Mapfumo fires the bop gun

This year’s sixth California World Music Festival, an annual event that hosts a plethora of divergent acts from around the globe, held court at the fabulous Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley. Nestled on a few acres of rich soil and forest, the site was breathtakingly exceptional. So was the festival’s roster: From Mickey Hart & Bembe Orisha, local fiddle player Alasdair Fraser, Sol y Canto, the Wayfaring Strangers, Alice Peacock and the Nields, among others, you could experience a little from many cultures.

Entering the grounds, you couldn’t help notice the organizer’s attention to detail. Ornate drapery adorned the front of the main stages, there was a magnificent array of exotic foods—no stone was left unturned. Even the sound, a common problem at larger outdoor venues, did justice to the acts that drifted through the course of the day. Those who brought their children had a full course of kid-themed events throughout the three-day event—face painting, crafts, games, puppetry, musical workshops.

Still, it wasn’t until Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited, one of Sunday’s premier headlining acts, took the stage that the festival hit its stride. Backed by a five-piece band—much smaller than his regular touring troupe—Mapfumo’s politically infused Chimurenga music was awe-inspiring. The band played material from the great Mapfumo catalog, including the latest double-CD offering, Chimurenga Rebel/Manhungetunge. The 2,000-plus spectators seemed to coalesce into one big dancing frenzy from the infectious, two-stroke backbeats that characterize Mapfumo’s sound.

Mapfumo has become a world-music icon, with over 20 albums to his credit. Judging by the immediate reception to his first couple of songs, folks already knew and appreciated his great body of “struggle music,” as it’s called. Here, rather than discussing world topics in great detail, Mapfumo and company kept the music coming.

Marred by a late start time—his set started almost 30 minutes behind schedule—Mapfumo’s set was cut short by almost 25 minutes. Not even obvious crowd approval and incessant applause could bring the band back for a quick encore. With her hands tied, the emcee moved on to the next act.

It was late Sunday night and I, along with countless others, decided to move on as well—toward the parking lot.

As good as the festival was, Mapfumo deserved a few extra songs. We knew it, and he knew it.