Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi has a career that goes back to the 1970s and includes over five dozen albums. He is so much a part of the southern African music scene that it would be difficult to imagine such a scene without him. Onetime collaborator with such musicians as Thomas Mapfuno and the Wagon Wheels, Mtukudzi has explored all manner of pop, rock, funk and traditional sounds in his quixotic musical explorations. It would be easy to call him a legend, except that that might be underestimating his influence and presence.
It’s with some difficulty, then, that this latest record Sarawoga must be acknowledged as something of a disappointment. The grooves are easygoing and pleasant, and the musicianship is impeccable. With something over a dozen musicians backing him up on vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards and percussion, the songs here are sonically lively without being overstuffed. The centerpiece of everything is Mtukudzi’s voice—mellow, strong, a little raspy and very soulful. All of the above sounds like a recipe for a sublime, even transcendent record, but in fact the opposite is true. The album falls flat.
Why is this? In part it’s simply the songs, which are lilting and rolling but lack much rhythmic muscle or darkness. (My music theory is pretty shaky, but I suspect most tunes here are played in a major key.) The other part has to do with those arrangements, which end up sounding like Afro-pop lite. There’s nothing wrong with cheerful music per se, but there is an awful lot of it here—musically, if not lyrically—and the tunes simply don’t carry a great deal of weight.
Album opener “Sarawoga” is a brief teaser, less than two minutes long, and the album proper starts with “Huroi” and its follow-up “Haidyoreke”. Both these songs are built around Mtukudzi’s nimble acoustic guitar finger-picking, which lays out a basic rhythmic line upon which other instruments are layered. His voice sounds in fine form on these tunes, and the guitar picking is bouncy and fun, and there are no rough edges at all. Which is sort of the problem.
A string of similarly smooth tunes follows: the bouncy “Uneyerera”, the synth-informed “Watitsvata”, the slightly downtempo “Matitsika”. These songs vary in length from five to seven minutes but in many ways they are very similar: their sonic range is about the same, with few dynamic highs and lows, and the effect on the listener is very much the same as well. Songs rarely build to anything approaching a climax; they begin, chug along for a while, then end. The same could be said for much African music (or music from anywhere, most likely), but given the consistency of the songs on this album, the monotony is particularly noticeable here.
The lyrics here are in southern African languages. The exception is “Deaf Ear”, which is perhaps heartfelt but does not benefit from lyrics comprehensible to English speakers. (The portions that is not in English sounds much better, for what it’s worth.) Apart from the lyrical misstep, “Deaf Ear” is one of the stronger songs here, with a brooding chord progression and an elegiac feel to it that is lacking from most of the surrounding tunes. There is some nice balafon, too. Follow-up tune “Mutemo Weko” is another strong song, benefiting from a rousing bassline and some snappy percussion.
This album might appeal to listeners who wish to try some African music that’s not too challenging, at least musically (I can’t speak to the lyrical content of most of these songs). It might also appeal to longtime Oliver Mtukudzi fans who would like to see what he is up to these days. Most listeners, however, are likely to find that the huge world of African music holds more compelling offerings than this.