Wednesday, December 10, 2014

LEFTOVERS (Scrabble Value Letters): Z Songs from Africa

Buy Mapfumo
Buy Kidjo

I don't recall submitting a post for this one and maybe I didn't, but, rather than checking, it seems a whole lot easier to start one. I'm a big fan of World music, a clumsy but useful epithet to cover the musics of the non-anglophone world. This can embrace any number of styles: ethnic folk shuffles, polyglot fusions,  genre-busting hybrids , using languages and instrumentation outwith the usual or expected, at least to our ears more familiar with the standard rock/soul/blues/jazz, though it can use all or any of these as well. African music has no one format, having as many as there are nations, as many as there are languages and as many as there are tribes. And many, many more, from the Rai in Algeria to the Chimurenga of Zimbabwe, and all in-between.

Thomas Mapfumo has long been one of the pillars of Zimbabwean music, being the embodiment, if not originator, of Chimurenga: Music of Struggle, one struggle being that with the authorities, pre and post independence. A boy in colonial Rhodesia, his was first attracted to the guitar music, the Beatles, the Stones, of his country's occupying white minority. However, through absorbing the local African pop music and American funk, he put aside these influences, drawing more on the traditions of his own Shona heritage, with political overtones leading to a spell of imprisonment in the late 1970s, being deemed a threat to the government. You would assume, thus, that he would be an eternal hero in the new Zimbabwe of 1980 and beyond, but not so, as his views began to portray his criticism of the Mugabe years, eventually leading to his exile in Oregon, where he remains, it nearly a decade since he last set foot in his native land. I was particularly lucky to see him play live, in less threatened days, in a poky Harare club, mid to late 90s, astonished at that opportunity, thinking he would only play stadiums, such as when he played alongside Bob Marley, at the Zimbabwean independence celebration concert, just over a decade before. The shona language is rich with Zs and so there is an abundance of choice. This song, Zvichapera, is a typical mix of mbira, the thumb piano, and marimbas, with a mix of western and traditional drums, over which Mapfumo drones, strumming electric guitar, female backing singers chanting the melody. There is not a huge amount of his music available on CD, but he is worth the search. Follow the link below for a Greatest Hits(!?) selection, which, whilst it doesn't include this song, does include, track 5, another Z song.

Further north from Zimbabwe is the Republic of Benin, where it is likely that Angelique Kidjo is the most celebrated of its people, at least in the west. Again she is a singer who has openly absorbed tribal styles and influences, but in a far wider mixing pot, embracing samba, reggae, jazz and funk, often undertaking collaborative work with any number of artists, often re-interpreting and deconstructing songs from elsewhere.  Carlos Santana, Dave Matthews and Bono have all sung with her, and she has sung songs by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Curtis Mayfield. All things considered, I think it is her more traditional work, in African languages, that I prefer. Perhaps inevitably, given the volatility of West Africa, her base is now Paris, arguably the world centre for the legion dispossessed African musicians. Here is her Z song, Zelie, the opening track from 2010s OYO.

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