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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Now a story about music and politics. In 1980 the southern African nation of Zimbabwe came into being after a long guerrilla was. Under its new leader, Robert Mugabe, the country hoped to avoid the corruption, mismanagement of resources and ethnic tensions that plagued other post-colonial nations. But a quarter-century later Zimbabwe is one of the world's most troubled states. Well, two of the country's most popular singers, Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi, have made music through it all, but they've used their platforms differently. Banning Eyre explains.

BANNING EYRE reporting:

In the early '80s, it was a playful rivalry. Who was on top? Was it Thomas Mapfumo, the lion of Zimbabwe, Chimurenga King? Chimurenga was the word for the liberation struggle, and Mapfumo had explicitly identified his music with that cause, as in this 1974 song lamenting the suffering of a people at war.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. THOMAS MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Or was Oliver Mtukudzi on top? Tuku to his fans, he sang in a robust, soulful voice about social morality and the trials of day-to-day life. On his new album,"Nhava," Tuku also sings about suffering, but in this song he calls upon God, not men and women, to relieve it.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. OLIVER MTUKUDZI: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Both of these singers pioneered modern Zimbabwean pop by updating the country's rich folkloric traditions and blending them with international music. Mapfumo used African jazz and even the rock 'n' roll he grew up singing in the '60s. But the core of his sound is the metal-pronged traditional hand piano called the mbira. It's a sacred instrument used in spirit-possession ceremonies and famously suppressed by white missionaries. Mapfumo's electric guitar renditions of mbira music in the '70s came to symbolize resistance against colonial oppression. Later actual mbira players joined the band lineup, and they remain prominent in Mapfumo's newest release "Rise Up."

(Soundbite of "Rise Up")

Mr. MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: In 1979, when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia, Mapfumo was briefly jailed by the white government for his Chimurenga songs. But about a decade later he publicly broke with the country's revolutionary leaders when he criticized them in a song called "Corruption."

(Soundbite of "Corruption")

Mr. MAPFUMO: (Singing) Everywhere there's corruption. Something for something, nothing for nothing. Something for something, nothing for nothing. Corruption. Corruption. Corruption in the society.

EYRE: Mapfumo's work began to focus more and more on the failings of the Mugabe regime. The government broadcasting system started restricting his music from radio play in the run-up to the 2000 parliamentary elections. Mapfumo went into self-imposed exile in Oregon, and the songs on "Rise Up" continue his open harangue against Zimbabwe's leaders. The song called "Kuvarira Mukati" means roughly `suffering in silence.'

(Soundbite of "Kuvarira Mukati")

Mr. MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: He says, `It's up to you, mothers, up to you, fathers, boys and girls, to stand up and say something. We must rise up and fight back.'

(Soundbite of "Kuvarira Mukati")

Mr. MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: While Mapfumo has all but called for a return to armed struggle in Zimbabwe, Oliver Mtukudzi has charted a more enigmatic course. In recent years controversy has swirled as fans insisted they were hearing political barbs within his songs. One, they said, was telling Mugabe he was too old and should retire. Another seemed to support the white farmers whose land the government was seizing by force. During the recent elections in Zimbabwe, Tuku faced the opposite criticism when one of his songs was used by government campaigners. Whatever the charge, Mtukudzi has avoided any public political stance.

The songs on "Nhava" condemn drunkenness, child abuse and environmental destruction. But there's a sense he's avoiding the elephant in the room. In this song Tuku says, `You have to treat the cause of a disease, not just the symptom.' If that's a political statement, he leaves it up to the listener.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MTUKUDZI: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: While Tuku praises humility and brotherhood, severe economic and health crises reduced his once-rich country to near starvation. And the government is literally bulldozing urban neighborhoods.

(Soundbite of music)

EYRE: Tuku's refusal to commit himself politically can be frustrating, even to his fans. On the other hand, he's still in Zimbabwe recording, performing for his people and delivering his messages of reassurance and good living over the national airwaves.

Mapfumo, meanwhile, garners respect for saying flat-out that the country's leaders have failed. But it's been more than a year since he considered it safe to return home and perform. Mapfumo's new music is banned from radio play in Zimbabwe, and so far in the US "Rise Up" is available only in digital download form. Mapfumo has paid a high price for his principles, and his once-powerful voice has been all but muted in the process.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MAPFUMO: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: Banning Eyre is senior editor of Afropop.org. Oliver Mtukudzi's new CD is called "Nhava." Thomas Mapfumo's latest album is "Rise Up." And you can listen to additional songs from those albums at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song in foreign language)

(Credits)

SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel, and you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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