From nightclub singer to political firebrand, Thomas Mapfumo’s career has elevated him to near-sainthood in his native Zimbabwe. The Chimurenga Singles, recorded with the Acid (as in bitter) Band, carries an interesting disclaimer: “The quality of these tracks leaves much to be desired, but remember they were made under war conditions.” Influenced by Voice of Zimbabwe radio broadcasts, Mapfumo participated in the country’s liberation struggle, and was jailed for his troubles. The singles deal in political innuendo and are sung in the native Shona language. The sound is rushed, as if time were of the essence; as the cymbals hyperventilate and the guitars skitter along (in plinking imitation of the thumb piano), Mapfumo sings serious and subtle songs of revolution.
Some of the six long tracks on Ndangariro (which postdate the material compiled on The Chimurenga Singles and Zimbabwe’s independence) resemble Mapfumo’s early work, but others foretell his calmer artistic future. His later recordings are more languid and even include some love songs. The grooves are lazier, but the guitar retains a rapid-fire hunt-and-peck quality. The wonderful Chimurenga for Justice, for instance, blends a surprisingly uninflected loping reggae beat with a peppy African sound and even an American soul-influenced approach on half a dozen richly performed songs about struggle and praise. Trumpets and two female vocalists provide sweet counterpoint to Mapfumo’s husky singing.
Delivered with the same heavenly allure by pretty backing vocals, crisp horns and gently rolling tempos, the songs on Corruption grapple with troubles aplenty. The English-language title track chants “something for something/nothing for nothing” in criticizing the misuse of power; “Shabeen” chastises men led astray by alcohol and hookers; “Kupera Kwevhanu” concerns the travails endured by Mozambique. Were more of the lyrics in English, accepting the stark contrast of content and presentation might be more challenging; as it stands, however, basking in the sounds of Mapfumo’s marvelous music is no chore at all.