Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tuku Music!

by Susan Kepecs
Afropop superstar Oliver Mtukudzi – they call him Tuku in his native Zimbabwe – reportedly died last December.  But hallelujah!  The rumors were patently false.  Mtukudzi celebrates the pre-release of his SIXTY-FIRST album, Sarawoga, this Friday at the Wisconsin Union Theater at the Sett, Union South. 
Mtukudzi was in Madison, on the Union Theater World Stage, with the second Acoustic Africa tour in February, 2011.  That time I managed to get an interview with him; this time around, no such luck.  When I first posted this piece I didn't even have the info on whether or not Mtukudzi was coming with his regular backup band, the Black Spirits, or if Sarawoga would be available for sale at the show.  Now, thanks to Ryan Dawes at rock paper scissors, inc., here's a news flash: there will be four of the seven Black Spirits with "Tuku" on this tour -- and yes, they'll play some tunes from Sarawoga, and you'll be able to buy the album.  
      Besides that, all I can tell you this: he was great in 2011 – definitely my favorite in the Acoustic Africa lineup.  On that point I may be biased; I discovered Miriam Makeba when I was a teenage beatnik, and I’ve had a jones for the music of southern Africa ever since.  The "Tuku" brand is exciting – it has echoes of the Township sound, but it’s flavored with other spices. Mtukudzi, a master guitarist, created his sound from Zimbabwe’s polyphonic m’bira, chimurenga (Zimbabwean social justice music), the swift Harare beat called jit and the much more familiar South African mbaquanga, itself a mix of Zulu jive and township jazz with Xhosa tribal twists.     
“There’s a lot of different styles in southern Africa,” Mtukudzi told me in 2011.  “The border that splits us doesn’t matter.  The same tribes are everywhere in the area – these people are the same people, and their art overlaps the borders.” 
Mtukudzi’s career began in the late 1970s, when Zimbabwe was still Southern Rhodesia, under British colonial rule.  He was active in the resistance to white rule, and in his early days he penned some liberation songs.  Roberto Mugabe, a leader of that resistance, became the new independent Republic of Zimbabwe’s first prime minister in 1980, and then its president.  (At 89 he’s still Zimbabwe’s president, though he’s up for re-election this year). 
Mugabe overplayed his hand, at least in the eyes of the all-powerful First World elites; his avid land redistribution policies of the late 1990s resulted in the withdrawal of European support.  Zimbabwe’s economy crashed.
When Mtukudzi’s “Wasakara” – it means “you’re getting old” – came out, on his album Bvuma, released in 2001, Zimbabweans understood it as a plea for Mugabe to step down. It became an anthem for the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change.  Mugabe at that time was a Marxist strongman, but not yet a despot – his heavy-handed crackdowns on the MDC came later, in the face of elections in 2005 and 2008. 
According to the all-knowing Internet Mtukudzi’s 2001 Shona lyrics, adpoted by the MDC, go more or less like this: “Accept it, you are old.  Admit it, you are wrinkled, you are worn out.  What does it mean to get old?”
And from that, people deduced that at the start of the new millinneum “Tuku music” was as political as it had been in the late 1970s.  It’s something Mtukudzi denies.  “The song is about getting old,” he told me.  “The opposition party used that one line from that one song to suit themselves.”
Mtukudzi insists that his postcolonial songs aren’t political.  Still, he said, music can be used as a tool.  His songs carry social messages about the plight of women, or standing up and taking responsibility, or the devastation of AIDS, or appreciating what one has.  He sings his substance-laden lyrics in a slightly gravelly tenor, laying the words over irresistable, hip circlin’, booty-shakin’ dance music.  It sweetens the message, and drives it home.  

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