Zimbabwean singer shares the story of his people

CorrespondentJanuary 17, 2013 

Oliver Mtukudzi & The Black Spirits will play Reynolds Industries Theater Friday night.

COURTESY OF LIAM LYNCH

  • More information Who: Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits When: 8 p.m. Friday Where: Reynolds Industries Theater, 125 Science Dr., Durham Cost: $26-$32 ($10 for Duke students) Details: 919-660-3356; dukeperformances.duke.edu

At 60 and with 60 some-odd albums to his credit, it’s safe to say that Oliver Mtukudzi is one of the most prolific world-music artists of all time. A veteran Zimbawean performer who’s been making music since the late ’70s, Mtukudzi (or “Tuku,” to his fans) has toured around the world with his band, the Black Spirits, hitting Africa, Canada, the U.K. and, of course, the U.S. of A.

“Well, I think the music carries me on,” says Mtukudzi, on the phone from a hotel room in Boston. “I just play who I am. I just play me. And I’m glad to say we’ve been coming back to America a lot more times, and it’s unbelievably been good.”

Yes, stateside fans, Mtukudzi is currently making the rounds. Last weekend, he and the Spirits entertained audiences in the Big Apple when they played globalFEST 2013 at New York’s Webster Hall. Mtukudzi says he enjoys playing around these parts, since American audiences are always intrigued about the music he performs. “Well, I truly believe they make what they hear, and it leads them to want to find out what I’m talking about in the song,” he says.

Born in a ghetto neighborhood in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, Mtukudzi is famous for making music that’s been described as a combination of South African township pop and the Zimbabwean pop style known as “jit.” But, lyrically, where he sings in his nation’s dominant Shona language, as well as Ndebele and English, he often speaks on behalf of the people. Songs like “Ndakuvara,” and “Wasakara (You Are Getting Old),” have Mtukudzi criticizing the government of aging Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.

With the struggles his people have endured throughout the years, with countrymen fighting and dying for freedom and democracy after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, he has always found material for his music. “Let me put it this way: as long as there are people, there is always something to talk about,” he says. “And if there is something to talk about, there is something is sing about. So, all the inspiration comes from the people.”

His latest album “Sarawoga,” almost didn’t happen. “Well, some of the tracks on ‘Sarawoga,’ were supposed to be collaborations with my son,” he says. In 2010, a car crash took the life of his son Sam, who was also successful musician. “And his passing on made me come up with this title ‘Sarawoga’ – being ‘left alone.’ It’s like being left alone to do the music.”

Mtukudzi is no stranger to losing loved ones. He’s lost his brother Robert, as well as members of his band, to AIDS. (He became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for eastern and southern Africa last year, where he mostly focuses on HIV/AIDS awareness.)

Mtukudzi continues to make music in honor of those he’s lost. Of course, he still enjoys performing. (During the interview, he says audiences should wear their dancing shoes “because it’s not to going to be just a sit-down-and-watch show.”) But Mtukudzi also seeks to express who he is and where he comes from. “The purpose of an artist is to reflect the lives of the people, to showcase which way to go from here,” he says. “So, that’s what I just do… I don’t sing for myself. I sing for them.”

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