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Oliver Mtukudzi at Yoshi's San Francisco

Harry S. Pariser By

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Oliver Mtukudzi & the Black Spirits
Yoshi's Jazz Club
San Francisco
July 21, 2013
"Where we come from," the guitarist Oliver Mtukudzi tells the audience at Yoshi's in San Francisco, "music is like food. You can have it for breakfast, lunch and supper. Where we come from, you don't have to sing a song when you have nothing to say." He might well have added "Where we come from, music is a good time groove, but it also has deep cultural roots."

Mtukudzi hails from Zimbabwe, the African nation which was in the midst of controversial elections as he spoke. Mtukudzi plays an elegant acoustic guitar with pickup; he sings largely in Shona, Zimbabwe's most predominant language, and sometimes in Ndebele and English as well. A member of the Kore-Kore subgroup of the Shona, Mtukudzi is one of the nation's most preeminent musicians. Recently, he has been on tour in Europe, the U.S., Canada and Japan to promote his CD Sarawoga (Putumayo, 2013),

Sorrow prefaced this tour. Tragedy struck on March 15, 2010 when Mtukudzi lost his 22- year-old son Sam in an auto accident. A guitarist, saxophonist and Zimbabwean youth role model due to release his second CD, Sam Mtukudzi was an integral part of his father's ensemble. Mtukudzi took the loss hard, especially since Sam was just returning from a fruitless trip to pick up his father at the airport. (Mtukudzi had changed his flight.) The result, after a period of hibernation, is Sarawoga, a tribute to his son and his 61st musical release.

Although "Sarawoga" may be Shona for "to be left alone" (a reflection of how he felt after his son's death), Mtukudzi was anything but alone while on stage. For this tour, he assembled a stellar group of musicians. Zivanani Masango, an accomplished performer in his own right, played electric guitar, providing the electric bite enhancing Mtukudzi's feisty rhythms. Bassist Enok Piroro, Strovers Masowbe (on congas, cowbell and mounted bongos) and Sam Matature (on drums) filled out the rhythm section. Background vocalists Alice Muringayi and Fiona Gwena provided harmonies and percussion.

On Wednesday, these musicians took the stage. All wore white shirts, while the women were in white blouses. Mtukudzi, who entered last, wore a gray shirt with shiny grayish- blue pants. Lanky and thin, he has remained limber and animated on stage.

The band launched into "Mupfumi Ndiani," once a hit in Zimbabwe. "Although you may have a granary spilling over with wealth, and a cattle pen bursting with livestock, without health you are a poor person," the Shona lyrics asserted. Mtukudzi fingered his guitar in his trademark fashion, dispensing the exotic, evocative riffs which are his trademark. While Masowbe tapped a cow bell, the backup singers Muringayi and Gwena swayed back and forth, their pendulous earrings undulating in time. During "Ndipeiwo Zano," a revolutionary war-era song, Mtukudzi practiced his moves on the attentive audience. At one point he shimmied, moving his arms in an elaborate shuffle; then, accompanied solely by congas, he slowed down to a crawl.

"Hear Me Lord," the next tune, one which has been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, was prefaced by an extended rap. "You can find us singing all day long at a wedding, and you can find us singing all night long at a funeral. And we always make sure that we use music to defuse the tension."

The tune was nothing if not poignant: "Help me Lord, I'm feeling low

Have mercy, have mercy on me

Help me Lord, Help me I pray."

But the atmosphere was anything but morose. A Zimbabwean waved his cap and danced merrily, while others danced by their seats and in the aisles. The two backup singers swayed in time.

The rollicking, percussive and eminently danceable "Muchatuta" followed. Introducing "Wasakara" ("You're Growing Old"), Mtukudzi told the audience that "I came to the conclusion that...life is what you make it." The song was allegedly written for Robert Mugabe, who was to win the election yet one more time.

Out in the audience, one dancer broke loose and showed her stuff. A Zimbabwean put his finger in his mouth and let loose a series of whistles in tandem with synchronized foot movements.

The lively "Mutserendende" followed. "Topeza" rounded out the set, as Mtukudzi called out the names of the band members. Following a standing ovation, the group returned for "Ndima Napedza" and an evening of "Tuku Music" drew to a close.

Afterwards, out in the lobby, Mtukudzi autographed CDs and concert tickets for a number of highly enthused fans. Truly "Tuku Music" transcends all boundaries.

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