Oliver Mtukudzi's swirling, political Afropop

Oliver Mtukudzi brings his band Black Spirits to the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington on May 4

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 29, 2002) – Oliver Mtukudzi’s songs have happy melodies and lilting, danceable rhythms. So those unfamiliar with the Ndebele and Shona languages in which he writes and sings could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that Mtukudzi couches messages of social and political protest in what to unsuspecting ears might sound like African party music.

“In my culture, we use music for different reasons, and every song is not a song if it doesn’t have a message,” said Mtukudzi in a recent phone interview from his home in Harare, Zimbabwe. “And if the more frustrated you are, the more you need somebody happy to help you out -- happy music and happy sounds -- we use them usually to portray messages, serious messages that people don’t want to be without.”

Mtukudzi brings his happy music, serious messages, and nine-piece band, the Black Spirits, to the Mahaiwe Theatre on Saturday, May 4, at 8, in another concert sponsored by Club Helsinki to celebrate the legacy of African-American civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois.

Olu Dara and his African-influenced r&b/funk band will also be on hand to warm up the crowd, and to collaborate with actor Paul Butler in a segment devoted to the writings of Du Bois. Butler originated the role of Becker in August Wilson’s Broadway play, “Jitney,” and his film and TV credits include “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “State And Main,” “The Insider” and “Law And Order.” Call 528-3394 for reservations for the second concert in the W.E.B. Du Bois music series.

A star in his homeland for the last quarter century, Mtukudzi is finally breaking through to American audiences, 25 years after making his professional debut in what was then Rhodesia with a band called Wagon Wheels, which also featured the legendary Afropop star Thomas Mapfumo.

Mtukudzi’s latest album, Vhunze Moto (Burning Ember) , his third on the Putumayo world music label, is helping to heighten his profile in the U.S. He recently appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman,” and he is scheduled to perform with Bonnie Raitt – who included his song “Hear Me Lord” on her new album, Silver Lining – on “Austin City Limits” on May 16. (Mtukudzi’s is one of two songs by African artists on Raitt’s new album; the other is a collaboration with Habib Koite.)

In 1999, Mtukudzi, or “Tuku,” as he is called, toured North America as part of the Africa Fete tour, alongside Baaba Maal, Toumani Diabate and Taj Mahal. That same year, his debut U.S. album, Tuku Music, spent 11 weeks in the top 15 of the CMJ New World Music Charts.

After spending several years with Wagon Wheels in the late-1970s, Mtukudzi formed Black Spirits with members of Wagon Wheels in 1980, and released his first solo album, “Africa,” which spawned several national hits, including “Zimbabwe” and “Mazongonyedze.”

Bonnie Raitt has been a longtime champion of Mtukudzi and his music. She first heard him when one of her bandmates played her the soundtrack to the film “JIT,” the first local feature film with an all-Zimbabwean cast, for which Mtukudzi composed the music and in which he appeared as an actor. Raitt recorded a version of Mtukudzi’s “What’s Going On” on her 1998 album, Fundamental, under the title “One Belief Away.”

Mtukudzi says although he and Raitt come from different worlds, they meet on common ground when they approach each other as musicians. “I don’t know what it is, but when we met for the first time, I didn’t feel like I was meeting a stranger, and I’m sure she felt the same,” he said. “It was like we’d seen each other for a long time. She felt like a longtime friend.”

It could be that Raitt and Mtukudzi share similar musical roots. As much as he grew up listening to traditional African music, Mtukudzi also grew up listening to the American sounds of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett on the radio.

But even though his music is strongly influenced by American r&b, Mtukudzi thinks of himself as an African composer. “As a Zimbabwean, I can’t run away from that,” he said. “I grew up listening to our local musics here, and when I compose it would be difficult for me to try and compose a rock song when I don’t understand how rock came to be. But the influence of the music I grew up listening to definitely will be in my music.”

Mtukudzi’s songs rail against social ills like alcoholism, violence and disrespect. Some of his lyrics are composed of African proverbs – the equivalent of four-minute, pop-music versions of self-help manuals. Mtukudzi also addresses Zimbabwe’s growing AIDS crisis in songs like “Tapera (We Have Been Decimated),” whose lyrics are translated as “Mature men, why behave like children?…. Don’t get carried away/In the company of young women.”

“I am not a protest singer, but I talk about the truth,” said Mtukudzi, who favors acoustic guitar to electric because it sounds “more African.”

While the Robert Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe isn’t known for its respect for political freedoms, Mtukudzi says he has not had any difficulty expressing himself freely.

“If you’re a singer who talks about the truth, then there’s nothing to hide and nothing to fear, because nothing else defeats the truth,” he said. “In my case, no one has ever approached me officially or come to me and say to stop.”

Mtukudzi’s music sounds familiar to those whose exposure to African pop music begins and ends with Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” His songs feature the same circular riffs, pulsating polyrhythms, interlocking percussion lines and talking guitar figures. Though rooted in traditional mbira music, Mtukudzi’s sound incorporates South African township jive, the popular jit style, and katekwe, the traditional drumming patterns of his clan, the Korekore.

“I love music and I’m always listening to music from other artists,” said
Mtukudzi. “I might sound biased but I’m fond of every African artist. I understand them better. I’m very experimental and never wanted to be like someone else. If I listen to all these other guys, I’m trying not to be like one of them. I just want to be myself.”

Mtukudzi has little sympathy for those who view Paul Simon’s dabblings in Afropop as an exercise in cultural colonialism.

“As an experimental person, for me there was nothing wrong with that,” he said. “I think the ‘Graceland’ thing was someone trying to unite the world. People being on the opposite side of the world, to come up with a project that will make Africans be more comfortable with Americans. For me Paul Simon did a good thing to try to have something African in his music. And I think for the African artists it was a good thing, too.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 3, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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