Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bhundu Boys

  • Shabini [Discafrique, 1986] B+
  • True Jit [Mango, 1988] B+
  • Tsvimbodzemoto: Sticks of Fire [Hannibal, 1988] A-
  • The Shed Sessions [Sadza, 2001] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Shabini [Discafrique, 1986]
The toast of London last time I checked, these Zimbabweans are suspiciously cuddly in their folk-pop naiveté. But their guitars tickle exactly where Thomas Mapfumo's kick, and in the title tune and elsewhere the folk-pop naiveté of their melodies could tempt you to trust even that portion of humanity that swears by The Face. B+

True Jit [Mango, 1988]
In the end, their made-in-U.K. breakthrough attempt is a catchy, unconventional pop record--not only is the song for war-dead children about kids they knew, but you can be sure it doesn't suggest the war was unnecessary. But that's all it is. Ingratiation is so ingrained in these former freedom fighters that they're almost swallowed by former Sade producer Robin Millar, who goes for pan-Africana with quasi-Zairean horns and transforms subtle cross-rhythms into upfront hooks. Rewriting "Skokiaan" as "Happy Birthday" because they know "Happy happy Africa" won't wash anymore, structuring "Rugare" ("work hard and reap the fruits of your labour") around schlocko synth chords and bridges that go nowhere, they're victims of crossover, compromising and accommodating when they should be expanding and appropriating. And they're still not half-bad. B+

Tsvimbodzemoto: Sticks of Fire [Hannibal, 1988]
Though you can understand why the soaring interplay of the Bhundus' post-chimurenga is classified as a soukous variant, it's folkier in basic approach and rockier in basic instrumentation, as comes clear on their Zimbabwe-recorded second album. Though the sound is thinner than FM technocrats might decree, it suits the band's peculiarly Zimbabwean polyrhythms, in which guitars and keybs take over lines indigenous to the thumb piano. Anyway, it's not so thin you're gonna notice as you fly around the ceiling. Congenital lead-asses start with side two. A-

The Shed Sessions [Sadza, 2001]
Where the stoned undertow of Thomas Mapfumo's chimurenga remembered struggle, the light, bright jit of Zimbabwe's Bhundu Boys was pure liberation music. Leader Biggie Tembo named them after his role as a runner in Mugabe's army, but that was over, and did they ever sound happy about it. Revving mbira guitar into soukous flights as they loosened intense Soul Brothers harmonies, they caught Britain's sole Afropop wave in the middle '80s and concocted an English-language crossover album nobody found as accessible as the two Shona LPs that made it possible. A decade later four of them were dead--three of AIDS, the long-departed or -ousted Tembo a suicide and Mugabe was a certified tyrant. In historical perspective, the ebullience of this two-CD set, everything from the first two albums plus half a dozen nonfiller extras, is pop innocence at its most poignant. They're not faking a thing--they were young, and they'd known triumph. But soon enough they would be. A-