Lion roaring

THOMAS MAPFUMO AND BLACKS UNLIMITED at the Bamboo (312 Queen West), Friday (February 22). $20. 416-593-5771. Rating: NNNNNthese are critical.


THOMAS MAPFUMO AND BLACKS UNLIMITED at the Bamboo (312 Queen West), Friday (February 22). $20. 416-593-5771.

Rating: NNNNN

these are critical times forThomas Mapfumo. The self-proclaimed Lion of Zimbabwe has spent his entire musical career shouting in the face of the southern African nation’s political elite. Like a more mellow Fela, the soft-spoken singer has established himself as the voice of his country’s people, labelling his music “Chimurenga” — the Shona word for struggle — and being tossed in prison, banned from the airwaves and forced into exile for his efforts.

Now, three weeks before Zimbabwe’s crucial presidential elections, Mapfumo is once again at the heart of the battle. As black and white farmers are burned out of their homes by marauding government gangs and Zimbabwean president Mugabe tightens his stranglehold on power in the face of international outrage, the now California-based Mapfumo and his Blacks Unlimited orchestra have returned to their place as the house band for the Zimbabwean opposition.

It’s a role that’s even seen Mapfumo make the dangerous trip home to see for himself, just a year after publicly swearing never to return while Mugabe remained in power.

“I went back to Zimbabwe over Christmas,” he confirms from Boston. “We played a handful of shows, and the response was wild. I think people were just looking for something to feel good about again.

“The situation in Zimbabwe is very grave. Of course, it’s all over the news, but you have to be there to see for yourself how bad it is. People are being harassed by the police and the militias, ordinary citizens are being beaten up because they support the opposition party, and Mugabe is ruling like a dictator.

“It was dangerous for me to go back, especially then, but it was essential. You can never know what will happen in five minutes in Zimbabwe, and if you’re a targeted man you have to be very careful. Otherwise, the worst can and probably will happen.”

This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Mapfumo. Music has always played an essential role in the politics of the country, and the mood of the nation has long been reflected in the music of performers like Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi.

From a purely musical standpoint, it’s hard to imagine Mapfumo’s propulsive but often hushed roots music — built around the plucking of the mbira thumb piano — as shit-disturbing, but lyrically the message is clear. Mapfumo’s habit of writing timely protest songs ensures that his ban from the airwaves is virtually constant, and lyrics like “Cut Mugabe down to size” tend to attract attention.

“Mugabe puts fear into the people, and we give them a sense of power,” Mapfumo offers. “They don’t play the music on the radio because the DJs were threatened directly by the government. Yet still, the music creeps out somehow.

“Part of my role is to constantly add something to the dialogue. We were given independence in 1980, but we’re now in a struggle for re-liberation. I have to give something to my people, but I also have to tour in America and Canada to help shed light on what’s happening. Music is just a tool. It can’t completely change the situation, but it can help. That’s all I can do.”mattg@nowtoronto.com

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