thomas mother sister
Image: Banning Eyre

Mapfumo with his mother (right) and sister in their Harare home in 1998.

AT THE CRACK OF NOON, MAPFUMO stuffs a sandwich in his mouth, smokes a joint, climbs in his Ford pickup with Zvamaida and his brother, and races toward the recording studio. They’re late for their session to put the final touches on World on Fire at Studio bCd.

Abbey Road it ain’t. Electrical cords and instruments and flocks of microphone stands clutter the studio, a chilly 25-foot-by-25-foot garage in a humble country home. Mapfumo spritzes his mouth with an herbal vaporizer called Singer’s Secret, sits on a couch at the back with his brother, and promptly falls asleep.

Two hours later, after Zvamaida has virtuosically reworked two of his solos, it’s Mapfumo’s turn. He stands at the mic, swaying unsteadily with sleep and weed, headphones over his wool hat, hands clasped in front of him. He yawns. Sniffles. When the engineer is ready to record, Zvamaida signals and Mapfumo sings.

He chokes on the second syllable.

He tries again and doesn’t reach even the fourth syllable before his voice breaks. He clenches his fists, genuinely frustrated that his cold, smoked-out, 66-year-old vocal cords can’t hit the high notes that wiser musicians might avoid. “Can I please do that again?” he asks.

“Again please.”

“Again, again.”

“I’m sorry, again.”

And so it continues.

A quick listen of the rough album, though, reveals that however long it may take to record the songs, many of them are good. Great, actually. While mbira-inspired guitar-work is largely gone, Mapfumo and the band have sketched out tunes that nonetheless seem to pull the best from his past and combine it with adventurous new ideas. World on Fire will feature some political tracks and some cuts that are just fun, all of them embracing far-ranging themes and styles, from chimurenga to rock.

The first song, “Are You Ready,” is happy, slow pop about jamming till the wee hours, with Zvamaida’s clean, almost-effect-free guitar sounding like Dire Straits. The second song, “Celebration,” has another easygoing riff, almost reggaeish even though the chord progression is typical of a traditional Shona song. The third song signals a return to Mapfumo’s quintessential themes of equality and revolution, its earnest lyrics paired with a simple, powerful, solo guitar. The song’s central question of “What’s going on?” could be about life in Oregon, the US, Zimbabwe, or anywhere.

An hour after his first failed notes, Mapfumo finally finds his voice, and he looks back at his brother, who grins. He continues repeating verse after verse on another track, singing, “God bless Africa / god bless the continent / god bless the world.” And he still warbles. And there’s no telling if the vibrato is intentional or a sign of age.

But it doesn’t really matter. As Mapfumo stands there—bouncing now, hands swaying like a sea chanty singer, paying a heartfelt tribute to Africa from a cold garage in Eugene—he’s belting it out, and the slight breaking of his voice sounds … real. As if the striving in his singing is actually what’s important, a testament to hard years and the fact that this simple “god bless” sentiment is well-earned. The voice itself is full of history and lends a much deeper meaning to the almost clichéd request for a bit of grace, not just for himself but for Africa and for the world. And maybe that isn’t so different from what the counter girl at Ron’s Island Grill wants, too.