catch a break, too, when the band comes back for
a second set something I don't remember from my youthful
Jazz at the Zoo days.
This second set is for the faithful as to my undereducated
ears songs that may be newer or at least more experimental
are played. Mapfumo has a relatively huge backlog of material, so
I could be wrong. But the band perks up for these tunes, betraying
freshness and exuberant enjoyment.
The songs distinguish themselves from their predecessors by incorporating
gasp more than one distinguishable part. Is that a
verse/chorus structure I hear? No, but it's a different part, and
it moves on to a different part after that.
The diving swifts seem to notice Mapfumo's costume change, a showman
in the land of the free, singing about a place where a government
beset by the problems of hunger, poverty and an AIDS epidemic has
at times limited access to food, education and health care.
Mapfumo & The Blacks Unlimited: the band betrays freshness
and exuberant enjoyment.
And it's starting to happen here.
Mapfumo, in a silk jacket under lowering skies, reminds us how
important it is for a freely educated people to maintain control
of their own government, and not the other way around.
The animals try to sleep, the babies dance, and Mapfumo fulfills
his role as the Lion of Zimbabwe.