Music » Critics' Picks

Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited

Friday, July 6; Viva!


Contemporary African music has become increasingly popular worldwide over the past few decades, thanks in large part to the influence of legendary musicians such as Fela Kuti of Nigeria, Franco of Zaire and Thomas Mapfumo of Zimbabwe. Mapfumo has earned the nickname "Lion of Zimbabwe" for his politically charged compositions, which attack both the white rulers of the former nation of Rhodesia and the corrupt regime of current President Robert Mugabe.Singing in his native Shona (a tribal language) and backed by such native instruments as the mbira (a metal-pronged thumb piano built into a gourd), Mapfumo mixes in Western instruments -- electric guitar, bass, keyboards -- to create a hypnotic musical style he dubs chimurenga, the Shona word for "struggle." He paid dearly for his political activism -- first having his music banned from the airwaves, then spending several months in prison before being freed at the very end of white rule in the country.

Mapfumo's passionate, soulful baritone easily transcends any potential language barrier. In addition to his immense popularity in Zimbabwe and Africa, Mapfumo and his band, the Blacks Unlimited, soon gained a strong following in other countries as well. Mapfumo made his first European tours in the mid-1980s, backing the release of compilation recording The Chimurenga Singles. We're lucky that Mapfumo's current tour includes St. Louis: It's a rare opportunity to hear one of Africa's greatest musicians performing in the intimate confines of Viva!

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