The news from Zimbabwe these days is invariably bad: a floundering economy, political corruption and one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection.
The news is bad and getting worse, but the sounds coming out of Zimbabwe are some of the most captivating on the international music scene. Over the next week, three major Zimbabwean musicians perform in the Bay Area, providing a welcome opportunity to experience the beleaguered southern African nation's vibrant culture.
Best known is Oliver Mtukudzi, the guitarist, singer and songwriter who performs with his band Black Spirits at San Francisco's Stern Grove Sunday. The venerable, reconstituted Senegalese band Bembeya Jazz is also on the bill, celebrating its first album in 14 years, "Bembeya."
Stella Chiweshe, a master of the thumb piano known as the mbira, holds forth with her quartet at Ashkenaz in Berkeley Wednesday. And Forward Kwenda, another master of the mbira, performs at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage Sunday.
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 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 the British producer Steve Dyer, who helped create his 1998 hit album "Tuku Music." That album, along with several other Dyer productions, have been released in the United States by San Francisco's Putumayo label, greatly increasing Mtukudzi's audience in North America.
While not involved in partisan politics, Mtukudzi often addresses social and economic issues in his music. His 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, having lost several members of his band to the disease, 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, during a recent phone interview. "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."
Like Mtukudzi, Stella Chiweshe started her career underground, having to avoid the repressive policies of the former Rhodesian government (before the country won independence and became Zimbabwe). But Chiweshe also faced dogged resistance from her own community, as women were discouraged from playing the mbira, an instrument made of 24 or so 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 among her Shona people is used in numerous religious rituals.
"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 him 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.'"
On her current tour, she's showcasing her latest album, "Talking Mbira: Spirits of Liberation." Playing traditional melodies, she often extemporizes lyrics about whatever she happens to be thinking or feeling at the moment. She likes to tell stories about people who experience healing or epiphanies while listening to mbira, an instrument and music that has a force all its own.
"Mbira does not speak a language," Chiweshe says. "It touches every human being. 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."