Thomas Mapfumo

Spirits to Bite Our Ears: The Singles Collection 1977-1986

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Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo started out with a fairly simple musical idea of taking traditional mbira tunes and updating them for electric guitars, bass, and drums, but the extraordinary times in which he did this, which just happened to be when the people of what was then called Rhodesia were engaged in a war to throw off the strictures of colonialism, made his songs, full of Shona folk sayings and proverbs, reverberate with even more powerful meanings, and Mapfumo played a tangible role through his music in the eventual creation of an independent Zimbabwe. He didn't rest on his laurels, though, and continued to comment through his music on the injustice, negligence, and political corruption he saw all around him in Zimbabwe, a cultural role that has made him a figure of Bob Marley-like proportions in his homeland. This collection of his key singles from the late '70s through the 1980s essentially reproduces 1996's Singles Collection from Zimbob Records, but with a different track sequence and an additional song inserted. The music itself mixes in mbira elements with strains of reggae, township jazz, American soul, and East African rhumba to make a bright, joyous hybrid that manages to sound both modern and traditional at the same time. Throw in Mapfumo's deft handling of folk sayings, and his full awareness of how these proverbs will be heard by different audiences, and the result is music of subtle but tremendous emotional resonance. This well-sequenced album opens with a simple love song, "Tombi Wachena" from 1977, then moves through several mbira folk pieces rearranged for electric guitars, including "Zeve Zeve" and "Pidigori," which continues to be a staple of Mapfumo's live sets, to the joyous "Pemberai," which celebrates Zimbabwe's independence, and the powerful "Kuyaura," which takes a hard look at the ultimate effect of the war for independence, particularly on the poor. Like Marley, Mapfumo has always seen himself as a voice for the sufferers, and in the reggae-tinged "Makandiwa" he condemns the practice of forced labor, speaking out for those who have been given no real voice. The singles collected here are at once valuable historical and cultural statements, cries for sanity, wisdom, and mercy in troubled times, and joyous celebrations on the immutability of the human spirit. Oh, and you can dance to it, too.

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