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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Oliver Mtukudzi coming to Somerville

Oliver Mtukudzi coming to Somerville

Album releases by Zimbabwean singer, Oliver Mtukudzi, are a rite of summer. Although coming later in the summer than previous releases, this year’s installment, Tsimba Itsoka (Foot Prints) on the Heads Up International Label, lives up to expectations. Mtukudzi’s fusion of traditional and modern sounds, some forged during years of struggle against white rule in his native Zimbabwe, are as popular today as they were in the 1980s, when his music mobilized Zimbabweans to build their newly independent nation. Mtukudzi enjoyed success in film and music on the continent of Africa before he gained recognition in the west on the strength of his 1998 album, “Tuku Music.” This album, which combined melodies rooted in traditional music with socially conscious lyrics, earned many fans including singer, Bonnie Raitt, who hailed Mtukudzi’s music in interviews across the U.S. Since then Mtukudzi has been a fixture in the international world music tour circuit.

News coverage of Zimbabwe in the western media paint a picture of looming disaster, but listeners seeking affirmation of Zimbabwe’s impending catastrophe will find none, at least overtly, in Mtukudzi’s latest album. Unlike his fellow countryman and former band mate Thomas Mapfumo, whose abrasive and politically charged lyrics led to his exile from Zimbabwe, Mtukudzi has focused on traditional proverbs and wise sayings, extracting dual meanings from words using tonality and other devices. It is perhaps because of this ability to manipulate words that Mtukudzi continues to reside and work in Zimbabwe. Tsimba Itsoka was recorded there, in the Pekare Paye Arts Center and Studios in Norton, Zimbabwe, a performance center and recording studio built by Mtukudzi as a way to give back to the community, promote traditional arts and nurture artists at the grassroots.

Tsimba Itsoka drips with seamless transpositions of Mbira sounds on instruments ranging from the acoustic guitar, Mtukudzi’s preferred instrument, to the saxophone, bass guitar, and keyboard. Lilting but accessible melodies and incisive lyrics covering the vast expanse of human experiences complete the mix. With a younger cast of musicians, including Mtukudzi’s son Samson on saxophone, and the gifted Jairo Hambamba on keyboards, Mtukudzi explores new terrain on the album, especially in the direction of jazz. Short but frequent virtuosos by the keyboard and saxophone lend “Ungade We” (Would you like it), an air of jazz, complemented well by Mtukudzi’s solid guitar play. This song, which revolves around the theme of violent crime, is also a cautionary tale about the footprints left behind in one’s journey through life. “How would you like it if you were on the receiving end of your own crimes” Mtukudzi asks. In “Mhinduro” (Reply), an emboldened saxophone displays its full repertoire of grunts and shrieks against the backdrop of an uplifting vocal and instrumental call and response pattern. “Why do you give answers when there are no questions,” he asks in the song, “you are trying to cover your guilty footprints.” Mbiri Hurimbo (Fame is Sticky), and Vachakunonokera (They are going to Delay), both slow and soulful tracks, are also punctuated by long saxophone and keyboard virtuosos.

With the exception of two songs, most of the songs on Tsimba Itsoka are upbeat, high-energy dance numbers. Worthy of mention in this regard is “Njuga” (Gambling Card), a song in which the singer uses a Shona card game as a metaphor for life. “Masimba Shona” (Power) opens slowly, but quickly picks up pace when the guitar is joined by the entire instrument section of Mtukudzi’s band, the Black Disciples. On this track, Mtukudzi delivers his lyrics in a pained wail without the support of the chorus, which is used to great success elsewhere on the album. The sweetest melodies, however, can be found in the mid-tempo, Nzungu Imwe (One Nut) where the saxophone, guitar, and chorus, sustain a simple arrangement to exuberant heights, and Kumirira Nekumirira (Waiting and Waiting), which elaborates on the futility of reacting to circumstances rather than controlling them. “If our feet are not moving, then there’s no footprint for people to follow,” Mtukudzi states in this song.

Oliver Mtukudzi will perform at the Somerville Theater on Friday, October 19, 2007 at 8:00 P.M. Judging from his past performances, this show promises to be every bit as exciting.