AFRICA'S BHUNDU BOYS KEEP ENGLAND DANCING

Times Pop Music Critic

The Beastie Boys aren't the only party-minded foreigners on the British pop charts these days.

The New York rappers are on the list here with the Bhundu Boys, a band from Zimbabawe with a similar name but a music and approach that are a couple of continents away.

Instead of echoing the Beasties' bratty culture shock, the Bhundus specialize in a richly appealing, culture-embracing music filled with many of the lively, inviting rhythms that Paul Simon showcased in his Grammy-winning "Graceland" album.

Indeed, the quintet's records and, especially, concerts offer such a joyous, soul-lifting experience that the Bhundus may stand the best chance of capitalizing in the United States and Europe on the interest generated in Southern African music by "Graceland."

The Bhundus already have demonstrated enough mainstream pop-rock appeal here--through sales of their "Shabini" album on the small Discafrique label and extensive touring--to have major British and U.S. record labels racing after them.

The "Shabini" album is a convincing sampler of the band's richly appealing "Jit" music: a roots-conscious form of Zimbabwe pop seasoned with a strong Caribbean lilt and Louisiana bayou R&B; (Bhundu leader Biggie Tembo is a fan of the New Orleans-based Meters and Nevilles).

Yet the band best states its case in its live shows, which have been delighting audiences in England and Scotland since last summer. The group's concert last week at the 1,000-capacity Leicester Polytechnic student union hall was its third since November in this town, a light industrial area of 275,000 about 90 miles northwest of London.

Biggie Tembo is a charismatic, socially conscious singer-guitarist who reaches out to the audience, speaking between songs in English, but singing mostly in Shona. After the first number last week, he reminded the audience of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Pausing briefly, he then said, sharply, " Now, let's dance. "

Few in the hall resisted the invitation.

Led by Tembo, who frequently enlivens things on stage with vigorous war whoops, the crowd danced with an intensity and bounce that reminded some here of the early days of punk--without the rowdy edges. The atmosphere was closer to the communal spirit of a Los Lobos show.

The dance-floor pace was so furious that many dancers near the stage retreated to the rear after the first half hour to catch their breath; their places were taken by fresh troops who also gave way after a few numbers.

The cheerful, energetic Tembo, meanwhile, simply kept bouncing around, playing guitar in a kinetic style that combined soulful blues and country traces. Back home, the stocky singer explained later, the Bhundus often play six hours or more a night. So, a 90-minute show, he said with a broad smile, is just "child's play."

The student who was programming the music before the start of the Bhundus concert probably thought he was saluting the Zimbabwe band by playing a track from the "Graceland" album, which was partially recorded in South Africa.

But Tembo is among those who feel that Paul Simon broke the spirit of the international cultural boycott against South Africa by recording there. "We do not object to him recording with the (black South African musicians)," Tembo said backstage before the concert. "We just think he should have taken the musicians out of the country . . . recorded with them anywhere else, even on the moon, if he wanted."

While acknowledging that his band is benefiting from the interest stirred by the "Graceland" project, Tembo points out that the Bhundus were already touring Scotland before Simon's album was released. The group was brought here by a graphics artist, Gordon Muir, who liked the group's record so much he put together a short tour for the Bhundus, even though he had never booked a tour before.

Recalling the first airport meeting with Muir, Tembo said, smiling, "We expected to find a man with a big agency that promoted bands . . . and all we found was this young man in tattered Scottish trousers. But we just went along . . . and the shows have all been wonderful. The first night will stay in my memory . . . the energy of the audience, people coming up to us saying, 'That was one of the best shows I've ever attended.' "

The Bhundus will continue touring here through April, then return home to Harare before making another album. They would like to tour the U.S. this summer. Tembo noted that many of the group's musical influences are from America. Before they began writing their own songs about four years ago, the Bhundus played cover versions of U.S. hits--both by R & B artists and rock acts like the Doobie Brothers.

Tembo--who is joined in the Bhundus by a second guitarist, drummer, bass player and keyboardist--says he feels bad that audiences here can't understand his lyrics: "They only take our voices as part of the instruments."

So, he's beginning to write some songs in English. He doesn't feel the move compromises the band's music as long as the "spirit remains the same." Besides, he adds, "English isn't a foreign language to us. It is our second language in Zimbabwe (a former British colony)."

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