Oliver Mtukudzi – African Soul Rebel

“Music is life. Music gives hope to people. Without people there is no music”. Oliver Mtukudzi’s logic is clear and economical. They are the words of a musician whose career has been inexorably linked with Zimbabwe’s tumultuous history.

Yet from his 1975 debut single, Stop After Orange to today’s performances, he has tried to emphasize the intrinsic quality of music as its own entity, as something above politics. When I ask him about music’s function as a political tool, he replies,

“I wouldn’t understand the word ‘politics’ itself. In my culture music gives information, it gives hope, it gives life to the people. That is the reason for a song.”

In the context of Zimbabwe’s independence and postcolonial struggles, ‘information’ may inevitably be political, but Oliver’s message has always been rooted in social issues – the people come first. Dzandimonotera was Mtukudzi’s first big hit, produced in 1977 with Thomas Mapfumo and the Wagon Wheels Band. The song depicted the black population’s struggle under the oppressive white minority regime. It established Mtukudzi as a singer with substance.

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In 1979 Mtukudzi went solo and formed his own band, The Black Spirits. A group of stylish, young ghetto boys, they fast became icons. And today, some 56 albums later, Mtukudzi remains a major figure in African music. Inspired by Zimbabwean traditional chimurenga, JIT music and South African mbaqanga, the Black Spirits produce liquid, guitar-based melodies that gravitate around Mtukudzi’s weighty voice and lyrics.

I ask him what makes him happy in life. The answers are as abrupt as my question.

“To be alive the next day” he states. I wait for him to continue. He does, after a long pause. “Just living”, he adds. “Having life”, he concludes. The simplicity of his response has the desired effect. I think of Zimbabwe, and its long troubles.

Right now Oliver Mtukudzi is touring the UK with fellow African Soul Rebels Senegalese legend Baaba Maal, and Obama favourites Extra Golden. “The idea of this tour is great. It shows how versatile African music is. We are traveling as three different groups, totally unique, but still as Africans.” Mtukudzi describes Baaba Maal as ‘a true African’, adding “there’s no doubt in his music.” Clearly, he relishes playing on a pan-African bill. “We click in our music. As Africans, we share the same sentiments. We are one and the same people.”

One thing is certain, listening to Mtukudzi is an educational experience. Throughout his career he has used the richness of the Shona language and his super-melodic music to carry metaphors and ideas that have provided Zimbabweans with a sense of identity and self-belief. Gracing the front cover of Time magazine a few years back, he was described as the ‘Voice of the Voiceless’.

Mondomix

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Tunng with Tinariwen – Soho meets the Sahara

The BBC Radio 3 ‘Late Junction’ session was a grand experiment. Saharan desert blues legends Tinariwen shared the Maida Vale studio with Soho-based folktronica group Tunng to record three songs for broadcast in February 2009. The results were dazzling.

“We sat down together in a circle”, explains Mike Lindsay from Tunng.“The third tune we made kind of came out of jamming that led into an eight minute trance. Someone pressed play and then eventually stop on the recorder. It was a real ‘wow’ moment.”

“Then someone had an idea to go further and actually organize a tour together”, says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni from Tinariwen, “We were keen on the idea, because as musicians, it’s very important to interact with and learn from other musicians.”

I ask them how their different sounds complement each other.

Abdallah: “It’s clear that their music is very different from ours, but it’s very open too. It’s the kind of music that invites other musicians and other sounds to join in.”

Mike: “The recordings together were very fresh, almost a new music entirely. In some instances we’ll need to be careful not to go overboard on certain electronics.” Mike is sensitive to the cultural and musical differences between the groups. Tinariwen’s distinctive desert blues, whose fans include Thom Yorke and Bono, is charged with powerful electric guitar chords and singing that carries the full weight of their message. Their music encompasses their mission: to raise awareness for desert peoples living in political and economic isolation in the southern Sahara. You can easily imagine their songs resonating across vast desert plains.

Tunng, on the other hand, fuse delicate electronic touches with contemporary folky sounds. Hearing the melodies that underscore their songs, it comes as no surprise to learn that Tunng member Sam Genders is a big Beatles fan. Both bands’ originality stems from the collective groups of individuals producing their music. I ask them how their environment has inspired them as artists and what currently influences them.

Abdallah: “Everything we sing, every word we say, everything we think and do has been shaped by the Sahara. The Sahara is our home, our cradle, our teacher and our inspiration. Until most of us were adults, we didn’t know anything except the Sahara.”

Mike: “Being in London hasn’t really influenced our music. Perhaps subconsciously the city has influenced the urban electronic work me and Phil (Winter) come up with. Other influences; dodgy ‘80s powerpop, Journey, Electric Light Orchestra. And I’m not really joking! We listen to all sorts. Moondog recently. All sorts of Latin percussion. Deerhoof.”

The ensemble, which features three members of Tinariwen, have spent some intense time together preparing their set before the tour kicks off. Their music encompasses “entirely different subject matters” says Mike.

Abdallah admits, “I can’t claim that I really understood Tunng’s music before”. Will the universal language of music transcend these enormous differences? On their own, both these bands have had an extraordinary impact crossing genres and reaching new audiences. This collaborative effort promises to be inspiring.

Mondomix