Oliver Mtukudzi: Shanda

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He made the cover of Time magazine in March of 2003, and he's attracted a lot of listeners outside the following in his home country, but it's an unfortunate fact that most people haven't ever heard of Oliver Mtukudzi.

When John and Louise Riber decided to make a movie about the Zimbabwean pop star, they came upon the idea of a music video with a running documentary, and that's what ended up as Shanda. The key word there is music, and that's the first and foremost reason to check out the film. The performance aspect is second, and the running documentary is third, in that order. Your options include DVD and/or CD.

Over the course of more than twenty years (and forty original records) "Tuku" has evolved from polyester bellbottoms and a brash stage strut to elegant African threads and more of a swaying posture, though it's possible he pulls out the old clothes now and then just for fun. He made his professional debut in 1977, three years before Zimbabwe's independence, and he has stayed the course through good and um, not very good times.

"We must help each other," he says, and it's not hard to believe him. In the culture of his native Shona people, the message of the music is absolutely essential, and it's expected that lyrics be composed with an ear for poetry. The proverb, the metaphor, and the symbol substitute for more blunt exposition. That can be useful when you're a revolutionary (the government doesn't "get" what you're saying with your music) or when you advocate teaching by example (so the wise man will recognize that being a father means more than having a child).

There are two ways to enjoy the DVD. Either simply press play or select "Music Only," and you can skip the words. If you choose regular mode, you'll get some history on the artist, some "Oliver with friends and family" shots, and moments of both common sense and higher meditation from the man himself. All of that comes in small chunks interspersed between club performance videos, bringing Mtukudzi into focus on several levels at once. (If you choose music only, you lose the interruptions. The CD, as expected, is something of a soundtrack.)

The songs here feel less polished than what Mtukudzi's done in the studio lately, but they are after all put together from live performance in Zimbabwe. In any case, they're as inspired as ever. English is not the main language here, so don't expect to understand the lyrics, but you'll find that aspect is not a deterrent to more straightforward enjoyment of the music itself. Besides, you can watch the movie with subtitles on to see translations of most of the African stuff.

Tuku's Black Spirits band features the leader on guitar and vocals, plus eight supporting players, including three percussionists/drummers. The backing vocals are friendly and inviting, avoiding too much predictability without becoming difficult. (Audience members seem to be prone to sing along, but you only get to hear the band.) The lead guitarist (Piulani Dube) has an amazing talent with stringing short, rhythmic phrases together into a meaningful whole, and together with keyboardist Richard Matimba and bassist Never Mpofu he puts together criss-crossing lines that feel like Shona mbira music and convey the same rhythmic energy as West African highlife.

But this isn't some high-falutin' artistic event. Tuku's style is very organic and folksy, and he doesn't like to hog the spotlight. The Black Spirits respect each other's space and play well together, as it were. Shanda is not a high-budget film, so you won't see the kind of polish and production that better funded movies would offer. But that's not the point, in any case. It's Mtukudzi and his music, which are simply beautiful and not the least bit pretentious.

Related articles at AAJ:

Shona Mbira Music : four mbira records reviewed
Chimurenga and Tuku Music : Thomas Mapfumo & Oliver Mtukudzi


Oliver Mtukudzi @ music.org.za
Oliver Mtukudzi @ afropop.org
Oliver Mtukudzi @ Sheer Sound
Oliver Mtukudzi @ Frank Bessem's Musiques d'Afrique
Oliver Mtukudzi @ The Leopard Man
Putumayo World Music
Alula Records

Shanda (2004, DVD, 68 minutes, color)

  • Director: John Riber
  • Producers: John and Louise Riber
  • Subtitles: English and French
  • 37 minute "music only" option
  • DVD Extras: Music video; Making "Shanda"; How We Met; Happy Birthday Tutu
  • 8 page color booklet (only with CD+DVD Special Edition)

Shanda (2004, CD, 73 minutes)

  • Shanda
  • Mutavara
  • Zimbabwe
  • Gudo Guru
  • Bvongodza Muto
  • Zvauya Sei?
  • Strange, Isn't It?
  • Jeri
  • Ndakuyambira
  • Hear Me Lord

Visit Alula Records on the web.

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