We now have such a disastrous perception of Zimbabwe that it obscures everything else that is good, so an investigation of its music in earlier, no less troubled times may offer a corrective. Thanks to the recent reissue of the Nonesuch Explorer series - world-music recordings made before the term was invented - we can listen to what Zimbabwean musicians were doing during the strife-torn, pre-independence 1970s.
The African Mbira: Music of the Shona People (7559-79703-2) focuses on what gentle miracles were wrought with the aid of the "thumb-piano". The mbira consists of metal keys mounted on a hardwood soundboard; played inside a large gourd resonator decorated with shells of bottle-tops (to give buzz), it is used to create lovely harmonic patterns. With this as the instrumental foundation, the singers weave their own patterns above, and the total effect is wonderfully beguiling.
But the mbira is so sacred to its players that some refuse to perform in beerhalls: it is traditionally used to conjure up spirits and soothe emotional pain. "My tears are only held back beneath my eyelids," begins one village song which creates an extraordinarily sweet effect. "I am being stabbed by a shining blade, leaving holes all over my body. Too hurt for tears to flow, I am helpless but still living."
But this story has moved on: Thomas Mapfumo - the Lion of Zimbabwe - made the sound of the electrified mbira a rallying-point for the liberation struggle, and on Chimurenga Explosion (Anon 0743) you can hear him and his Blacks Unlimited band in full spate. Meanwhile his disciple Oliver Mtukudzi has carried on the torch, delivering songs about the virtues of honesty, decency, and kindness in a bigger, rougher, less ingratiating tone. And as Mtukudzi's latest CD Vhunze Moto (Putamayo) makes clear, he's also pressing the mbira into service for music about the scourge of Aids. "Burning ember" is what the title means in Shona, which is an apt metaphor for his music's function in this embattled land.