Mtukudzi sings song of survival

Boston Globe, October 19, 2007

In the 27 years since the hard-fought overthrow of white minority Rhodesian rule, Zimbabwe has tumbled from an exalted symbol of African liberation to an exhibit of almost all that could possibly go wrong. A paranoid regime in the grip of an aging president and his cronies, and hunger and shortages in an agrarian country once seen as a regional breadbasket, are just two symptoms of a crisis whose human cost is exacerbated by rampaging HIV. The latest disaster is the onset of hyperinflation, with prices rising at a nearly unimaginable annual rate of 5,000 percent or more.

Still against this backdrop, artistic expression continues, as it does so often in situations where one would imagine art to be the last matter on people’s minds. And its leading voice is Oliver Mtukudzi, the singer and guitarist affectionately known to all as Tuku, whose well-established status as a national treasure only grows more meaningful as things in the world around him fall apart.

Mtukudzi, who is 55 and whose voice is a blend of honey and gravel reminiscent of the greatest R&B singers, has a new album – his 45th – titled “Tsimba itsoka.” It finds him bringing the acoustic mbira (the so-called “thumb piano” of southern Africa) and marimba back to the fore of the music, after many years adapting their sound and texture into a more electric, guitar-driven Afropop. Touring behind the new album, Mtukudzi and the eight-person lineup of his band, Black Spirits, are at the Somerville Theatre tonight.

On the phone from the unglamorous setting of a Comfort Inn in Columbus, Ohio, Mtukudzi explains the guiding idea of the record, whose title translates from Shona as “No Foot, No Footprint” – an expression, needless to say, with aphoristic value.

“It’s an album that came to be after realizing that people underestimate the meaning of a footprint,” Mtukudzi says. “A footprint represents who you are. And people don’t realize that if you see a footprint, then someone was there before you.”

As with the best proverbs, one can go in a number of directions from this idea, including to infer political or social messages that might pertain to Zimbabwe or the world today. The songs on the album develop more universal themes about the pointlessness of hatred or the temptations of revenge. The footprint is the common theme: It reminds us that we have agency, and the world sees us by the actions we take.

As the lyrics are in Shona, Western ears will miss the direct statement of the themes. But the music conveys the message. Though the crisp interplay of guitar and rhythm section give it tension and drive, it’s also a mellow program, with a calm center. Accentuating this temperament is the presence of Mtukudzi’s son Samson playing the saxophone.

“He’s a very talented boy,” Mtukudzi says of the 19-year-old Samson, whose warm and round saxophone tone reflects the influence of South African jazz. “I guess it’s because he just grew up with the inspiration right at home. I haven’t used the saxophone or any wind instruments in my music for a long time.”

It’s impossible to speak with Tuku and not bring up the difficult pass his country finds itself in. He’s gracious in addressing the topic, though he disclaims any political expertise and steers well clear of formulating a specific critique. “When journalists interview politicians, they never talk about my career,” he says. “They want me to talk about politics. But, of course, I can’t run away from who I am and from my environment.”

And right now that environment is deeply disrupted: “People survive, but it’s tough when you wake up in the morning and you want to get a loaf of bread for your children, and the price has changed and you can’t afford it. But even in the queues you find people with smiles on their faces. I call it a miracle.”

“I don’t even know how it should be solved,” Mtukudzi adds. But, of course, as a well-known Zimbabwean with some income from outside the country, he is called upon to be part of the solution himself, by helping the people around him make ends meet. It’s a burden of solidarity shared by the many expatriate Zimbabweans who come to his shows when he tours overseas.

One contribution of which Mtukudzi is especially proud is the arts center he has been building in his hometown of Norton, a small farming community about 45 minutes from the capital, Harare. It’s called Pakare Paye, or “that place,” and it’s a facility where young artists can study, rehearse, and record under the expert supervision of Mtukudzi and his colleagues.

Mtukudzi says he started the center in part after realizing that the lack of support and facilities he experienced as a young artist continues today. He hopes that the new musicians he’s nurturing will advance Zimbabwean music long after the current social and economic difficulties have passed.

“Creativity has got nothing to do with the economy,” he says. “The business side, after you have created, is where the problems come. But art is who we are. Art is the person himself. Art is life.”