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Mapfumo: Between Marley and Cocker

Pop Capsules

October 23, 1989|CRAIG LEE

As a near-legendary force who was involved in the musical and political liberation of Zimbabwe, Thomas Mapfumo had a heavy rep to live up to in his local debut on Saturday at the Music Machine. But he delivered . . . and then some.

Since Mapfumo sings in the Shona language, it was his chimurenga style music that had to serve as the medium of the message. Mapfumo and his seven-piece Blacks Unlimited group smoothly incorporated the gently rollicking sound of the traditional African thumb piano into hopscotch grooves accented by horn blasts, choral harmonies, shakers, hand claps and floating, airy guitar lines. Amid this reverie Mapfumo was a dreadlocked griot snaking across the stage with an off-kilter, slightly scary persona somewhere between Bob Marley and Joe Cocker.

Whether whispering throaty murmurs or yodeling defiant-sounding phrases, Mapfumo was one of those rare performers so genuinely absorbed in the moment they seem to be operating on a supernatural frequency.

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