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"Ndabaiwa" from Talking Mbira (Piranha)
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Embracing Africa's Vibrant Music

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The Valley Times, Embracing Africa's Vibrant Music >>

The news from Zimbabwe these days is invariably bad:  a floundering economy, political corruption and one of the world's highest rate 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 perfom in the Bay Area, providing a welcome opportunity to experience the beleaguered souther African nation's vibrant culture.

Best known is Oliver Mtukudzi, the guitarist, singer and songwriter who perfomrs with his band Black Spirits at San Francisco's Stern Grove Sunday.  The venerable, reconstituted Senagalese band Bembaya 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 Berkely 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 Majpfumo, who went on to stardom as a solo artist.  Mtukudzi transformed the band into Balck Spritis 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 by San Francisco's Putumayo label, greatly increasing Mtukudzi's audience in North America.

While not involved in partisan politics, Mtukudzi often adresses social and economic issues in his music.  His songs, in Shona and English, relect 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 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 undergrounds, 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 form her own community, as women were discouraged from playing the mbira, and insturment made of 24 or so metal keys mounted on a wooden sounding board set in a large guard.

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 gove rnment," 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."

By Andre Gilbert

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