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Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited

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THOMAS MAPFUMO & THE BLACKS UNLIMITED

Zimbabwe's most famous singer, Thomas Mapfumo, got his start in the late 50s playing what was known as "copyright music"--covers of American rock and soul songs. But in the 70s, while Zimbabwe--then still Rhodesia--was in racial turmoil under a minority white government, he began experimenting with traditional sounds, adapting the hypnotic patterns of the mbira, or thumb piano, for electric guitar, mimicking the rattle of gourds with the hi-hat, and singing in Shona, the language of the country's largest ethnic group. This style was called chimurenga, which means "liberation war," and it became popular so rapidly that the Rhodesian authorities banned Mapfumo's songs and briefly jailed him. In 1980, after nearly a million people had died, the government finally consented to hold a multiracial election, and Shona candidate Robert Mugabe won in a landslide. But the new boss ushered in a new set of problems, including corruption and more political violence, and now Zimbabwe is struggling to cope with its share of the African AIDS crisis as well. Mapfumo's latest album, Chimurenga Explosion (Anonym), invokes the idea of liberation again, and his distinctive singing, with its balance of cautious joy and gentle sorrow, may yet have some healing power. His band now still sounds much like it did in the late 80s, when he added three actual mbira players to the lineup to create an even more complex sound: the intersecting guitar and mbira patterns pull one way and the stuttering beats and off-kilter bass lines pull the other. And his epic, mesmerizing live performances are the stuff of legend. Saturday, 10 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707. Sunday, 8:30 PM, Chicago Folk & Roots Festival, Welles Park, 2333 W. Sunnyside; 773-728-6000. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.

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