by Chris Toenes
Cold as it was last night, walking into Duke Coffeehouse's transcendental dance vibe was wholly warming. The room filled up to a comfortable crowd, and as Mapfumo, "The Lion of Zimbabwe," led his band in songs both traditional and fused with the funky, dancing spread from person to person like fever.
The Blacks Unlimited, Mapfumo's current band, appeared onstage as an electric outfit, not unlike a funk band outfitted with twelve-string bass, guitars, keyboards and a Western drum kit. But a set of congas stood to one side, and buried behind the group's front line, a sole mbira player sat. The mbira is a handmade thumb piano encased in a semi-circular wooden shell, and Shona mbira music is a cornerstone of Zimbabwean music and Mapfumo's Chimurenga pop. It provides the beautiful undulating tones behind this band's rhythmic base, and last night, the band's sound was tight as they moved through those tones.
Mapfumo's music is based in protest, chimurenga being a Shona word for struggle, and we heard a reminder of just where they were coming from, as he announced a song as being about "those in the world who would do evil, just to do evil; it is about dictators." It was a reference to Robert Mugabe, the embattled president of Zimbabwe, and Mapfumo's great enemy. Mapfumo and his band and family left the country in exile several years ago. He said last night they hoped to return there again someday to play the music to their own people again.
At the Coffeehouse, they were welcomed by a vivacious crowd. People danced in pockets all over the room. In the front row, dancers appeared with Nora Chipaumire, who will be performing alongside Mapfumo and the band tonight and tomorrow night at Duke. Next to them, small children swayed and bumped with their parents. Smiles lit up the dark room. The ecstatic atmosphere only lulled as they announced their last song, but that they would only be taking a break, coming back for a second set. Don't miss a chance to see them this weekend.