Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited [extended]

  • Ndangariro [Carthage, 1984] A
  • The Chimurenga Singles 1976-1980 [Meadowlark, 1986] A-
  • Corruption [Mango, 1989] A-
  • Shumba: Vital Hits of Zimbabwe [Earthworks, 1990] ***
  • Chamunorwa [Mango, 1991] Neither
  • Vanhu Vatema [Zimbob, 1994] Neither
  • Hondo [Zimbob, 1994] Neither
  • Chimurenga Forever: The Best of Thomas Mapfumo [Hemisphere, 1995] A-
  • The Singles Collection 1977-1986 [Zimbob, 1996] A-
  • Dreams and Secrets [Anonymous Web, 2001] A-
  • Rise Up [RealWorld, 2006] B+

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Thomas Mapfumo: Ndangariro [Carthage, 1984]
No crib sheets accompany these six circa-1983 tracks, but I gather they're less propagandistic than the wartime output of this rock-influenced Zimbabwean singer turned Mugabe partisan, which given his main man's Shona chauvinism is probably a good thing. What I'm sure is that they generate a ferocious groove--the rhythm guitar attack of Mapfumo's Black Unlimited band never slacks off, maintaining the indomitable uprush of great African pop well past its usual fading point. You think music "transcends" politics? Then get this sucker. A

Thomas Mapfumo: The Chimurenga Singles 1976-1980 [Meadowlark, 1986]
If you want to know what revolutionary music might sound like, put aside the translations and just listen. Sounds like regular music, doesn't it? In plain English, Mapfumo's expressive and rhythmic authority are all the meaning you need. And the translations from the Shona suggest other virtues. He has sufficient respect for his listeners' intelligence (and his own life, though he was jailed for a while anyway) to couch his messages in innuendo. And unlike so many African pop stars, he's not afraid to take on traditional wisdom when traditional wisdom is impeding history. A-

Thomas Mapfumo: Corruption [Mango, 1989]
Though there's nothing here as compelling as the Bristol-stomping "All my life" wail of "Hupenyu Wangu," this is looser and more indigenous than such renowned mid-'80s albums by the father of Zimbabwean pop as Chimurenaga for Justice. Never have his guitars sounded more like mbiras; never have his rhythms better evoked their own intricate selves. The vocals are also relaxed, giving off an aura of ruminative wisdom that may even have some truth to it. What can it be like to sing the poor against the rich in the language of your tribally divided country's ruling culture? Helps that, geopolitically, Shona is still a have-not tongue. A-

Thomas Mapfumo: Shumba: Vital Hits of Zimbabwe [Earthworks, 1990]
dread-roots counterpoint ("Shumba," "Pachinyakare") ***

Chamunorwa [Mango, 1991] Neither

Vanhu Vatema [Zimbob, 1994] Neither

Hondo [Zimbob, 1994] Neither

Thomas Mapfumo: Chimurenga Forever: The Best of Thomas Mapfumo [Hemisphere, 1995]
Having first invented a genre and then deployed it against colonialism, Mapfumo would rank with Franco or Youssou N'Dour if only his usages were pan-African instead of southern African or Zimbabwean or Shonan. While he's remarkably reliable--now past 50, he's less rote than Rochereau or Mahlathini, neither of whom phones his music in--his adaptation of thumb piano effects to guitar-band dynamics will remain marginal except among Afropop acolytes. So the more accessible of two recent compilations is a good place to pick up on him. Sharply danceable as often as not, it cherry-picks 12 especially catchy 1978-1993 tracks. You can tell the newer ones because his voice is deeper. A-

Thomas Mapfumo: The Singles Collection 1977-1986 [Zimbob, 1996]
The 16 cuts on this remastering of a cassette compiled by Mapfumo circa 1993, all of which originally surfaced as Zimbabwean seven-inches, consume pretty much the same 70-plus-minutes as the 12 on the Hemisphere collection. Which means that, relatively speaking, they're more about song than groove, and that their groove has a little more reggae/herb skank and a little less benga/whatever propulsion--they're gentler, more ruminative. The earlier dates are also a plus in theory, although I can't claim to distinguish the fresh from the formulaic even so. In fact, I doubt the artist knows the difference himself. A-

Leo Wadada Smith/Thomas Mapfumo: Dreams and Secrets [Anonymous Web, 2001]
African-American synergy, retain hyphen please, that improves simultaneously on trumpeter Smith's Yo Miles! projects with guitarist Henry Kaiser and the two solid-plus albums the chimurenga revolutionary has cut in Oregon since developing a taste for what he's proud to designate "the American way." Even with Kaiser and Woody Lee Aplanalp wailing and wahing, Smith's N'Da Kulture band can't generate the paradoxical melodies and shape-shifting rhythms of electric Miles. So Mapfumo's song-making provides welcome diversion from N'Da Kulture's straightforward postmodern r&b just when you're ready to move on to that Willie Mitchell retrospective. The mbiras and percussion devices of Mapfumo's Blacks Unlimited also jazz things up, which is fine with Smith, who's been calling jazz world music for decades. It's always been a dandy idea in theory. This is the practice. A-

Rise Up [RealWorld, 2006]
Like Burning Spear at a higher level of elaboration, the Zimbabwean truthteller tends toward the mean. His songs go on, his grooves blend together. So it's a surprise when a lead track constructed of the usual reggaefied mbira materials leaps from the speakers. Clearly, good riffs do still come to Mapfumo, especially when he's pondering his loss of a home market. Nothing else here tops it, and soon you wish he wouldn't hand off so much singing to the ladies. But the details are manifold, and the grooves maintain their mo. B+