Thomas Mapfumo, one of Zimbabwe’s most celebrated pop artists, has just released a new album, Rise Up (Real World), which is packed with roiling grooves, bubbling guitar licks, and hypnotic patterns played on the mbira—the traditional thumb piano of the Shona people. Mapfumo pioneered what’s called chimurenga music, a guitar-based approximation of traditional Shona tunes, and he’ll roll into Chicago with his band Blacks Unlimited on September 3 as part of the African Festival of the Arts.
A few months ago a new label, Analog Africa, shed some light on Mapfumo’s early days–back when he was a drummer and charter member of the brilliantly named Hallelujah Chicken Run Band–with a fantastic CD called Take One, which collects the music they made between 1974 and 1979. Mapfumo appeared only on the band’s first three singles, but even there you can hear his blueprint for chimurenga. On a tune like “Alikulila” the staccato guitar licks of Joshua Hiomayi neatly mimic the crisp, circular patterns that were previously exclusive to the mbira, setting a future standard for the guitar music of Zimbabwe. When the band started it focused on soul covers and rumba music, but they soon found that electric simulations of local traditional music went over much better, thus setting the a fascinating course chronicled on the disc. The CD is part of a recent deluge of invaluable reissues that collect the sounds of Africa’s “Golden 70s,” when musicians creatively found original ways to use the new electric instruments of the west to adapt and extend native traditions.