Zimbabwe: Mashasha Debuts With New Album

By Shout-Africa Entertainment – With his groundbreaking, audacious debut album, Zimbabwean artist MASHASHA introduces himself as an unmissable new voice on the African music scene.

The self-titled CD is the first production by the newly formed label Elegwa Music.  It has been released independently by Elegwa; with the support of Pan- African arts consulting company Sankofa Republik.

Anyone who follows the African music scene in London has by now heard about Mashasha, the charismatic and powerful bass player, guitarist, composer and singer from Zimbabwe.  Since his arrival in the UK Mashasha has been performing and steadily building a following, mostly as part of the unique and inventive “African drum and bass” duo Mashasha & Sam.

An imposing figure at a height of 6 ft 4, Mashasha is a compelling personality on stage.  There is a sense of drama and purpose in his bass playing, a sense of urgency in his voice.   He has just enough pride without being overconfident or arrogant – someone who won’t take

shit from anyone, but is ready to bare his soul to the audience with complete intimacy and sincerity.  And while his act is socially and politically charged, he manages to avoid cheap sloganeering and clichés – it’s all in the attitude.

Mashasha comes from the Old Highfield area of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.  Born Peter Mujuru, he has been known as Mashasha since his childhood, a nickname that translates roughly as “skills of a champion.”

Best known as one of Zimbabwe’s top bassists, as a teenager his talent was recognized by his neighbour, the towering figure of Zimbabwean popular music Oliver Mtukudzi.  Mashasha played his first professional gig, supporting Oliver, at the age of 19 (in a band that also included Oliver’s nephew and Thomas Mapfumo’s drummer’s son).

Within a short time, Mashasha became Harare’s most in-demand session bass player, working with leading artists such as Chiwoniso Maraire, Busi Ncube, Andy Brown & the Storm, Tanga Wekwa Sango, Rute Mbangwa, Zimbabwean rock band Bush Guru, performance poet and activist Comrade Fatso and many more.

In 2005-6 Mashasha was the bass player in the Zimbabwean all-star collaboration project “Hupenyu Kumusha” (which also featured Chiwoniso Maraire and Busi Ncube).  He was also the bass player and co-leader/composer in the cutting-edge Zimbabwean jazz group Too Open, which had developed a cult following and recorded three albums.  It was with Too Open that Mashasha first had the opportunity to perform his own compositions, and he also began preparing his own album.

As the deepening crisis in Zimbabwe threatened both the freedom of expression and the survival of musicians, Mashasha was becoming increasingly outspoken both in his lyrics and his interviews – including a number for the BBC, which had been banned in Zimbabwe. Unwilling to play safe and compromise his work, he soon found himself in exile – like many fellow Zimbabweans – struggling to survive in Britain.  While working long hours in the factories of England’s industrial heartland in the Midlands, he continued recording – slowly and meticulously crafting ten tracks in several studios, working with co-producer Eugene Ulman and some remarkable musicians.

For the recording, Mashasha and Ulman brought together an unexpected combination of masterful players, including drummer Robbie Avenaim (best known as an experimental musician, sound artist and instrument builder), cutting-edge American trombonist and trumpet player Ku-umba Frank Lacy (dubbed “the baddest sideman in jazz” by Downbeat magazine, who has played with Lester Bowie, Abdullah Ibrahim, Art Blakey and Jazz Messengers, the Mingus Big Band, Branford Marsalis, Mutabaruka, Black Uhuru, Erykah Badu, Elvis Costello and many more), Iranian ney (reed flute) legend Davod Varzideh (best known as member of Shahkilid and the Rumi Ensemble), Zimbabwean master drummer/percussionist and fellow Too Open member Sam Chagumachinyi, inspired and insightful keyboardist Danny G. Felix who is based in Sydney and New York, top Dakar guitarist Jeannot Mendy (lead guitarist for Viviane N’dour and Awadi who has also played with Pharaoh Sanders, Ashley Maher, Ouza, Carlou D and many more), veteran French rocker Charly Doll and others.

The tracks are crammed with ideas and wide-ranging influences, while sounding entirely individual and non-derivative, reflecting the artist’s unique vision and his journey since leaving his home country.

Mashasha’s music has very deep Zimbabwean roots, but his fresh take is not in any of the typical Zimbabwean genres or styles.  The tracks on the album are undeniably personal: at once both intimate and radical. The unrelenting sadness is mixed with a sense of exhilaration and adventure.  It is not a typical African dance-floor album, but it is rich, multilayered and very accessible music which rewards repeated listening.

The set opens with EMERITA, a composition that reflects both Mashasha’s adventurous musical spirit, as a well as his stark, unsentimental view of the world.  The lyrics have political, personal as well as spiritual undertones. It’s a song about guilt: the main character of the song Emerita (the name could be either male of female), admits to having done evil (ruining a life), and embarks on a journey to face the “Mambo” (King or Chief) in order to confess.  This rhythmically complex track features master drummer Sam Chagumachinyi, as well as vibrant and stirring brass – Frank Lacy lets rip with a Fred Wesley-inspired trombone solo towards the end.

The powerfully meditative BABA, which means “Father” (Track 2), once again has both a personal and spiritual dimension, as a son cries for the love of a father, from whom he is separated.  There’s heartrending sadness to the song, echoed by the plaintive, mystic Iranian ney (reed flute) played by Davod Varzideh, the subtly textured keyboard work of Danny G and introspective, hypnotic percussion by Cairo-based Nubian musician Mizo Gamal.

The drum-and-bass heavy HUWI (track 3), subtitled in English as “Yell Out,” reflects Mashasha’s awareness of the inequality that surround us.  Impressively he manages to avoid the usual pseudo-rebellious clichés of typical “conscious” lyrics, instead soberly urging the privileged to take an honest look at themselves.  Remarkable percussionist Ray Pereira lays down the groove on congas and Matthieu Eskenazi provides the sinister double basses.   This is followed by the Afrobeat– influenced GUTEGU (Gunfire), the only English-language track on the album, in which Mashasha takes on the character of an orator, challenging the hypocrisy of “freedom fighters” and liberation leaders.  Frank Lacy is featured on pocket trumpet, and Mashasha himself takes a rare bass solo.

The fifth track, the gospel-tinged MAMBAKWEDZA (Dawn), saturated with sadness and nostalgia, is about the early morning hour and the dark thoughts they can bring.  It’s a loving tribute to the artist’s neighbourhood, his family and to classic Zimbabwean music. The downright wacky drum and bass, however, take the track to a new level.  Track six, TEERERA (Listen!) is a touching song about relationships between generations, learning from the past and finding guidance.  It is also a warning about HIV-AIDS, and the type of lifestyle that can lead to it.  The track is a feel-good, raucous and danceable mix of South-African-influenced township jive and Congolese rumba, and seems to a children’s favourite.

The mood shifts on track 7 with the mournful and melancholic MWEYA (Soul), the story of a woman who has died but is reluctant to leave this earth.  Once again Davod Varzideh’s ney adds an otherworldly dimension to Mashasha’s somber, down-to-earth lead vocal (and some stunning harmonies).   Track 8, TISUNUNGUREI MUHUSUNGO  (Free us from this Bondage) is a sardonic yet uplifting song about how people can often be passive in allowing their family and class background to dictate what they do in life, and urges people to break away from what is expected of them and think independently.  It’s another intricate, layered piece hiding behind a façade of simplicity, with lovely touches provided by guitarist Jeannot Mendy and percussionist Charly Doll.

On track 9, MAZVITA (which literally means to give thanks, but is also a girl’s name), Mashasha takes on the persona of the “advice giver,”  common in traditional music, as he playfully teaches a young woman about loving in the modern world without loosing her integrity.  It’s a joyful, noisy, unbridled composition – rhythmically elaborate yet completely danceable, culminating in a free jazz-like frenzy that features drummer Robbie Avenaim, trombonist Frank Lacy and startling electric guitar from Jeannot Mendy.

The album concludes with MANGWANANI (Good Morning), a strikingly beautiful and deceptively simple “outro”, which Mashasha sings accompanied only by acoustic guitar and calabash.  A perfect sign-off for an artist who feels no need to impress with showy technique or virtuosity, yet is able to execute his progressive ideas with skill and clarity.

And this perhaps is the secret of the album.  There are no gimmicks here, no catchphrase, no “look”, no brand.  Behind the musical skill, inventiveness and creative ambition, is a down-to-earth, compassionate and genuine person, who sincerely wants to communicate with his audience rather than to wow it.  This is arguably the main quality that makes Mashasha an artist to watch.  Ignore him at your own peril.

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