Each time the "Lion of Zimbabwe," Thomas Mapfumo, returns home with a new set of songs, he finds his country deeper in economic and social strife, and he faces growing threats to his personal safety. Since the summer of 2000, Mapfumo has been living in Oregon with his wife, three children, and the core musicians of his band, the Blacks Unlimited, who first recorded in 1978. As he prepares for his annual December pilgrimage to Zimbabwe, he is promoting the US release of a double CD, Chimurenga Rebel/Manhungetunge (Anonym). These are the two albums he released in Zimbabwe prior to his return visits in 2000 and 2001, and they are filled with barbed criticism of Zimbabwe’s leaders, whom Mapfumo celebrated when they came to power in 1980 but now condemns as corrupt, callous, and incompetent. The government has banned many of his new songs from state radio, but so far the authorities have not dared to arrest him. Mapfumo and the band are making an East Coast swing before their intrepid voyage home; the tour includes a two-night stand at the House of Blues, on November 20 and 21.
The title of Manhungetunge means "stomach ache," and the refrain of the title track is "Mother, mother, there is a biting in my stomach." Mapfumo explains, "Every time you buy the paper in the morning, it’s the same story. You are reading about how the economy of the country has been destroyed, so you feel stomach pains. You start thinking, ‘How long is it going to take? When are our people going to overcome all these problems? When are they going to be free?’ "
President Robert Mugabe views himself as a beloved liberator, so to hear such words from the Lion of Zimbabwe is no small matter. Mapfumo presses the message that it is ordinary Zimbabweans, rather than the once privileged white farmers whose land the government is seizing by force, who suffer most because of Mugabe’s policies. He disapproves of Mugabe’s land policy as well, as he makes clear in the sweetly dark, mbira-driven "Marima Nzara" ("You are Inviting Hunger"), from Chimurenga Rebel, but mostly he focuses on the plight of poor black citizens.
As music, Manhungetunge is a transitional album. Including tracks from three different sessions and contributions from a number of musicians who have since left the band, it’s an uneven effort that moves from the tongue-in-cheek pop ditty "Big in America" to the energized, jazz-tinged boogie of "Regai Vakanganise (Let Them Do Wrong)," and it features two excellent remakes of classic Mapfumo songs, "Chemtengure" and "Pamoromo Chete (It’s Just Talk)." The latter was written in the late ’70s as a reply to then prime minister Ian Smith’s assertion that there would never be a black government in Zimbabwe. It applies equally well to Mugabe’s disinformation campaigns today. "Chemtengure" features the Shona people’s sacred, metal-pronged mbira, the centerpiece of the Blacks Unlimited sound since the late ’80s.
Showcasing Mapfumo’s current stripped-down band, Chimurenga Rebel has greater musical focus and more political engagement. The disc is a blend of deep roots, like the bubbling, hypnotic "Baba Vevana (Father of my Children)," and groundbreaking experimentation, like "Huni," a forceful, funky anthem featuring a freewheeling sax solo by David Rhodes, one of two Americans now in the Blacks Unlimited line-up.
Mapfumo’s Cambridge dates correspond with the House of Blues’ 10th anniversary of the club, and HOB booking agent Teo Leyasmeyer says the shows go to the core of what the Harvard Square club is all about. "We try to keep a strong emphasis on roots or people’s music, and to explore aspects of the African-Caribbean-US connection. Naturally, themes of oppression, struggle, conflict, corruption, unemployment, bureaucracy, and racism often emerge. Mapfumo crystallizes the higher purpose of music: to edify and transcend."
After the present tour, Mapfumo will head home with his new album, Toyi Toyi, which is now being mixed for a December release in Zimbabwe. As for the risks he’ll face, he says, "I’m not worried. We have to go and play for our people. Things are getting worse, but also there is a lot of pressure now. The South African government is starting to pressurize Mugabe to step down. One day the change will come." Mapfumo remains a fighter, an optimist, and one of the most prolific and consistent creative forces in African music.
Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited play the House of Blues, 96 Winthrop Street in Harvard Square, this Wednesday and Thursday, November 20 and 21. Call (617) 497-2229.