Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits
By Grant Britt
“Do you have to die to be a hero?” Not if your name is Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi. From the moment he strolled onstage at Duke University's 572 seat Reynolds Theater Friday night for a sold out concert, it was clear Mtukudzi was a living, honest to God hero.
The 60-year-old Zimbabwe native addressed the hero question in his opening number, “Andinzwi." That question has been answered over the course of his 61 album career as Tuku has become a musical ambassador for his country and an outspoken advocate against government corruption.
Since Mtukudzi sings mostly in his native Shona language, the strong political content sometimes gets lost on foreign audiences because his music is so upbeat and lilting. But even if you don't understand the words, the music still speaks to your soul and your feet.
From the time he came onstage, Mtukudzi never stopped strumming his acoustic guitar, providing a mix of lead and rhythm so seamless it seemed impossible to be flowing from one person. He never stopped moving , marching in place while playing, like a low key version of AC/DC frontman Angus Young without the head banging.
“Where we come from, we use music to diffuse tension,” Mtukudzi said. The Black Spirits made sure of that, providing a tension shattering, funky backbeat worthy of a world-class, old school r&b band. Drummer Samson Mataure's work would guarantee him a slot as any classic soul man's beatkeeper, his style funky enough to back James Brown in his heyday. Bassist Enock Piroro provided a smooth, gently throbbing undertone that held the mix together without poking holes in the gossamer fabric woven by Mtukudzi's light fingered plucking. Strovers Maswobe's congas provided perfect counterpoint without being intrusive. Vocalist Mary Bell helped sand down the rough edges of Mtukudzi's gruff but soulful utterances. Maswobe, Bell and Piroro doubled on vocals as well, laying down ethereal four part harmony with Mtukudzi.
“Hear Me Lord,” the only other song he sang in English, is an upbeat number that belies its lyrics. “Help me Lord, I'm feeling low,” he cries, but you sure can't tell it from the beat, a romping, leaping rhythm that's made to move your feet to. And this bunch does, Mtukudzi springing around like a man half his age, swooping and prancing as he plays, scattering shimmering notes across the stage like broken glass.
Fans of afropop may notice a similarity between fellow South African croaker Mahlathini and his backing group the Mahotella Queens as well as the guitar of Ray Phiri and the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It's slinky, wiggly, good time music, with irresistible rhythms that Mtududzi may change up several times in a song without losing the flow, his acoustic guitar jingling against a fluid, polyrhythmic backbeat for unique sound dubbed Tuku music.
It's hard to take sitting down, and about an hour into the show, the crowd can't take it anymore. A row of shimmying, swaying dancers pops up in the back of the theater. The feeling quickly spreads and soon half the auditorium is on its feet clapping and dancing in place. Several women in the audience have been ululating throughout the show, giving out with the piercing, trilling yells traditionally used by African women at weddings or celebrations. Bell contributes her own trills, and soon has the audience answering her back, wild cries echoing from all over the house.
The band picks up the pace, putting on a lively piece of dance theater involving each member taking turns stomping an imaginary (one hopes) cockroach before the drummer puts an end to the impromptu choreography by coming out from behind his kit, picking up the little beastie and pretending to eat it. Maswobe then demonstrates an impressive series of rubber-legged dance steps, legs intertwined in a mix of buck dancing and some borrowed James Brown goodfoot slippage.
"As artists, we only bring the music,” Mtukudzi said before leaving the stage.“We'd be nothing without you guys.” Its a statement befitting a hero, with the music to back it up.