The new music of Zimbabwe


Viva! Zimbabwe — Dance Music from Zimbabwe
Various artists
Hannibal records through Festival
Available on CD and cassette
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

Mention Zimbabwean music, and the band that most people will think of is the Bhundu Boys. The Bhundus have popularised their frenetic "jit" style of Zimbabwean pop, and their three recent Australian tours have been credited for the upsurge in interest in contemporary African music.

But the music of the Bhundu Boys is only a fraction of Zimbabwe's rich music. Their success has been built on the innovations and inspirations of that country's many talented musicians, few of whom are widely known outside southern Africa. The development of Zimbabwe's vibrant contemporary music is inextricably linked with the long and victorious fight against white minority rule.

The reissue of Viva! Zimbabwe will introduce many of these pioneers of Zimbabwean music to ears newly opened by the Bhundu Boys.

Pride of place in this collection must go to the great Thomas Mapfumo, dubbed the "Lion of Zimbabwe", who led the musical revolution in the '70s that coincided with the independence struggle.

As in much of Africa at the time, Zimbabwe's most popular music in the '60s and '70s was Zairean rumba, South African township jive and American soul. As the liberation struggle gained ground, Zimbabweans looked with renewed pride to their country's musical traditions. Mapfumo took the intricate patterns of the mbira (thumb piano) and hosho (shaker) and transposed them to the electric guitar and cymbals. His lyrics attacked colonialism and white supremacy and praised the freedom fighters in the bush.

In 1977, Mapfumo was locked up for 90 days. Rather than discouraging him, this gave him new energy. Despite his music being banned, his records topped the charts. These singles were known as chimurenga or liberation music. They were recorded between 1976 and 1980 on poor recording equipment in the bush. Their lyrics, carrying subtle warnings and encouragements in the Shona language, inspired determination and defiance.

Other musicians and songwriters were directly influenced by the chimurenga movement through radio broadcasts over the liberation movement's Voice of Zimbabwe from Maputo in Mozambique. After liberation in 1980, Mapfumo's albums encouraged people to rebuild Zimbabwe and called for socialism. He continues to experiment with various traditional and contemporary African music styles.

The Bhundu Boys point to Mapfumo as their major influence, while their name pays homage to the guerilla fighters who won Zimbabwe's independence. Viva! Zimbabwe contains tracks from other influential artists including the Four Brothers, Patrick Mukwamba and the Devera Ngwena Jazz Band. Their songs' themes range from celebrations of Zimbabwe's independence to the more homely concerns of love, respect for elders and the upbraiding of drunkenness.

Those wanting to investigate Zimbabwean music further can begin with a two-volume collection on the Earthworks label (distributed by Larrikin) called Zimbabwe Frontline and any of Thomas Mapfumo's many albums.

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