Trouble in the nation

Oliver Mtukudzi keeps his spirits up in the face of suffering.

by Keri Carlson

Oliver Mtukudzi’s song “Ndakuvara” is the story of a man admiring an ox. The man assumes, because all his other oxen had been easy to train, this one will be too. But the ox rebels against him, hurting him badly, and now the man calls out for his wife.

“Ndakuvara” is a perfect example of Mtukudzi’s style of songwriting. His lyrics center around vivid imagery that combines stories of everyday life with folk tales and religion. The stories subtly relate to the political and social problems in his native home, Zimbabwe, and Africa as a whole. “Ndakuvara” is not simply a song about an ox. It’s more like a warning: Just because people have been submissive in the past, that does not mean they will stay that way forever. Someone will rebel. The message could easily be applied to the corrupt government of Zimbabwe or to the world’s disregard for Africa.

Though most of his lyrics are lost on an English-speaking audience, parts of Mtukudzi’s message shine through in his music. He uses traditional forms of mbira, jit, katekwe, traditional drumming of the Korekore and other African roots music to form his own style, now known as “Tuku Music” – a name derived from his nickname. The bouncing percussion and shimmering guitars that wander languorously through his songs make the music roll along with ease, like a warm Sunday afternoon. His deep, rusty vocals, however, disrupt the song’s tranquility. They carry a mixture of distress, passion and urgency.

On Mtukudzi’s “Shanda,” he questions the purpose of his music. The English translation goes: “My job is to provide joy, to make you dance, to entertain you.” This statement is offset by the music’s somber tempo. Perhaps Mtukudzi feels music should inspire joy like his breezy melodies. But coming from a country plagued by political strife, hunger and AIDS, Mtukudzi refuses to ignore these problems. His music is certainly entertaining, but it is not for escapists.

Mtukudzi formed Black Spirits about the time of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. The group played right before Bob Marley and Wailers for the famous concert celebrating the new nation. Mtukudzi’s songs have since become anthems for fighting political oppression. This explains why Mtukudzi is such an important figure in his country and all over Africa, and has sold the most albums in Zimbabwe’s history.

Over the past 10 years, Mtukudzi has released several albums in the United States, many of which have done well on world music charts. Recently, he worked with the world music powerhouse label Putumayo. His last release featured a collection of songs from 1998-2002. While some of the tracks sound somewhat overproduced, the live songs on the album jump out. Oliver Mtukudzi and Black Spirits’ first trip to the Twin Cities should prove a powerful and moving experience for the audience.