Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Thomas Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited

Tuesday evening, Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited were in top form. When I arrived at 9:30 Ashkanez was full of fans and folks out for a good time. Mapfumo didn’t translate anything, so it wasn’t until the two sets were over at 12:30 a.m. that I found out that that great music was an indictment against the president of his country. Sung in Shona, I didn’t understand a word, and though Mapfumo speaks English, he didn’t use the gig as an opportunity to educate his audience about his southern Africa nation.

Lancelot Mapfumo, Thomas’ brother was playing the heck out of his congo drums. Song after song, he and the Zimbabwean and American musicians –bass and second guitar, kick drummer, had their leader’s back as Lancelot’s rifts on the keyboards or Gilbert’s solos on lead guitar and vocals enhanced the already high energy performance. Two other musicians – one African, the other American, played mbira, Zimbabwean’s national instrument. Housed in gourds the two men were integral to the solid instrumental ground Mapfumo crouched into each time he sang. Lancelot would give folks the clave rhythm to clap so the percussion interplay between band and audience was palatable—I felt like I do at flamenco performances where the music is driven by this interchange, only in those setting the band claps not the audience. This time it was the reverse.

Mapfumo was fired up and one could see by the enthusiasm, he was getting as much from the audience as they were getting from him. It was hot and when Mapfumo introduced his last song—there was no way his fans were going to let him get away with that. It was like: "One more."

This must have been the plan because the men hadn’t moved.

Between the two sets the deejay was spinning a selection of house rap and world music that didn’t necessarily grab one’s attention except for a Antibalas single which caught my ear and the Bob Marley standards he had on while the band was packing their gear as they got ready to leave.

I felt really special as Mapfumo smiled at me several times during the performance when I moved into the light and danced in front of the stage –yes, I think he was really looking at me. I’d spoken to him earlier and given him a copy of the interview I’d published in the San Francisco Bay View and on my website (May 30).

I found myself twirled around by these really cool African men, a first for me. One brother in his sober moments asked me if I was from Africa and when he found out that I hadn’t been personally, told me he does tours. It was really high energy. This same man was snapping photos all night of his idol. "I am a Mapfumo expert." He claimed. "I have everything he has put out since 1996." He stated confidently when I asked him if he was taking photos for the band or for himself. I was surprised that there weren’t more Zimbabwean brothers and sisters in the audience. Kelly of KTO was there. Congratulations are in order. She was married a few weeks ago! Usually I’s see a lot more Southern Africans integrating the largely white Ashkenaz audience. This audience was more typical—lots of single black women dancing alone or with each other and brothers, the few, dancing with white women. I was there with my friends Marty and Tiyesha, and then I saw another friend Ashoke when they left and we both played dance-dodge with the same very inebriated brother as he stepped on my foot and bumped into me, in his attempt to stay in front of the stage.

"We’re usually not invisible to each other," my friend stated as I side-stepped this man as he danced near-by. I ignored him as my foot stopped throbbing and I put my back to him, a less vulnerable part of my anatomy to hit if he decided to move unwisely.

I finally felt like my semester was over. I was so tempted to go to Davis the next evening to see the brothers again, but the dynamic would be different, maybe different good, I don’t know. Mapfumo played Santa Cruz the evening before. As the band was leaving I met Mapfumo’s son, nice brother also. I was happy to see he was black.


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