THOMAS MAPFUMO & THE BLACKS UNLIMITED at the El Mocambo upstairs (464 Spadina), Friday (December 23). $25. www.20hzmusic.com. Rating: NNNNN
The music of Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited plays like a determined celebration -- and it is.
It often reaches the breaking point, with ecstatic melodies punctuated by horns, congas and sprightly metal plucking of the mbira (Zimbabwean thumb piano) amid numerous rustling percussive elements -- all supporting Mapfumo's carefree-sounding tenor.
It's Mapfumo's own concoction of chimurenga, "struggle music," and it's historically bound to the liberation of his native Zimbabwe.
Politically driven and sonically an accessible amalgam of traditional African rhythms and pop/rock influences (he first honed his guitar chops playing Elvis, Beatles and Rolling Stones tunes with his first bands, the Zutu Brothers and the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band), Mapfumo's radical songs, sung in Shona to circumvent the white government, provided a rousing soundtrack for revolution. Then, at the turn of the 80s, British-run Rhodesia gained its independence and became Zimbabwe.
But to the disappointment of Mapfumo and his compatriots, Zimbabwe, like many other African states that freed themselves from the grip of European colonizers, has spent its 25 years of autonomy in social disarray, under the thumb of Robert Mugabe.
Shortly after that successful revolt, Mapfumo, the Lion of Zimbabwe, discovered he had to continue his musical struggle against injustice. In 1989 he dropped Corruption (Mango), an album of no-bullshit songs like Down With President Mugabe. That piece of music ensured that Mapfumo would face government-backed harassment (including accusations of running a car theft ring); he was finally driven into exile.
For the better part of a decade, Mapfumo, his family and band have been based in the unlikely town of Eugene, Oregon, which he embraces for its peaceableness. He continues to make music and tour, addressing concerns about his homeland as they develop.
At this point, what does Mapfumo see as the solution for his country's condition?
"We have to rebuild Zimbabwe," he says over the phone from Oregon. "We have to make friends with every country -- no matter how big, small, poor or not poor. We have to invite a lot of investment and make sure that our people get jobs, better housing, improved roads. We have to rebuild our economy -- but we cannot do it if we're so hostile to America and other countries."
Mapfumo continues to inject practical ideas about his country into his irresistibly pure music, which most recently took shape in the form of this year's Rise Up (not to be confused with the Parachute Club hit), which, the artist tells me excitedly, is set for worldwide re-release and distribution on Peter Gabriel's Real World label.
"We did a lot of experiments in the studio and came out with a really good mix. Many people have commented that this is one of the greatest albums we've ever recorded."
Good news for Mapfumo's message, which is about Zimbabwe but has gained him international renown for its broader application:
"It deals with the situations we face in the world today. We have a lot of conflicts -- situations like in Iraq and all over the world -- where people are at each other's throats for no reason. We are supposed to live peacefully in this world. We want to do away with dictatorship; we want people to be free-minded, to have freedom of speech and freedom of movement."
There's no mistaking the urgency in his voice when he says simply, "The whole world has got to be free."