Photo credit: Thomas Mapfumo on Harare Live
African and Western influences intersect in the genre of Chimurenga. If your first encounter with it was through Paul Simon’s Graceland, then you should know that there is much, much more to it than the supremely danceable beats, infectious melodies, and spindly guitar licks that make you tingle. It was a vehicle for potent messages that unified the people of Zimbabwe in their struggle for independence from Rhodesia. And these messages were veiled in a manner similar to the encoded lyrics of African American spirituals that slaves sang to communicate with each other in the U.S.

Chimurenga is Thomas Mapfumo’s soul child, if you will, conceived of his Shona upbringing and rock star aspirations as an adult. Mbira (a type of thumb piano) music, possession trance ritual music of the Shona people, was an integral part of Mapfumo’s childhood, and many of its attributes were consciously incorporated into a style that, no matter how you slice it, couldn’t be any more different. Yet the repetitive structure, polyphonic texture, melodic mbira figurations, and the rhythm of the stomping feet of dancers all found an assured medium in a rock band under Mapfumo’s ingenuity; he had found a commercially successful contemporary aesthetic that was nonetheless moored in Shona tradition, and wielded its disarmingly joyful expression as an incisive tool for political and social justice.

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