Three new releases from Zimbabwe come out in the wake of questionable election results.
Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi
Since the beginning of his career in the '70s, Oliver Mtukudzi's unique mix of mbira (thumb piano), the South African mbaqanga, jiti music and a handful of other sounds-called "Tuku music"-has been hugely influential. He's recorded an astonishing 40 albums in 20 years, and dominated Zimbabwe's cultural landscape-as an actor, producer and musical director. Perhaps to safeguard his mainstream success, Tuku's always given politics a wide berth, even when his lyrics address Zimbabwe's social ills. But right before the recent presidential election, Tuku's fans got angry at him for playing at a government-sponsored concert. The outcry forced him to clarify his political position. He released an unequivocal antigovernment statement that said in part: "As a musician, I have been appalled that the government has used its mono-poly of the airwaves to restrict airplay of artists who they see as unsupportive of its policies." The personality behind such a strongly worded statement is nowhere in evidence on Nhava, a collection of gentle songs meant to instruct and advise. The electric guitars, shekere and tinkling piano are a pleasing backdrop for Tuku's soulful voice as well as for the harmonizing backup singers he employs to embellish his message. Whether about environmental concerns or abusive parents, the songs are pretty, melodic and uplifting, making Nhava an amiable, unchallenging effort that'll probably get him out of the doghouse with longtime fans, but won't do much to garner new ones.
Unlike his countryman Tuku, Thomas Mapfumo has always been a controversial figure in Zimbabwe-so much so that he now lives in exile in Oregon, of all places. Mapfumo emerged in the '70s with music that also drew on the Shona mbira tradition but was unabashedly influenced by Western rock 'n' roll. When Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia, Mapfumo was imprisoned by the all-white government for his "chimurenga singles"-liberation anthems that motivated the guerrillas. He was no more malleable under the subsequent administration, serving as a constant Bob Marley-like thorn in Robert Mugabe's side. Despite its enormous popularity, Mapfumo's music was banned, and in 2000 he was forced to leave the country. His latest release, Rise Up, has a revolutionary spirit. The accompanying artwork shows two wrists bound by barbed wire, meant to convey Mapfumo's message that people "fight back." It also has the distinction of being Mapfumo's first digital-only release, meaning if you can't download the mp3s off of CalabashMusic.com, you can't have it. (This has caused consternation among older music critics and those living in the hinterlands. They'll get over it.) Rise Up is solid Mapfumo songwriting and musicianship, filled with lilting mbira and punctuated by female backup singers. It showcases Mapfumo's voice at its best-smooth and low and rich. "Handimrotya" gets a little funky with electric guitars, while "Ndodya Marasha" leans heavily on acoustic piano. The songs here are a little bit rock, a little bit Shona, a little bit singer/songwriter. It's certainly worth spending 99 cents apiece for a couple of them, though you might not want the whole CD.
Afropop Presents Thomas Mapfumo Live
You will, on the other hand, want the full edition of Afropop Presents, the recording of a live Mapfumo show at New York's SOB's in 1991, when his critique of Mugabe's government was getting sharper. The live setting allows Mapfumo and his band to engage in an evolving musical conversation that can seem truncated on Rise Up. (Sadly, three of the band members from that show have since died.) Though he'd resisted some traditional African instrumentation in the past, Mapfumo brought two mbira players along with him on this tour, as well as his horn players, who always provided a Western jazzy punch. Mapfumo does a rousing 10-minute-plus version of his anticorruption song "Jo Jo," and a (literally) plucky mbira-dominated "Dangarangu." The imperfections of a live performance make this recording feel more urgent, and for Westerners, who can't understand what Mapfumo's saying, the instrumental dialogue serves as a sort of translator.
It Takes a Nation: The First London Invasion Tour 1987
Music Video Distributors
This new DVD follows one of hip-hop music's most important bands during their 1987 U.K. tour. The film captures Chuck D., Flavor Flav and the rest of PE at the height of their popularity and commercial success performing tracks from the album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, an LP that made many critics' lists of best albums of the 20th century. First London Invasion is 60 minutes of Chuck and Flav sounding off in concert about government conspiracies and taking back the streets. PE's revolutionary lyrics and music moved 1987 London in the same way Paul, John, George and Ringo shook up the States decades earlier. Stacked with extras including commentary by Chuck D. himself, First London Invasion is a unique concert DVD and a must-have for post-teen hip-hop heads. It makes us understand why Public Enemy is ultimately more like the Rolling Stones than like 50 Cent. A (Raymond Tyler)
Ninety-nine point nine percent of all cover versions are unadulterated, anemic, oh-Jesus-Christ-what's-the-point? crap. Fact. Admittedly there are a handful of honorable exceptions (Elvis' brooding reinterpretation of Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" springs to mind), but by and large, they're mostly uninspired note-by-note retreads, utterly bereft of inspiration or imagination. Which is why Nouvelle Vague comes as such a pleasant surprise. The brainchild of two French studio boffins, the concept is simple: Take a clutch of bona fide post-punk classics ("Love Will Tear Us Apart," "Too Drunk to Fuck," "Teenage Kicks"), add a smattering of suitably sultry French and Brazilian chanteuses, and completely reinterpret them in a bossa nova/'60s Gallic pop style. It shouldn't work, but by God it does. The novelty factor may well wear thin after a while, but for now this is a frothy delight, with enough charm and pizzazz to keep both true music lovers and jaded fashionistas happy. Believe me, you just haven't lived until you've heard Depeche Mode's weedy electro-pop hit "Just Can't Get Enough" reimagined as an Astrud Gilberto party anthem. B+ (Neil Ferguson)
from the vaults
Drummers of Burundi
Live at Real World
It's all about the eighth notes on this concert CD, which consists of one 30-minute track. The drummers are supposedly improvising, but the precision of the beats-and the way they're played in concert with each other, with that eighth-note regularity-suggests these guys have been working together for a while. The result of 20 drummers being so in sync can be tedious, but if you listen really closely, you can hear subtle variations in tone-and in fact there are 41 distinct rhythms. The drummers call out to each other and do some occasional chanting, but it's mostly just the pounding on the drums. The CD was released in '93, just a few years after Peter Gabriel founded the Real World label when he was still in his screw-commercial-success phase. Live probably wouldn't be released today without an accompanying DVD for fear of boring people. But sometimes repetition can be oddly comforting, as it is here. (L.S.)