The political news from Zimbabwe these days is invariably bad. The economy is contracting, the nation is beset by one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection and President Robert Mugabe, a one-time hero who led the former Rhodesia from white minority rule to independence in 1980, has become an election-stealing tyrant.
|BAY AREA MUSIC LISTINGS|
|More from the Mercury News
• Summer Guide: Fairs and festivals, recommended entertainment events, travel and fashion tips and more
• Music listings A-Z
• Search for an upcoming concert
• Concerts in San Francisco, South Bay, Peninsula, East Bay, Santa Cruz/Monterey and the North Bay
• Concerts in the next seven days
• Buy and sell tickets
• Visit our Music section
• Search for restaurants, movie reviews and showtimes, theater and dance performances, local attractions, events, bars and clubs
A recent report from Human Rights Watch found that Zimbabwe ``has suffered a serious breakdown in law and order, resulting in major violations of human rights. This environment has been created largely by actions of the ranking government officials and state security forces.''
But despite the worsening situation, the music coming out of Zimbabwe is some of the most captivating on the international scene. Over the next week, three major Zimbabwean musicians will perform in the Bay Area, providing a welcome opportunity to experience the beleaguered southern African nation's vibrant culture.
The best known of the three is Oliver Mtukudzi, the guitarist, singer and songwriter who performs with his band, Black Spirits, on Sunday at San Francisco's Stern Grove. (The Senegalese band Bembeya Jazz is also on the bill, celebrating its first album in 14 years, ``Bembeya,'' and first U.S. tour.)
Stella Chiweshe, a master of the thumb piano known as the mbira, holds forth with her quartet Wednesday at Ashkenaz in Berkeley. And Forward Kwenda, another master of the mbira, performs Sunday at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage.
Mtukudzi, known affectionately as Tuku in Zimbabwe, has been a giant of southern African music for a quarter-century. He 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.
Drawing on the interlocking patterns of mbira (a traditional style, as well as an instrument), the South African mbaqanga beat and the katekwe drumming patterns of his Korekore people, Mtukudzi created a tremendously popular sound that came to be known as Tuku Music.
A very prolific artist, he has released more than 40 albums in Zimbabwe. But Mtukudzi started gaining widespread attention in the United States only 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 the British producer Steve Dyer, who helped create his 1998 hit album ``Tuku Music.'' That disc, along with several other Dyer productions, has been released in the United States by Putumayo, greatly increasing Mtukudzi's audience in North America.
Mtukudzi's songs, in Shona and English, reflect the concerns and tribulations of everyday life in Zimbabwe while also reflecting the optimism and resiliency of the people. He has written a number of songs about AIDS and contributed a tune to ``Drop the Debt'' (World Village), an album featuring songs by Latin American and African musicians protesting the debt crushing so many developing nations. But when he talks about the problems facing Zimbabwe, he doesn't hesitate to point a finger at his country's leaders.
``Everything points to politicians -- that they're not doing their job very well,'' says Mtukudzi, 51. ``I can't get fuel to get to my next show. My fans can't get fuel to come to my show. I might have money to buy bread, but there's no bread to buy. I truly believe politicians are causing it.''
Far more than a musician, Mtukudzi has 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 also has written and directed the musical ``Was My Child,'' a production exploring the plight of street children in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital.
Like Mtukudzi, Stella Chiweshe started her career underground, having to avoid the repressive policies of the Rhodesian government. But Chiweshe also faced dogged resistance from her own community, as women were discouraged from playing the mbira, an instrument made of metal keys mounted on a wooden sounding board set in a large gourd. Growing up in Zimbabwe's forest region of Mhondoro, she became fascinated by the instrument, which the Shona use in religious rituals. Defying convention, she set out to master the mbira and finally found a family member who could help.
``I fought for many years against my community, against my government,'' says Chiweshe, 56. ``In 1964, I made a trip to my mother's uncle and spent three days there without telling him why I visited him. On the third day, I got up my strength and told me I have come to learn mbira. And he said nicely and kindly, `Come and sit next to me. I'll show you how to play.' ''
She recorded her first single, ``Kasahwa,'' in 1974, and scored a hit. She followed with two dozen more singles by the end of the decade. In the early 1980s, she joined the National Dance Company, which gave her international exposure. Today Chiweshe, a resident of Zimbabwe and Germany, is still one of a very few female mbira players. She performed widely around the United States in 1998 as one of three women showcased on the Global Divas tour, together with Susana Baca and Tish Hinojosa.
Her latest album, ``Talking Mbira: Spirits of Liberation'' (Piranha), features the musicians with whom she'll be performing in the California, including Michael Kamunda on marimba and percussionist Alphias Chikazhe and Maruva Chikwatari. Playing traditional melodies, she often extemporizes lyrics about whatever she happens to be thinking or feeling at the moment.
She says, ``If people ask, `What have you been singing about?' I explain, which does not mean that mbira is talking about that. It's two different things. People should not worry or focus on what the mbira singer is singing. Just listen to mbira. That's the best way to hear the good news coming from Zimbabwe.''