Oliver Mtukudzi + The Black Spirits – Live at Jazz Alley, January 29th, 2014

Oliver Mtukudzi + The Black Spirits

Oliver Mtukudzi + The Black Spirits

Touring behind his release Sarawoga, Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits paid a two-day visit to Seattle recently, dispelling the late January wet and gloom with songs and dancing, and bringing a bolt of Zimbabwean warmth and color to an otherwise drab, gray winter. It had been over a decade since I’d seen “Tuku” last, back when he was touring with Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD festival. I remember in particular being struck by Oliver’s sincerity and earnestness while reporting on a panel he did with fellow musicians Joan Baez, Lolo Beaubrun, and Cui Jian, titled “Music, Activism, and Society.”

“It’s self-discipline,” Tuku said, in describing how music allowed him to escape his impoverished upbringing. “You are the only way out.”

In the intervening years Tuku hasn’t missed a beat – although he did happily dance around it both literally and figuratively on the night we saw him, as all good music and musicians should. A shimmy and a half-step to the left, to the right, and back again; a broad grin and an inviting strum of guitar as his rich, deep voice alternated between singing lines in English, Shona, and Ndebele. “It’s not what we achieve, but what we overcome,” he sang.

Sarawoga, which means “left alone,” was dedicated to Oliver’s son Sam, who was tragically killed in a car accident in 2010. As a Zimbabwean, Oliver is all-too-familiar with pain and loss both personal and political, but it’s how he and his fellow countrymen sing and dance about “the good, the bad, weddings, funerals” that makes me long to be back in Africa. “We beautify the tune so as to diffuse the tension,” he told the packed house at Jazz Alley. “We are talking about pain but beautifying the tune.” In such simple yet open-hearted statements Tuku exemplifies the beauty of his people and his music.

Oliver Mtukudzi + The Black Spirits

Oliver Mtukudzi + The Black Spirits

Backed by a simple quartet of guitar, bass, drums, and a backing vocalist, Tuku’s songs were deceptively simple but still powerful and inviting. It’s hard not to feel yourself drawn in by the happy interplay between the bass and drums while Oliver and his guitarist slowly build and stretch the songs, and it didn’t take long before the crowd were swaying in their seats if not outright dancing in the aisles. When Tuku looks at you and smiles, when he sings and the music flows and follows, it is irresistible. You smile, you laugh and sing, you dance, and you forget your fears and troubles, letting the welcoming glow of the band’s African rhythms push away the gloom of winter to perch warmly in your heart and soul.

For the better part of two hours we were transformed to a place of color and light far away from the gray and gloom that awaited us outside the club. We were back in Africa, eyes moist from laughing, hearts full from the beautifying music. When we were introduced to Tuku after the show, I could think of only one thing to say to the iconic musician: Tatenda!

(Click on a pic to embiggen and view the full gallery. You can also view these photos on our Flickr Photostream.)
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