The love of 1970s Zimbabwean music is still there, the essay in the booklet is still generously long and chatty, and the website with the lyrics on it still doesn’t exist. Hello Samy Ben Redjeb: producer, compiler, interviewer. It’s good to see you again.
Time, then, for the second installment in the Analog Africa series after February’s Green Arrows retrospective. This time we’re looking at 18 songs from The Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, the Arrows’ contemporaries. Both groups had active careers in Zimbabwe throughout the ’70s, but for a short while early in the decade the Chicken Run Band had a lead singer whose reputation has since grown to outstrip both of them; his name is Thomas Mapfumo.
Take One isn’t Mapfumo’s album. All but four of the tracks were recorded between 1977 and 1979, by which time he had left The Hallelujah Chicken Run Band and was busy with his Acid Band. One of the good things about both Take One and The Green Arrows’ Four-Track Recording Session is that they move away from the usual simplified story that we hear about Zimbabwean music during the time of independence — the one with Mapfumo as the centrepiece and everyone else hovering hazily in the background murmuring, “Gosh, he’s good: see how cleverly he merges Western instruments with traditional chords and rhythms? How he sings in Shona instead of English and defies the colonial government?” — and hints at the plurality of the music scene during those years.
The earliest of these tracks, “Mutoridodo”, “Alikulila”, and “Murembo”, are pioneering examples of mbira-style guitar playing. They’re good songs as well, with the strings sending off sharp retorts like music boxes. “Ngoma Yarira” decorates itself with patterns of rapid mbira so precise and intricate that listening to it is like watching someone knit lace. Mapfumo’s voice stands not in front of the instruments but among them, dropping regularly from its normal register into a vibrating low-pitched grunt. The song is short (all of the songs on this compilation fade out before reaching a natural end) but lovely.
“Gore Iro” has ululations. “Murembo” slyly lets you imagine that you’re going to be listening to a modest tune and then surprises you with brassy catastrophes. “Mwana Wamai Dada Naye” controls the dance floor with a pattern of three regular stresses that invite you to clap or stamp in time. “Musawore Moro” has blurry brass and a sharp guitar. “Chaminuka Mukuru” is concerned with sex. There’s no other way to interpret the singer’s exhalations. “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!” Sir, we don’t even know each other. Should you be doing that on my stereo?
Some of the songs are underlaid with a heaving thump that reminds you of South African township music. South African record companies were, and still are, the richest in the region, the ones with the farthest reach, and, apartheid notwithstanding, their output of black music was substantial. (Was Teal, the label that originally produced the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band’s songs, connected to the South African label of the same name? I’m not sure.)
The band biography in the booklet is as excellent as the one that came with Four-Track Recording Session. The substance of it was taken from old members of the group who were located and interviewed; and you can feel the cadences of their opinions bleeding through the essay. They even bring up the cars that people drove: a Nissan combi van, a Datsun 1500 “with overhead rack”. I love that. They didn’t forget the overhead rack.
Details like that are enough to suggest that this disc is the work of an enthusiast. Other compilers might provide us with overviews of famous names such as Oliver Mtukudzi or The Soul Brothers, but only a fan is going to put this much love into showcasing bands that would otherwise have remained nothing but footnotes in the English-speaking world. Before this disc appeared, who would have cared if they’d never had an opportunity to hear The Hallelujah Chicken Run Band? But now that I’ve listened to them, I’m glad that someone thought I should.