It takes a special kind of music to be banned not just by one regime, but two. From Zimbabwe, Thomas Mapfumo is a veteran musician whose chimurenga (‘struggle’) songs were at the forefront of the fight for independence. Now, independence gained, it’s a bettable prospect that a slew of new songs with titles that translate as ‘Suffering in Silence’ and ‘What Are They Dying For?’ will be like a red rag to Robert Mugabe’s Government.
It won’t be the first time. Like Fela Kuti in Nigeria, Mapfumo is a musician whose music (in this case, a range of jazz, Shona influences and the best kind of Afropop) has, by necessity, become a radical vehicle. The passions of Rise Up, Mapfumo’s first album since 1999’s Chimurenga Explosion, a release which was denied airplay in Zimbabwe, are acute: HIV, poverty, the future of his country. It’s also an album that was made in exile – Mapfumo left his homeland soon after Explosion and now lives in Oregon – far from the powerhouse that his early Blacks Unlimited afforded him. Even so, Rise Up shows Mapfumo still packs a punch: these 11 songs are, for all their often gentle music, tanked up on righteous indignation. His 14-strong band, one that includes a sensitive brass section and some lovely weaving mbira sounds, beats its message home beautifully: there’s still a world to struggle for.