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Message Man 

Zimbabwe's Oliver Mtukudzi sings songs that encourage social and political change -- and dancing.

If Chuck Berry were an African, his stage presence might resemble that of Zimbabwean superstar Oliver Mtukudzi. As the front man for his band, the Black Spirits, Mtukudzi often performs in the kinds of sparkling sequin shirts fancied by the father of rock 'n' roll, and his pan-African sounds are no less invigorating. But unlike the eternal teenager, Mtukudzi's music reflects more than a single era. As one of Africa's most prolific writers and musicians, Tuku, as he is affectionately known in his motherland, has created a lasting sound that spans the 25-year-old history of one of southern Africa's most dynamic nations.

Emerging from the political fire that is currently embroiling Zimbabwe, Tuku is coming out hot. His new release, Vhunze Moto (Putumayo World Music), translates from the legend's native Shona tongue to "Burning Embers," an ample metaphor for the socio-political transformations currently taking place in Zimbabwe. Inspired by the soulful and socially conscious sounds of Otis Redding, Bob Marley, and the stick-drummers of his Korekore tribe, Tuku has documented the history of a young nation still in search of its identity. "The biggest challenge today is culture maintenance," says Mtukudzi in a phone interview from Zimbabwe, as he prepared to embark on his second major U.S. tour. "A culture is created by its people, and that always changes. Right now it is running away too fast."

Tuku should know. As one of Zimbabwe's rising musicians, he warmed the stage at the nation's independence for the guest of honor, Bob Marley, in a historic musical gala celebrating the country's liberation from white rule in 1980. However, more than 20 years after the second chimurenga, or uprising, Zimbabweans continue to experience repression. President Robert Mugabe, who has been pushing a controversial land-reform program in Zimbabwe that has devastated the country's economy, was recently reelected in an event that many say was rigged. Mugabe has also enacted a number of draconian laws that restrict personal freedoms. "Right now, there is confusion," says Tuku, whose subtle yet politically potent songs have been used by the country's opposition party to encourage change. "I expect people to fight back, but they are not! People are cool and quiet."

Cool and quiet are two things that Tuku is not. Despite being censored in the past by the government, he continues to perform his dance-inspiring songs throughout Zimbabwe, promoting tolerance and understanding. "If there is one thing that people of different ideas and different ideals are able to share, it is music," he says diplomatically. "I have to perform for them to neutralize the tension."

"Tuku Music," as his style has become widely known, can be heard from the shabeens of the African bush -- where men dance and drink homebrewed beer illegally -- to Harare's vibrant nightspots, where the nation's elite converge to talk politics over what is truly a global sound. Backed by the glorious vocals of Mwendi Chibindi and Mary Bell, the rhythm and harmonies of the Black Spirits represent a near-perfect welding of African and Western musical concepts.

An inexhaustible lyricist, Tuku often uses subtle metaphors to provide social commentary -- a technique he gleaned from the countless proverbs inherent in the Shona language. Drawing from the agricultural roots of his people, Tuku's lyrics express the hardships of daily life in the rural areas, where most Zimbabweans reside. "Vhunze Moto means that an ember is also a fire," he says, noting that most women cook over open flames. "If you touch an ember you will get burned. If you touch a fire you will get burned. So why wait until it burns you to call it fire?" he asks. The underlying message is clear to those who long for change in the region. "I talk about everyday living," says Tuku. "Change is not drastic, it does not happen overnight."

Mtukudzi remains undaunted by subjects long considered taboo in African cultures, such as the AIDS pandemic, which has claimed relatives and band members close to the artist. "It cannot go on ignored," he says. "You can't build up a nation with the AIDS virus." He also encourages dialogue between the highly divided population of Zimbabwe -- those who support the government and those who do not. "If we are to move forward, we have to respect the other, and the other's feelings," says Tuku, who is regarded by Zimbabweans as an elder statesman.

Vhunze Moto remains at the top of the Zimbabwean music charts despite the political turmoil that continues to haunt the country, and it is a positive message that Tuku hopes to bring to U.S. audiences. "I think that there is a lot of propaganda that has gone out there to America," he says, noting that visions of war and AIDS are often the only images of Africa presented to Westerners.

"I wish more acts from Zimbabwe were able to go there and tell the real story of our people," says Tuku, ending the conversation with a trademark proverb and an invitation to his upcoming performance: "Seeing is believing."

click to enlarge 'If there is one thing that people of different ideas and different ideals are able to share, it is music.' -- Oliver Mtukudzi
  • 'If there is one thing that people of different ideas and different ideals are able to share, it is music.' -- Oliver Mtukudzi
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