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23 février 2007

Roar of the wild

Thomas Mapfumo and his band blend native sounds with political lyrics about Zimbabwe

Thomas Mapfumo is known as "the Lion of Zimbabwe." During a 30-year-plus career, he's grown into a towering figure in both his embattled country and world music in general. Yet he and his immediate family live in the comparatively meek surroundings of Eugene, Ore., driven into exile for the man's defiant stance against the southern African government.

A member of the Shona tribe, Mapfumo and his band the Blacks Unlimited make infectious dance music known as "chimurenga," blending politically charged lyrics with some of the sweetest melodies around. Their sound is based on the native mbira, or thumb piano, with hints of gospel and reggae.

Mapfumo and company return to Hawaii after many years for a Friday night concert at Leeward Community College.

His country, previously under British rule, gained independence when nationalist Robert Mugabe was elected president in 1980. At the beginning of his career, Mapfumo and his "struggle music" were totally behind this movement of self-determination.

But now Mugabe's government treats Mapfumo as a pariah, as the musician has expressed public disappointment in what has become Mugabe's tyrannical rule. In fact, "Kuwarira Mukati," from Mapfumo's most recent album, "Rise Up," tells his people to topple Mugabe by any means necessary.

"Even though I believe people should pick up arms, at least they should stand up and speak up for themselves," Mapfumo explained. "There, they're the ones who are suffering, and if they don't say something, their suffering will go on. Zimbabwe will always be my home. That man (Mugabe) is not going to be there forever and ever, so I have no problem waiting. I'd like to go back there to live."

It shoulf come as no surprise that Mapfumo and his family live in exile. His music is banned from Zimbabwean state radio, although the Lion can still be heard in private homes, record bars and flea markets, and remains popular with his people.

Despite a real danger to his life and family, Mapfumo does return for concerts, the last time in 2003. He's considering another trip back this Christmas, to check on his sisters and his aging mother.

"It's not like I'm going to be arrested," he said. "I'm a famous man, and people, they are afraid to do anything to me. But what I am afraid of are street thugs, who don't care about me and are paid to do jobs against individuals."

When Mapfumo went into exile, his lead guitarist, Gilbert Zvamaida, and mbira player, Chakaipa Mhembere, followed him to Oregon. He hopes they will accompany him to Zimbabwe for a summer concert tour in '08.

His current band includes American musicians such as bassist Matt Gordon. "He's so good that, even when I see my old bass guitarist, I don't mention Matt to him. Matt just knows how to play this kind of music. It proves that music all over the world has no boundaries. It works as long as we all understand one another."

The group has just finished a CD to be titled "Exile," and Mapfumo says he's happy that his deal with Calabash Music makes his music available for download. And as with the album "Rise Up," "Exile" may also be available soon through Peter Gabriel's Real World Records label.

Mapfumo said he's not too concerned that audiences worldwide love his music more for its melody and rhythm than for its politics. "If people heard about me, read about me, know about me through my bio, even if I don't explain what a song means in concert, I don't worry, because most of the audience knows what I stand for."

By Gary C.W. Chun

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