Zimbabwe: Chimurenga & Tuku Music


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In all the focus the Western world has placed on the individual, it has lost sight of the family—both immediate and extended versions, encompassing the members of a shared culture. In part that's due to the mass commercialization of culture, and the fragmentation of the family unit certainly doesn't help. We are more lonely than we realize.

It's a mistake to categorize a whole continent, but the myriad cultures that make up Africa tend to have a broader social perspective. Tribal culture emphasizes the family unit and the spirits of one's ancestors; it also promotes a shared sense of identity. Even in the aftermath of colonialism, the people of Africa have retained this inclusive world view.

What's particularly remarkable is that African culture, and its music in particular, has managed for the most part to retain its ancestral roots while incorporating European and New World elements. Witness the birth of Afro-beat in West Africa: this style owes as much to American funk as it does to traditional drumming and vocal styles. The fusion betrays neither culture.

Finally, it's important to consider the message of African music, particularly forms from the western and southern areas of the continent. It's a far cry from the self-centered indulgence of the plastic pop that has saturated the American market. Youssou N'Dour sings about pollution and liberation; Fela Kuti about love and violence; Prince Nico about free education and his mother. These musicians have succeeded because their audience respects their message.

Which brings us to the two artists under consideration, both popular musicians from the southern country of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has a deep musical heritage rooted in Shona tribal culture, revolving around the mbira (also known as the thumb piano) and hosho (shaker). Shona music traditionally serves as a medium for social and spiritual awareness, manifested in part by its striking trance-like quality and interlocking rhythms. The key that makes it magical is its lyrical content, which constitutes a primary basis for discriminating good from great musicians. High Shona dwells in a highly symbolic and abstract form of poetry that conveys multiple meanings and shades of color.

Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi both practice a contemporary update of Shona music, colored by idioms from South and West Africa, New World styles like reggae and jazz, and modern production. The two men were both members of a group called the Wagon Wheels in the late '70s. Their syncretic vision has resulted in a rather large collection of multi-hued recordings, but the threads of tradition never sink from prominence. Both artists emphasize poetic lyrics and a message of social awareness. Both rely on guitars to replace the traditional polyphony of the mbira, overlaid on a deceptively simple harmonic framework. And both have inspired a range of musicians both within and distant from their homeland.

Mapfumo's music has been termed "chimurenga," from the Shona word for "struggle." He spent prison time for political crimes in the '70s, but his first concert after his release was as critical as ever of the regime. Like Nigerian Afro-beat star Fela Kuti, Thomas Mapfumo's message of protest has only grown stronger with time. He celebrated independence in 1978, but his country has been through some rocky times since then. Now is not an easy time to be living in Zimbabwe, as anyone who's been there lately will attest.

Oliver Mtukudzi has also adopted a personal moniker for his sound: Tuku music, from an abbreviated version of his name. Tuku's all about organic softness, in contrast to Mapfumo's harder- edged tone. The lyrics to his songs emphasize tradition, respect, community, and dignity (all predominant in ages-old Shona proverbs), plus attention to the dangers of alcohol and the devastation of AIDS in Africa.

Oliver Mtukudzi
Tuku Music

Oliver Mtukudzi's international breakthrough in recorded music came with the release of Tuku Music five years ago, picked up a year later by Putumayo for American distribution. This is the place to start when diving into Tuku music.

Apparently Bonnie Raitt is a big fan, as evidenced by her indulgent but celebratory introduction to the liner notes. I suppose having a big star's imprint only helps to sell records, which is just as well in this case. These nine tunes have a lyrical sweetness, sensitive without being smooth, gentle without being flaccid, neatly arranged without losing spontaneity. That combination is hard to resist.

About ten musicians contribute to each song, layering guitars, drums, and vocal harmonies in a lushly textured field. Oliver Mtukudzi plays acoustic guitar. The shifting personnel include prominent names from Zimbabwe and South Africa, and it's interesting to listen for the influences of the latter country on Tuku's style. The indigenous (Zulu/Xhosa) music of the area has a distinctive vocal emphasis, and over the course of South Africa's colonization it has been channeled into a mix of church harmonies, string accompaniment, and cyclical structures. All of the above appear regularly here.

Each of these tracks fits together into a greater whole with a surprising degree of consistency. You can hit play just about anywhere and count on hearing that signature gentle sound. "Tsika Dzedzu" has a pastoral feel, emphasized by soft held notes, slurred melodies, and plenty of open space. To be honest, it sounds a little like American folk music translated across the ocean. "Mai Varamba" has a pleasant stuttering rhythm, embellished by guitar accents around the beat and a warm guitar solo by Philani Dube. "Rirongere" features an active rhythm section (Sam Mataure, Tlale Makhene, and Picky Kasamba all play drums), peppering the call-and-response vocals with fresh energy.

Oliver Mtukudzi
Vhunze Moto

The fame Oliver Mtukudzi earned with Tuku Music did not ever dissipate. His reformed Black Spirits band, nine musicians centered around emphatic guitar, percussion, and vocal elements, lend support here. The music has Tuku's characteristic warmth and home-grown organicity, but it's tempered by heavier production that brightens and evens out the sound. (As a parenthetical note, it's interesting to see how drastically production can alter the results of vocal performance, particularly among musicians who aren't attuned to technical aspects. Mtukudzi co-produced this one, so have no fear.)

Vhunze Moto means "burning embers" in Mtukudzi's native Shona language, and while the singer is always focused on messages that build culture and community, this record spends quite a bit of time in darkness. Songs like "Kucheneka" mask a message (the title means "don't kill me") with rhyhmically textured lightness and strategically placed instrumentals. Its conclusion respects family unity and character, but Tuku chooses a sharp medium for the delivery. Ironically enough, if you don't speak Shona, you wouldn't have any idea any of this was going on. Tuku, like Mapfumo, has a brilliant way of masking serious messages within a context of lilt and warmth.

The record's emphasis on production comes through on "Moto Moto," which drifts along at a relaxed pace but loses a bit of freshness through the overdecoration of its quieter moments. Steve Dyer's soprano saxophone tends to fall into this rut, though it does add color and a jazzy element. South African jazz star Paul Hanmer takes a central role on the ironically laid-back "Tapera" ("we have been decimated") with a pedal-rich gospel foundation. Tuku's tremulous vocals shake with emotion, which is entirely appropriate given its message about AIDS awareness.

The most striking feature of Oliver Mtukudzi's recordings is one that's mostly lost on English speaking listeners, though these records do a good job at communicating both the literal and metaphorical message of his poetry. Like any great singer, Mtukudzi conveys almost as much through his tone, depth, and melodicism as he does through his words. And that part transcends any cultural boundaries.

Thomas Mapfumo and Blacks Unlimited

In his roles as poet, musician, and political figure, Thomas Mapfumo was well-known in Zimbabwe when he recorded Corruption, his 1989 entry onto the international stage. To his credit, the record retains a very strong roots element. The first notes on the record sound eerily like a mbira crossing melodies back and forth, though apparently they're coming from a keyboard. When the (electric) guitars enter, it's clear that there's nothing simple going on here. But despite the richness of texture (many voices both string and percussion) the overall sound never becomes overcomplicated. As usual, Mapfumo's edgy and multi-timbral voice brings everything together into a lyrical whole.

"Varombo Kuvarombo" adopts a Caribbean playfulness, complete with steel drum sounds, alternating rhythms, and horn fanfares. Interestingly enough, the song ("the poor to the poor") aims its sights directly at the barriers between affluence and poverty. As on every track on the record but one (the exception: "Handina Munyama," translating to "I am not unlucky"), Mapfumo's vocals do not shy from openly discussing controversy, power, war, and infidelity. If you don't speak Shona, you can get the gist from the liner notes, which quite honestly is enough when you open your mind to Mapfumo's emotionally connected vocals.

The title track draws once again from Caribbean sources, a distinctly prominent after-beat echoing throughout. It's in English, and the lyrics help explain why corrupt governments might not think kindly of the artist. "Something for something, nothing for nothing" goes the refrain, and like all Shona poetry it holds meanings on many levels. Music that makes you think is always good, if you ask me. Music that heralds social change is nothing short of revolutionary.

Mapfumo is backed by his Blacks Unlimited band, a constant throughout his '80s work. The group has a surprisingly intuitive sense of cohesion, tending toward an unshakable momentum even in times of lightness and color. Taken as a package, the music is deeply moving and fresh. No wonder people woke up and took notice of chimurenga. Nearly 20 records later, Mapfumo is still going strong, as versatile as ever.

(Note: this record may not be easy to find, but it's not particularly hard either, and well worth the effort.)

Thomas Mapfumo

This collection resurrects Mapfumo's early to mid-'80s Earthworks recordings that went dormant for too long before they reached an international audience. Around Zimbabwe's independence, the undisputed king of chimurenga was at a creative peak, supported by a group that understood his music and his message.

Mapfumo represented a return to roots for popular music in Zimbabwe, as expressed through his use of the Shona language (though not exclusively), constant reinvention of the mbira (thumb piano), and regular use of rhythms derived from the hosho (shaker). He also brought a multicultural openness to the music through his eager incorporation of styles from the Caribbean, West and South Africa.

Mapfumo makes no secret of his respect for tradition on "Taireva" ("we used to say"), a direct assimilation of mbira sonorities and traditional vocals (for example, the "huro" yodeling style). For various reasons, the instrumentation has been updated: the mbira is replaced by criss-crossing guitar lines, the shaker reconstituted with cymbals and hand-claps. Obviously there's no point in even getting started on this endeavor unless you are a serious student of Shona music, and Mapfumo acquits himself in a resounding fashion. (Likewise, "Dangurangu" assembles a modern update to ancestral tribal music.)

It's been noted by critics before, but Mapfumo shares a certain unresolved paradox with the music of Jamaica. Like reggae, with its easy swaying rhythms and generally upbeat energy, chimurenga music rests on a foundation of joy and lightness. But also like reggae, the messages embodied in each song are often somber or critical. That contrast helps give the music a resonant energy. It provides for enjoyment on many levels, and it rewards attention. In the end, it's all the unresolved vision of poetry, which just so happens to be the central aspect of Shona music. Mapfumo remains true to his roots.

Related links

Shona music : four mbira records reviewed.

Oliver Mtukudzi:
Sheer Sound
The Leopard Man

Thomas Mapfumo:
The Leopard Man

Sterns Music

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