“YAHWEH” and “Zimbabwe” were two words Thomas “Mukanya” Mapfumo interchangeably chanted at his gig at Glamis Arena in Harare last weekend.
Whenever he said these words – which made the crowd respond with deafening cheers, whistles and ululations – there was something almost spiritual in the air.
We are talking here of a 72-year-old man pulling off a four-hour set.
A fastidious performer, Mukanya commanded his band and the crowd with unmatched might that could not be explained by the naked eye.
At a media conference days before his performance, Mukanya said he was going to his rural home for spiritual rites: to thank his ancestors for protecting him over the 14 years he has been in the United States.
Based on his flawless performance, the spirits were happy that their son was back on a Zimbabwean stage.
The “Big Bira” brought back memories of the late Chiwoniso Maraire’s concerts, mbira nights featuring Mawungira eNharaira and Mbira Dzenharira at Book Café, the Hifa 2014 performance by Ivorian Dobet Gnahore, and sweet worship sessions with Takesure Zamar Ncube.
Music producer and former Black Spirits keyboardist Munya Vialy also spoke of last weekend’s heady, spiritual atmosphere.
“I cannot explain the feeling but every song Mukanya played was charged with a lot of emotions. I know I was excited to be in the midst of a legend but I am positive that my feelings were not affecting my judgement. There is something that the man carries,” he said.
On stage, Mukanya’s 18-piece band – Blacks Unlimited – was magical and disciplined.
The four mbira guys with their faces sunk deep into their instruments were for the entirety of the show hidden behind the four backing vocalists and they did not mind. They knew their role and they stuck to it.
The backing dancers never encroached, never masked a Mukanya who no longer jumps on stage.
The guys in the brass section, guitarists and percussionists, all knew where to come in and what to play. Nothing was overdone, but nothing was understated.
No one jostled for the limelight. All knew the music should be front and centre.
The synchronisation was amazing, blending in a way that we only see locally from Mokoomba and The Outfit these days.
Mukanya’s connection with the crowd was also on point. He showed that he is an experienced performer, and it was not by chance that he was adopted into the Afro-pop Hall of Fame alongside African legends such as Youssou N’Dour, Oumou Sangare, Angelique Kidjo, Habib Koite, Harry Belafonte and Oliver Mtukudzi.
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