Thomas Mapfumo
Thomas Mapfumo: plays Ashkenaz Friday as part of the Berkeley World Music Festival

The pantheon of African musicians who have put their bodies on the line while turning their music into a vanguard force against despotism and corruption includes Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and South Africa’s Hugh Masekela. But no one occupies quite the same role as Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo. His startlingly innovative musical vision, which transposed sacred Shona rhythms and cadences onto chiming electric guitars, came to fruition in the midst of the 1970s anti-colonial struggle that gave birth to his nation.

A frequent visitor to Berkeley over the past 15 years, Mapfumo kicks off the Berkeley World Music Festival 9 p.m. Friday at Ashkenaz with his longtime band The Blacks Unlimited. On Saturday the festival moves to the Telegraph corridor, with free live music at People’s Park (All Nation Singers), Amoeba (Soji & the Afrobeat Band, Georges Lammam Ensemble, and Candelaria), Remy’s Mexican Restaurant (As Tres Meninas), Cafe Milano (Riffat Sultana), Caffe Mediterraneum (Safra), and other venues, closing with a Romani Balkan brass celebration at the Village featuring Edessa and special guest percussionist/vocalist Rumen Shopov.

Mapfumo has been a regular presence in the Bay Area since he moved his family to Eugene, Oregon in 2000 as his criticism of liberation hero Robert Mugabe’s increasingly oppressive regime made Zimbabwe unsafe. He continued to travel back for forth for several years, despite the escalating threats and censorship amidst the nation’s economic implosion. Now in exile with much of his band, he hasn’t been back to Zimbabwe since 2004, despite the exhortation of fans who hunger for his music and leadership.

“The problem is we have to make sure we are safe,” Mapfumo says, his voice a quietly authoritative baritone rumble. “When I moved here to Oregon, it was all for my children to go to school and finish their education. My daughter just graduated college and is working as an accountant, and my youngest daughter just graduated high school and is going to college. My son is into other business. They are all doing very well.”

It’s difficult to overstate Mapfumo’s stature in southern Africa. Banning Eyre, a guitarist and writer who helped found the invaluable weekly public radio show Afropop Worldwide (which was recently presented with a Peabody Institutional Award for its 27-year track record), just published a singularly insightful biography Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe (Duke University Press) that details Mapfumo’s essential role in Zimbabwe’s history.

Written with enviable access—he’s spent years in Zimbabwe and has toured as a guitarist with Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited—Eyre doesn’t pretend that he can fully bridge the gulf dividing himself from an artist raised in rural Rhodesia. He sees Mapfumo as a catalytic force, “one of the most brilliant African creators of the past century. He is also the embodiment of a tumultuous history rooted in a head-on collision of Western ambition and African culture.”

Eyre, who reads from Lion Songs at City Lights on Tuesday June 23, traces the intertwined evolution of Mapfumo’s music and activism, from his formative years playing R&B, soul and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s through his breakthrough incorporating the incantatory patterns of the mbira, a thumb piano essential to sacred Shona rituals. At first his new chimurenga sound channeled the mbira through the electric guitar of the brilliant Joseph Sithole, but eventually he brought the instrument itself onstage, “a very difficult process, trying to incorporate mbira with modern instruments,” Mapfumo says.

“We finally succeeded because we brought a lot of mbira instruments on stage,” he continues. “They don’t have keys like we find on a guitar or piano. In order to play different songs you need more of the mbiras, so that you can find the right one for the song.”

Blacks Unlimited mbira player Chakaipa Mhembere followed Mapfumo to Oregon, as bass guitarist Christopher Muchabaiwa, lead guitarist Gilbert Zvamaida, and Thomas’s younger brother, percussionist/keyboardist Lancelot Mapfumo. The devotion he inspires goes back to his days on the front line against Ian Smith’s white minority regime, which harassed and jailed Mapfumo. In a fascinating companion to his biography, Eyre compiled a CD, Lion Songs: Essential Tracks in the Making of Zimbabwe that interpolates Mapfumo speaking about his music with songs like “Pamuromo Chete,” which mocked Smith’s paternalistic rhetoric, and “Corruption,” the 1987 song that marked his break with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF regime.

“To me Mapfumo embodies both the political and cultural sides of the liberation struggle,” Eyre says. “He kept himself relevant by singing the right song at the right moment. He has a long track record of doing that, right up until 2001, criticizing Mugabe’s farm invasion policy. It’s that ability to capture the deepest conversation, and to make great really memorable music that makes him the most consequential musician in Zimbabwe’s history.”

Distance from his homeland hasn’t changed Mapfumo’s music, which is as potent and beautiful as ever. But living in the United States has changed his perspective. On his latest album, Danger Zone, Mapfumo takes aim at the continuing crisis in Zimbabwe, while also “singing about the rest of the world, what is happening today,” he says. “We have wars going on around the world, Islam against Christianity. We shouldn’t be at each other’s throat because of religion. God is one, and we are all children of God.”

Recommended gigs: Great choice at the Berkeley Arts Festival space

Phillip Greenlief
Phillip Greenlief plays Thursday at Berkeley Arts Festival space. Photo: courtesy Phillip Greenlief

The Berkeley Arts Festival performance space at 2133 University Ave. continues to serve as an invaluable outpost for musical explorers from near and far. Insistently creative Oakland saxophonist/composer Phillip Greenlief presents a program of new music based on his striking graphic scores tonight at 9 p.m. Barbed Wire features 37 brief pieces for trio performed by 
John Bischoff and Tim Perkis on electronics and Greenlief on reeds. KALW’s Julie Caine did a fantastic piece on Greenlief and his graphic scores a few weeks ago. The improvisational duo of Julie Moon and Adria Otte open at 8 p.m.

And on 8 p.m. Wednesday trombonist/composer Michael Dessen, who was recently hired by UC Irvine as part of a team of faculty leading a new PhD program in Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology (ICIT), makes a rare East Bay appearance at the Berkeley Arts Festival. He’s joined by a rambunctious cast of improvisers, including saxophonist Steve Adams, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Tim Perkis on electronics, and Scott Walton on bass and piano.

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....