Friday, April 22, 2005


As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 22, 2005

Zimbabwe maestro Thomas Mapfumo has battled the old apartheid-style government of Rhodesia. He has openly attacked the corrupt dictatorship of Robert Mugabe -- a move that forced him into exile from his native land.

And now he’s challenging the music industry itself by releasing his latest album -- plus a previously unreleased live album -- exclusively on the Internet in the form of MP3 downloads.

Mapfumo’s new Rise Up! and his 1991 Afropop Worldwide Presents Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, Live in New York are available at, an extremely cool world music site known for their “fair trade” policy.

That means the recording artists get 50 percent of what you pay for downloading their songs.

Despite the Recording Industry Association of America’s hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing in claiming that illegal downloading rips off the poor artist, the big companies that make up the RIAA don’t pay anywhere near 50 percent. (And in fact countless performers and songwriters long ago lost their rights to their own music -- see my "Jazzmen" post below -- so don’t let the suits guilt trip you.)

Calabash charges 99 cents a track, so the complete Rise Up! will cost you just under $11, while the complete live album will cost less than $12 -- but this is for nearly two hours of music.

Both these albums of part of what Calabash is calling The Mapfumo Files -- 15 albums going back to the ‘80s that you can download as a set for $99.

The way of the future?

Releasing albums exclusively on the Internet reminds me of an old line by The Firesign Theatre: “If you asked for this record in the stores, they’d think you were crazy!”

Mapfumo, according to his publicists, is the first “world music” artist to release an album exclusively in MP3 form. The world’s a big place, so it’s nearly impossible to tell if that’s entirely true -- though it’s safe to say that he’s the first major world-beat star to do so.

He’s not the first name artist to do it though. That honor belongs to They Might Be Giants, who in 1999 released Long Tall Weekend exclusively on eMusic.

Despite the success of music downloading services like iTunes, I’m not sure lucrative a proposition it is to release entire albums exclusively as downloads. It’s hard to name any notable artists besides Mapfumo and TMBG who have done it.

In fact, some editors and critics in the world music realm reportedly balked at Mapfumo’s move, some saying that some of their writers are so computer-challenged they can‘t handle it, others saying that downloading is too much of a hassle.

“I am quite dismayed by this turn of events and the future it presages,” one editor whined. “Please consider the dinosaurs still left roaming the earth.”

While the technophobic implications here seem overblown, there are some points to consider. While more and more people do have computers these days, there are still many fans and potential fans who don’t. For these folks, download-only albums are more than a “hassle.”

And even for some with computers there are glitches. Unless you have a high-speed connection, downloading an album takes forever. (I usually start downloading right before I go to bed.)

And a few of the Mapfumo downloads I had to do over because the ends of the tracks somehow got clipped off by the time they reached my computer. Fortunately, Calabash doesn’t charge for re-downloading.

I’m of two minds on the issue of download-only albums. On one hand I like the idea of musicians bypassing the record companies, having more control of their products and taking a bigger cut of the profits. I also like the convenience of being able to click on a song and have it in my computer ready to burn instantly. (OK, with dial-up, it’s not really instant, but you get the point.)

On the other hand, doing away with finished manufactured products -- hard copies, cover art, liner notes, etc. -- is another nail in the coffin of old-fashioned record stores.

I love browsing through a great record store, gazing at all the colorful covers, trying to read as much information as CD packages allow, checking out the new releases, the used section, the bargain bins, listening to what the clerks are playing …

But maybe I’m being nostalgic here. Even before downloading music became a big issue, the reality of the locally-owned, independent record stores was grinding to a halt. Santa Fe hasn’t had a great one for years, since Rare Bear folded.

So maybe Web-exclusive albums are the way of the future. I just hope artists like Mapfumo and not the corporations benefit.

Mapfumo’s albums

No matter how it got to my ears, Mapfumo’s Chimurenga music is a joy. With out-front guitar and mbiras -- the plinking Zimbabwean instrument in which more than 20 metal keys are mounted to a hardwood soundboard -- and Mapfumo’s call-and-response with his female vocalists

No, I don’t speak Shona, Mapfumo’s language, so I don’t really know what he’s singing about. But even without the benefit of lyrics it’s obvious that Rise Up! has a somber tone. Maybe I’m reading too much into the fact that he’s been living in this country (Eugene, Ore. To be exact) for five years. But there seems to be a sadness permeating the sweet grooves of this album.

Live in New York on the other hand is far more energetic. It was recorded with Mapfumo’s band Blacks Unlimited, several of whom have since died.

The set starts off slow with “Nyamaropa,” a mbira song, but picks up quickly. My favorite here probably is “Jo Jo,” which starts off with a blast of the horn section and eventually melts into a glorious 10-minute jam.

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