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Zimbabwe: Chimurenga & Tuku Music

AAJ Staff By

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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.


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