uring Zimbabwe’s guerrilla struggle, Chimurenga songs operated as drills, indoctrination, training manuals, entertainment, and comfort while the soldiers of liberation were far from home, in the bush. On Rise Up Thomas Mapfumo, the king of Chimurenga music, sings about struggle and living in the bush again, only this time he might mean the wilds of Eugene, Oregon. That’s where the singer now lives in exile from the dictatorship of erstwhile freedom fighter Robert Mugabe. Plus ca change…
That’s how this review is supposed to go: a neat pas-de-deux that ties Mapfumo and his music to an unimpeachable, receding past; a reaffirmation of the myth of Mapfumo as the Zimbabwean Marley, the man who chanted down Babylon. But myths make crap music, and Mapfumo has shaved off his dreads. He may do a lucrative line in historical due deference, but Mapfumo is a musician, a guy who wants to sound dope on your stereo and get you to get down at his show. Rise Up is the latest album recorded by that man, and it’s one of the best of his thirty-year career.
The album opens in emptiness with a naked electric guitar playing as though to itself. The rest of the band picks up the theme, but the initial isolation is never entirely dispelled. Exile has forced Mapfumo to scale back his traditionally colossal band a bit—Rise Up features only nine musicians and four backing vocalists. Luckily, some of the best production on any Mapfumo album has renewed his studio attack to the barnstorming indomitability of his gripping live shows.
On Rise Up Mapfumo builds up steam with the patience and stamina of someone who expects to play until dawn, arranging his songs around muscular, tireless grooves that have their roots in reggae and Chimurenga but grow into something else again. “Handimbotya” channels the defiance of Survival-era Marley, but braces it with the slap of square-cut funk keyboards that could find a home on a Stevie Wonder record. “Marudzi neMarudzi” opens with the same four circular chords as Eagle-Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight,” then, in one of several deliberate formal subversions, Mapfumo downshifts into something a lot like dub, playing his throaty basso vocals against cooing female backers. And that’s before the horns come in. Mapfumo’s charts are those of an African Toussaint—lush but modest, glowing like embers in a breeze.
There are moments of high traditionalism on Rise Up, when the pellucid plink of the two mbiras come to the fore and Mapfumo traces their pointilist sound, fading and renewed like raindrops in a pool, with a mournful, exhausted yodel. His weathered, modest voice is cracked and worn down to the root; he avoids his upper register and seldom explores the lower end of his mellow, resonant baritone. His dogged, determined singing embodies the permanent struggle of Mapfumo himself and the narrative archetypes that are the most historical elements of his songwriting.
The traditionalist songs are, unsurprisingly, the most lyrically conservative. “Zvakuwana,” according to the interpretive liner notes, is a warning to a wayward young woman (“a girl who was ‘up and about’”); “Mukadzi Wangu” describes the lonely devotion of a woman whose husband has left to fend for the family far away. Mapfumo has earned the right to play the cultural sage and occasional curmudgeon; he sings in Shona, but his themes fit just as well in Eugene.
Rise Up is most gripping when Mapfumo is direct and fiery. Stretching himself and his band. “Hende Baba” mines the sparse interplay between the mbira and an electronic-bass pulse designed for marching. “Vanofira Chiiko” works up a thudding, apocalyptic drive, constructing itself as patiently as a trap. “Ndodya Marasha”'s seething fury (the liner translates the title as “I’m Mad As Hell,” but the literal translation is “I eat coal”) begins with the bitterness of blues but beats a path straight to a gluey, pugnacious funk. Mapfumo mourns in anger, accompanied by backing singers in the role of pursuing Furies, whose elemental harmonies hit unison on the refrain, then transmute into bloodthirsty horns.