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Out of Africa: Oliver Mtukudzi brings his signature Tuku musical style to Kuumbwa on Thursday.

Oliver Mtukudzi's Redemption Songs

The Zimbabwean singer comes to Kuumbwa.

By Andrew Gilbert

The news from the southern African nation of Zimbabwe these days is invariably bad. The economy is in ruins, the nation is beset by one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection and President Robert Mugabe, once considered a hero for leading the successful fight against white minority rule, has become an election-stealing tyrant. That's the painful backdrop for Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi, whose international career has come together at the same time his country has fallen apart. He concludes a brief American tour with several dates in Northern California, including Thursday at Kuumbwa, where he performs with his longtime band, Black Spirits. The guitarist, songwriter and persuasively soulful vocalist has been a hero in Zimbabwe for three decades, with a vast body of uplifting songs in his signature "Tuku music" style. He started gaining a following in North America in the late 1990s through his work for the world music label Putumayo, and in 2005 he joined the high-powered roster of HeadsUp Africa, which includes the long-established international stars Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

His latest album, Tsimba Itsoka, is a musical tour de force that walks a dangerous tightrope between commentary on his homeland's dire situation and outright criticism of Mugabe's regime. Rather than naming names, he asks rhetorical questions, and seeks to guide society in a harmonious direction. For instance, the opening track, "Ungabe' We?," denounces men who mislead innocent youngsters, a barely veiled swipe at leaders who have sown division throughout the country. "My music has helped to unite people and be positive," says Mtukudzi, 55, during a phone interview from South Africa. "My music is trying to help people do things in harmony, and live properly without hurting each other, not to use hatred, which never solved anything."

Throughout his career, Mtukudzi has tried to stay above politics, which is one reason he's been able to remain in the country. "Thomas Mapfumo is in Oregon in exile," says Dave Love, the president of Mtukudzi's label HeadsUp, referring to another giant of Zimbabwean music. "Oliver is the most popular artist in the country, but it's very difficult for him to be outspoken. He doesn't want to be a politician. He wants to remain an artist. Look at what Mugabe's doing. It's a wise decision not to get up and start bashing the government."

What makes Mtukudzi's music so powerful is that he delivers his messages with a gritty vocal style reminiscent of Otis Redding over intricate interlocking patterns adapted for guitar from mbira (a traditional musical form of Zimbabwe's Shona people played on a thumb-piano-like instrument of the same name). Tuku music also incorporates the hard-driving South African mbaqanga beat and the katekwe drumming patterns of his Korekore people.

It's a sound he's been refining for decades. Mtukudzi was already a rising star in 1977 when he joined the popular band Wagon Wheels, which also featured Thomas Mapfumo, who went on to stardom as a solo artist. Mtukudzi transformed the band into Black Spirits in 1979 and produced the epochal album Africa, which firmly established him as the voice of the newly independent nation.

A tremendously prolific artist—he's released more than 40 albums in Zimbabwe—Mtukudzi only started gaining widespread attention in the United States in the mid-1990s, when Bonnie Raitt began championing his music, citing his song "What's Going On" as the inspiration for her tune "One Belief Away" on her 1998 album Fundamental. More importantly, Mtukudzi began working with British producer Steve Dyer, who helped create his 1998 hit album Tuku Music.

Mtukudzi has also been deeply involved in other art forms. He was featured in JIT, the first film with an all-Zimbabwean cast, and played a leading role in Neria, a feature film for which he also wrote and arranged the soundtrack. He wrote and directed the musical Was My Child, a production exploring the plight of street children in Zimbabwe's capital Harare. Lately, he's been producing recordings by other Zimbabwean artists in his new Harare studio. Despite the government's attempts to co-opt his name during the last election, Mtukudzi is confident that he retains the trust of the people.

"My music is one of the very few things that Zimbabweans share equally, no matter where you come from, what color you are, what tastes you have or what party you support," Mtukudzi says. "The aim of my music is to try to unite everyone. And whatever decision you make politically, that's your own baby, but we should do it in harmony, together."

OLIVER MTUKUDZI performs Thursday, Oct. 25, at 7 and 9pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25 adv/$28 door. (831.427.2227)

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