There are two Zimbabwean musicians who are fairly well known in the English-speaking world. One is Thomas Mapfumo, the chimurenga singer. Thirty years ago he was singing protest songs to remove the colonial government from power. The colonial government left. Then he sang songs to encourage the progress of Robert Mugabe, who wanted to become the first president of Zimbabwe. By the late 1990s he was singing anti-corruption songs against Mugabe’s government, and in 2000 things got so dangerous that he migrated to North America. Now he lives in Oregon, while inflation in post-colonial Zimbabwe is somewhere around 5000% and rising. Life is sometimes not as a simple as we wish it would be, and we do not always get the rewards we seem to deserve.
Oliver Mtukudzi is the other musician. He still lives in Zimbabwe. Mtukudzi does not sing chimurenga. His songs are gentle and guitar-driven. The themes tend to be moral rather than overtly political, but sometimes they can be interpreted in a political light. In the same year that Mapfumo went into voluntary exile, Mtukudzi released a song called “Wasakara”. The lyrics urge an old man to realise that his day has passed and he must move on. This old man was understood to be Mugabe himself, although Mtukudzi would never say so directly.
He prefers to be allusive. The publicity for Tsimba Itsoka talks about feet and footprints. “What kind of footprint are you leaving, based on the life you’re living now?” he asks. “If we love and respect each other the world would be a beautiful place. We need to spend the time we’re here making good footprints.”
Referring to “Hapana Kuti Mbijana”, he explains, “In this song I’m saying you’re either in heaven or in hell … You’re either a good person or you’re not a good person. Either your footprint is a good footprint to follow, or it’s a dangerous one that should not be followed at all.” The song itself doesn’t sound as fire-and-brimstone as the summary. There is a light roundelay of plucked notes, Mtukudzi sings, a chorus of women sings, then a chorus of men comes in, soft as a hill of sugar.
They sing in Shona for almost the entire duration of the album, breaking briefly for a few words in English. If the notes for “Hapana Kuti Mbijana” left you wondering, “Is he or is he not actually religious, with that good person/bad person, heaven/hell stuff?”, then the English lines in “Kumitita Nekumirira” should erase all doubt. “Together we can make a difference”, he sings as a mbaquanga-esque gospel organ shimmies and lifts its eyes to the clouds. “Let’s get together, pray for the nation”.
His voice is dry and a little hoarse. It’s not one of those voices that sounds wonderful no matter what the owner does with it, but his sincerity is enough to draw a listener in. In a conversation he’d be the man who sets a hand on your arm, telling you, “People should be decent to one another. The world should be a better place”, and you’d know that he wasn’t saying it just to make small talk, or to coerce you into thinking that he was a nice guy. He is usually in earnest. That’s the secret of his success in the outer-African musical world; that and his instinct for tunes that are simple and appealing; oh, and the promotional boost that he got from Putumayo when they put out Tuku Music in 1999. Fans of Tuku Music should find that Tsimba Itsoka suits them pretty well, although I don’t think anything here matches the sparkle of that album’s “Dzoka Uyamwe” and “Ndima Ndapedza”. And if you’re comparing gospel organ numbers then “Kumitita Nekumirira” isn’t as catchy as Tuku‘s “Todii”.
In some ways he’s at his best when it’s just him and a guitar, as it was years ago on his live recording of “Neria”. Tsimba Itsoka is more complicated than that: He uses touches of light funk and country in “Kiropodza”, and a South African-sounding saxophone in the opening song, “Ungade’ We?”. (The sax is credited to his son Samson.) The credits don’t list a mbira player, but his Tuku guitar style owes a lot to the mbira sound, those rapidly-running trails of rounded notes that present themselves like Christmas ornaments and then draw quickly away one by one, like drops of water sinking into sand, invisible but leaving a faint trace of dampness behind.
In the end what can I say? Save for the pervasiveness of his son’s saxophone (and putting aside 1997’s Ndega Zvangu), Tsimba Itsoka is not strikingly different from his other work. This is good news for people who like their African music to come from the south and sound restfully, catchily melodic. It’s terrific news if you speak Shona and feel like listening to some moral advice; bad news for anyone looking for forceful Zim-protest, or cutting-edge Whatever. He sounds less energetic and playful than he’s been in the past, but I’m not sure if that’s him or the recording. I think it’s him. There’s a shadow over this album, not a staleness but a staidness, even a weariness, a reluctance to let the audience dance. Maybe Mugabe is getting to him.