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from inflation nation: Zimbabwe's Oliver Mtukudzi tackles
tough issues with jubilant beats
Bob Young, Boston Herald
October 17, 2007
As a national hero in
a nation wracked by drought, violence and runaway inflation, Oliver
Mtukudzi has a choice. He can act like everything is fine in his
native Zimbabwe, roar disapproval through his music, or find a middle
"I have to sing
about things that give hope to people," said the Afropop star,
who performs Friday with his Black Spirits band at the Somerville
Theatre. "I don't sing about what's bad. (People)
already know all about that."
As is his fashion, Mtukudzi
(pronounced em-too-kud-zee) overstates his aversion to tackling
difficult issues, which is why he has been called an artist with
an iron fist in a velvet glove. Or as Bonnie Raitt, who covered
one of Mtukudzi's songs on her "Silver Lining"
album, described it to a reporter, "The juxtaposition of what
Mtukudzi sings about and his raw, imploring, vocal reminds me of
Otis Redding, Toots Hibbert and some of my favorite reggae, an odd
pairing of agonizing, thorny lyrics over basically lighthearted
That's the approach
he takes on his new CD, "Tsimba Itsoka" ("No Foot,
No Footprint"), in which he views the issues in Zimbabwe through
a broader, global lens.
Which isn't easy,
particularly in a country where recently inflation topped a whopping
7,000 percent. Earlier this week, most bakeries were closed because
flour was in such short supply. Bread, meat and other staples are
nowhere to be found on most Zimbabwean store shelves.
"The economy of
the country is bad," said the performer, known affectionately
to his countrymen as Tuku, from a tour stop in the Midwest. "How
much a loaf of bread costs changes almost every day. You can't
Nor can you turn on electricity
for extended periods or buy milk some days except on the black market.
But rather than dwell
on the negatives of daily life and invite the ire of a repressive
government, Mtukudzi makes his points on the new album in reflective
songs that aim to enlighten, not preach.
"When I write my
music, I don't write it with Zimbabwe in mind," he said.
"I write with people in mind."
In a gently swaying style
called tsava that recalls the bright rhythms of Paul Simon's
"Graceland," Mtukudzi uses his sand-and-honey voice
to celebrate the virtues of self-discipline and hard work while
demonizing pedophilia, gambling and self-deception.
Mtukudzi started learning
these lessons at an early age. After his father died when he was
an adolescent, he left school to look after his mother and six younger
siblings, whom he learned to entertain with song.
He eventually joined
a band called the Wagon Wheels with the fearlessly political Zimbabwean
star Thomas Mapfumo. After several years he left with some band
mates to create the Black Spirits. Now, more than two decades and
45 albums later, Mtukudzi is an international success, but his troubled
homeland is never out of mind, even if his live shows are festive
"I translate our
experiences in Zimbabwe so that other people will hopefully learn
from our mistakes," he said. "Zimbabweans are very welcoming,
happy people who love life, and I represent my people. So the music's
tempos are strong enough to get people up off their feet. People
should bring their dancing shoes."
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