LIVE AT EL REY documents the last concert by Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited on a tour in 1995 that ended in Albuquerque, N.M. The concert was also the celebration of Thomas’s 50th birthday. The CD gives the listener a steady meal of music of the Shona mbiri (thumb piano mounted in a huge gourd). It is a delicate, smooth revelation of music deep within the African soul. (This recording, however, only begins to open the door to the sound that Mapfumo and his band can produce. The reverberations of drumming and the expansion of sound created by the horns are missing here. That instrumentation penetrated the exuberant, tribal atmosphere surrounding his concert last summer in Amherst, Ma. )
Mapfumo’s vocals are captivating and the band’s rhythms, with their extremely subtle changes from one song to the other, are riveting in their constancy. The drums act as a bridge occasionally from one level of the mbiri and bass line to another. The 48-beat strings are derived from the pulses of life under the skin. Sometimes, you just cannot let go and you have to move with that rhythm, with those beats.
In some songs, Mapfumo’s deep voice is echoed in the background with a lighter imitative one. In others, Mapfumo’s voice comes in and goes out, as if it were one of the instruments being played. The musical line is harmonic and multi-voiced: the polyrhythms are distinctly layered. You can listen hard and be convinced of and excited by the complexity of the sound or you can let the music slide over you, like water does, over rocks in a stream.
The mbiri incessantly call to an inner sense of calm. They help to render this music peaceful and meditative. Sometimes, there is a solo line from the bass, out of no where. In the songs, Thomas repeatedly chants phrases and a chorus and then offers some guttural tones; it seems like only a couple of phrases become the songs, each with different words, each repetition of the phrase, a variation of the one before. The word and melody construction act like the four accompanying instruments---the two mbiri, the bass guitar, and the drums--weaving a web of indivisible rhythm and song.
All the songs become familiar in their similarity. It is difficult to separate one from the other. But that’s OK. They reflect a continuum of consciousness. And the more aware you become of the different aspects of the continuum, the more internal they become.