Thursday, January 24, 2013

Gig: Thomas Mapfumo

Thomas Mapfumo

Lula Lounge. Monday, July 11, 2011.

This is the Lion in winter. Thomas Mapfumo — musical innovator, revolutionary hero — has a backstory so incredible that it seems closer to legend than fact. Taking traditional Shona music (especially the delicately-picked thumb piano rhythms of the mbira) and adapting it to the tools of rock'n'roll, he became a cultural hero, his chimurenga ("struggle") music a soundtrack to the anti-colonial struggle that transformed Rhodesia to an independent nation, winning him renown as "The Lion of Zimbabwe". An inveterate truth-teller, he then bore witness to the corruption that curdled the Mugabe regime into a cruel kleptocracy. For his trouble, he ended up in exile, now living in Eugene, Oregon. That wouldn't be enough to change his focus, however: "most of the songs we're playing tonight are about freedom and justice."

The burden of his own struggle — the exile, the itinerant life of the touring musician — looked to hang heavy on Mapfumo's shoulders. A little withdrawn and occasionally stooped over, he looked like a cagey ex-fighter. Added to that was the fact that a couple key members of his band were held back at the border, which might explain why Mapfumo took to the stage with an air of reluctance.

Billed as an "after-fest" party the night after he closed out Afrofest's main stage at Queen's Park, I wasn't sure if this was going to go ahead at all. Working with some local musicians drafted as last-minute fill-ins, the mainstage performance had a few shaky moments — enough that Mapfumo offered apologies to the crowd several times throughout the set. Playing together for a second night in a row meant, at least, that everyone was a little more comfortable with each other.

The first set started with a mellow groove, everyone seated except bassist Tich Maredza. (One of the locals augmenting the band, Zimbabwean-reared Maredza doesn't normally play the instrument, but obviously had a deep familiarity with the music.) Once that languorous, circular groove hit me, I has glad that I pushed aside my doubts to come out to the show.

That said, it was not as winning to Mapfumo's ear, as he offered an apology to the audience straight away as it finished, explaining again about the missing bandmembers, saying, "we'll do out best". But as the band launched into "Nhamo", it sounded much more solid than the night before, and soon Mapfumo was visibly more relaxed. It probably helped that the Zimbabweans in the crowd were soon right up front, dancing and clapping along in elaborate patterns as the disco ball suddenly lit up. Mapfumo glared into the crowd like it was a bright light before finally offering a full smile.

Even had his guitarist been present (Maredza's bandmate Larry Lewis was filling in), Mapfumo's latter-day sound relies less on interlocking rapidly-picked guitar lines than his classic material from the early '80's. Instead, the rhythm is carried by keybs and mbira, of which there was a pair on hand, including local phenom Evelyn Mukwedeya who was sitting in with the band. That makes for a less fiery sound, but it's still a potent combo when it hits its stride, and as the set proceeded, there were some powerful moments.

After a break, the second set started with another slow, meditative invocation, but once the pace picked up, the dancefloor was even more crowded, giving the room more of a party vibe. Many of the songs were rough at the outset, but the upside of the band figuring out the arrangements on the fly is that with the repeating interlocking parts once they've "got" it, it can just roll along as long as the spirit requires.

As the set went along, the gaps between songs grew shorter just as the songs grew longer, most extending past the ten-minute mark. And though all starting from the same musical elements, there were some intriguing variations, including one song with the plinks of the kalimba mildly distorted and sounding something like a synthesizer in a blooping rhythm loop, slowing moving out of sync with the song in a most intriguing manner, giving the music the feeling of being simultaneously slow and fast.

The last song of the main set ended with a big dancing circle in front of the stage, and while the crowd called for an encore, one woman in the audience sang a song before the band returned to play "Shumba" — one of Mapfumo's most immortal hits, and a theme song of sorts, about the lion hiding in the bushes re-emerging to claim its space in the free land of Zimbabwe.

All told, it was a helluva thing and a memorable night — two and a half hours of music. You can sort of objectively realize that the lion has lost a step, but there's still so much gravitas and craft there that the artist's very presence melds everything into something greater than the sum of its parts through sheer determined willpower.

It's not normally the sort of thing I'd do at all, but this was the one time that I bought a CD and waited in line to get it signed. It's a good thing to get a chance to witness a legend — and then say thanks afterwards.

Listen to a couple tracks from this set here.

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