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Thomas Mapfumo: A lion in exile comes to the Cedar

Thomas Mapfumo isn’t Nelson Mandela. He didn’t rot in a prison for decades and achieve worldwide reverence as both martyr and father of his country.

But Mapfumo is a hero and fierce patriot of his native Zimbabwe. Forty years ago he was covering Elvis Presley and Otis Redding tunes in what was then known as Rhodesia, run by the white-minority government of Ian Smith. Changing his language from English to his tribal Shona, Mapfumo began to foment revolution in his lyrics, christening his music chimurenaga (“struggle” in Shona), replete with a flowing groove that had electric guitar parts based on the texture of the mbira, or thumb piano.

When the authorities belatedly discovered the politicized content of his songs, they threw him in jail in 1979, but a year later, white rule was finally permitted to be overthrown at the ballot box and Mapfumo performed a triumphant gig in front of newly elected leader Robert Mugabe, with Bob Marley also on the bill.

Mapfumo could have lived out his days venerated for his role in the independence movement and enriched by Mugabe’s corrupt rule. Instead, he spoke out again, releasing the album “Corruption” in 1989, provoking a confrontation with Mugabe that eventually resulted in the man known as the Lion of Zimbabwe exiling himself to Eugene, Ore., where most recent accounts claim he still resides.

Continuing one of the most diverse and talented months of music in its distinguished history (get a load of the February calendar), the Cedar Cultural Center is bringing the 63-year old Mapfumo in with Blacks Unlimited (the name of his band for decades, although it is unclear how many original members are involved) and guest DJ Paul Harding from Radio K’s International Show.

I didn’t find very satisfying footage from Mapfumo’s international tour last year — a case of poor sound quality rather than an erosion of his skills. But check out this performance in Montreal from summer 2006 and listen to this song from his MySpace page. You’ll be surprised by the sweetness of this struggle music.

Thomas Mapfumo, Sunday, Feb. 15 at the Cedar Cultural Center, 7:30 p.m.; $20 in advance, $22 day of show.

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