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Album Review

Coming from Thomas Mapfumo's "unplugged" 50th birthday tour of the U.S. in 1995, Live at El Rey documents reimaginings of his music for two mbiras, bass, and drums, which is a dramatically stripped-down ensemble compared to the normal Blacks Unlimited army of musicians. The result is stark, and mainly rewarding for the clarity of the mbiras (hypnotic as ever) played by Ngoni Makombe and Bezil Makombe. The band is rounded out by Allan Amitayi Mwale on bass and Sam Mukanga on drums. Mapfumo used the occasion of this unusual lineup to pull out some rarely performed songs like "Hwa Hwa" and "Pfumvu Paruzevha," which is the other reason to own this collection. However, the bass playing, which supplies both basslines and melodic lines that would normally be handled by guitar or horns in Blacks Unlimited, is a little obtrusive, as much for the nasal tone as for the dominance of that instrument over the mbiras, which should be the star attraction. Also, the background vocalist, who goes uncredited, is less than adequate. It seems that, although Mapfumo was drawn to the idea of performing with only mbiras, he just couldn't let go of his band concept. Normally his vision is one of the most distinctive and consistent in the world of music, but this is one instance where he should have gone all the way, and not settled for less. However, the disc is still worth having for the incredible mbira sound alone.

Live at El Rey, Thomas Mapfumo & The Blacks Unlimited
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