Oliver Mtukudzi,
Vhunze Moto
(Putumayo, 2002)

The music of Oliver Mtukudzi on his newest release, Vhunze Moto, brings to the mind unfamiliar with the structure and way of life of modern African society a wealth of imagery, thought-provoking issues and engaging melody and rhythm. There is much to consider, to chew on here.

Behind what would seem to be familiar African music similar to that we've heard for many decades now, there is a new voice emerging to describe an African way of life, Zimbabwean in particular, and its experience. Mtukudzi, known affectionately as Tuku, does this with the aplomb of a poet, in much the same way that Bob Dylan was considered the poet of rock not so long ago.

For example? The first song with its winsome melody is titled "Ndakuvara (I am hurt)." The song is about a man asking people to call his wife because he has been injured by a young ox he was trying to train. Although he had watched it admiringly, it turned out to be the one that injured him. The liner notes tell us, "Tuku is saying that we should not take anything in life for granted. You may end up getting painful surprises." A song about an ox. The reality of being gored. The modern element of the telephone call. And the joy of the music.

At the other end of this spectrum of experience is "Tapera (We have been decimated)." The song is a call to mature men to face more seriously the possibility of getting AIDS when they get carried away, feel unashamed and carefree, and decide to go forward into the bridge abutment of a "good time" with a young woman who may infect them.

Dedicated to the memory of Albert Kapondoro, the words adjure the mature community of men to "advise each other/we have been decimated/we have been decimated." Today's Africa -- the animal and the telephone call. The tribal advisory by an elder about a sexually transmitted disease. Paradox. Poverty. But, oh, the riches! Messages carried by songs as by drums. Music that lulls and charms us with repetitive melodic simplicity, but a simplicity that changes hearts, turns lives around. It is said, "The truth is simple. Falsity is ever complex."

Exploring deeper into this music one wants to learn of its maker. He is a man who has caused Bonnie Raitt to proclaim, ""It is high time the rest of us have a chance to see what has made 'Tuku' such a treasure in his homeland." Another reviewer said he had not been affected so much by a certain Tuku song since hearing the Stones' classic, "Satisfaction."

Tuku is not merely a fine musician and superstar in Zimbabwe; he speaks directly to the heart of African issues by calling for a reverential attitude, a respect of persons, calling on the deepest moral character and on innate dignity to emerge. Consider the song "Gondo." He observes that, "When an eagle misses a chicken, it gets so angry it ends up grabbing even rubbish."

Then he reminds us, no -- more than us, readers of an Internet folk magazine -- he reminds the entire global village in all of humanity's many circumstances and conditions, "You may be poor, but don't be like an eagle which grabs even rubbish. No matter how much suffering you face, don't be like an eagle which grabs rubbish. No matter how distressed you may be, don't be like an eagle which grabs rubbish." And thus he calls a world many of us do not and never will know to a dignity beyond which perhaps many of us are even capable.

Tuku doesn't stop there. Like the writer of a morality play like "Everyman" of centuries past, he uses words and music to speak to our higher selves. With light, charming and heartening music, of guitar, drum and keyboard, of voices and horns, he beguiles us, then without the slightest trace of pedantry, he speaks as a sage saying things like, "You beat your chest feeling all your importance. How will it all end? You look down upon others, despising, as if they are not human beings. How will it all end? ... You don't respect God. What will be the end? ... Do whatever you do in a cultured way. Softly, softly, in a dignified way."

God bless Oliver Mtukudzi, latter-day elder statesmen and poet of a people in a far away foreign country, who lets us all know with a gentle persistence that echoes in the mind, that, ultimately, we are all family. When the waves toss the boat up high and all on deck are terrified by the gale force of divine might, when the oppressor is firing suddenly on us all -- there is no black nor white. Yes. God bless Oliver Mtukudzi and his music very much ... and Putomayo World Music for bringing him to the world.

Mtukudzi is accompanied by his backup band, the Black Spirits, with Sam Mataure on drums, Never Mpofu on bass, Philani Dube on lead, Richard Matimba on keyboards, Kenny Neshamba on congas, Picky Kasamba on vocals and bongos, and Mwendi Chibindi and Mary Bell on vocals and hoshos. Guest musicians include Steve Dyer on soprano sax, Paul Hammer on keyboards and Japan Sidoyi on Hammond organ.

- Rambles
written by John Cross
published 18 January 2003

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