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Songs 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 road.

"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 music."

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 plan."

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 affairs.

"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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