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By Banning Eyre on Afropop World

Since returning from Egypt, I’ve been torn between listening to all the great music we collected there, and catching up with all the awesome CDs that piled up on my doorstep over the course of a busy summer.  One title that leapt out of the non-Egypt stack, is Shanda Ugarike by Matemai Mbira Group from Zimbabwe.   I own a shelf full of recordings of the venerable Shona hand piano (for some, “thumb piano”), and I love most of them.  But this titles stands out for its combination of virtuosity and musical depth with splendid production, clear and ringing in the high register and booming strong in the bass.  To hear this is to fall in love with mbira all over again.

Newton Cheza Chozengwa, “Matemai,” leads this four-piece ensemble, and plays powerful “bass mbira,” and indeed, the force and richness of the low end is a distinct mark of this recording.  By contrast, Matemai’s voice is high, almost keening, at moments, just on the edge of overtone singing.  The rest of the group also sings, adding rich, harmonized responses to Matemai’s robust leads.  Matemai was born in Mhondoro, but grew up in the north, in Dande, home of the Korekore Shona and also a major center of revolutionary activity during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle in the 1960s and 70s.

If the words Dande and Korekore are ringing bells, it may be because Zimbabwe’s iconic popular singer and champion of mbira music, Thomas Mapfumo, traces his paternal lineage to the Korekore of Dande.  The link is more than a curiosity; you hear it in the music.  Indeed among the 6 long tracks on  Shanda Ugarike are some that bear more than a passing resemblance to classic Mapfumo recordings, “Pidigori,” “Zvichapera,” and others.  The songs go by different name here, and have different lyrics, melodies and vocal arrangements–but the ties are unmistakable. Such is the nature of Shona mbira music, where pieces evolve, get readapted with new words, names, and ideas, while still preserving the essence of a particular sub-family of traditional songs.  All this can get quite confusing–even to Zimbabweans!–but what matters here is that Korekore mbira music has a reflective, brooding quality that colors Mapfumo’s most trenchant mbira anthems.  And that same air of gravity also infuses Matemai’s ecstatic trance grooves.

As it happens, Melissa Cara Rigoli, who works with Matemai, ran into Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited at a show in Santa Cruz.  She gave Thomas a copy of this CD.  We await his review…  She also wrote that, “After the concert, the whole Mapfumo band came to a party where my friend was cooking sauces and stews all day.  Julia Chigamba [of the Chigamba mbira dynasty] came down from Oakland with friends and her kids, which created a nice Zimbabwean ambiance.  The sadza was served around 2AM, then we played some, Tom Melkonian and I with Chaka [Mhembere of the Blacks Unlimited] on mbiras.  Thomas was in a good mood and singing along with Lancelot [his brother] and Gilbert [guitarist for the Blacks Unlmited]…. We continued to play mbira into the wee hours.”

Sounds sweet!  For a taste of Matemai, check out these links, and get the CD!  (The majority of proceeds fromt he album go directly to the artists):

Website: Matemai Mbira Group 

Hear audio samples and buy Matemai’s music:

The Official Blog of Afropop Worldwide: Spotlight: Matemai Mbira Group, Music from the Heart of Zimbabwe.