There remains the odd route back to the past if you want to take it, even in Hot Fast and Now America, and Oliver Mtukudzi, Zimbabwe songster deluxe, offers a very alluring path in that direction. I don't pretend to be an expert on current African pop or folk but Mr. Mtukudzi's bouncy, philosophical music is attractive to the ear, snappy as all get-out, and it gives onto vistas of where many American musics came from, such as zydeco, reggae, blues, gospel... it's all here, and although the presentation is very modern the strains can be heard as clear as you please. You do have to listen a bit but even Mtukudzi's voice, as sawtoothed a tenor as I've heard since Skip Battin, the Byrds' last bassist, has a lilt to it. He will even cough occasionally while the mike's on and not sound particularly embarrassed about it. A nice change from all these super-spit-shined popperoos for whom a hair out of place means half an entourage loses their jobs.
If you were wondering what this review is doing here in Jazz Now, especially given how I haven't mentioned hearing a lot of Jazz' underpinnings herein; well, without the blues and gospel, and other less-defined motifs carried over from Over There, we wouldn't have Jazz in its current form, I don't think. A tenuous identification, yes, but you can't argue with the delightful results, such as the twirling electric guitar motif in "Menzva Kudzimba," the sweetly reedy organ from Jairos Hambahamba, the throaty bounce that strongly recalls a sort of ur-calypso in "Hazvireve," or the proto-reggae swing of "Pindirai." I'm sure you've noticed the individual song titles... well, you have to put up with non-English vocals, but Mr. Mtukudzi has this friendly, smiling tone which makes understanding his language almost unnecessary. I don't know how these things happen, but they do. One time I went down to Second Avenue in NYC to check out a performance of Avram Goldfaden's 'Shulamith' in the original Yiddish. I understood not a word, and laughed myself sick. Mr. Mtukudzi as well has mastered the method of communicating with his vocal inflections in a very similar manner. And they say there are no miracles! Of course, if you're getting really dizzy with the strain of hearing what can be understood in the incomprehensible, try "Hope," a cyclic melody that may take a month to get out of your system. If Mr. Mtukudzi is the scion of a large urban neighborhood who watches the passes for the bad guys and keeps his family and friends safe with a word or a gesture that keeps the miscreants thinking, "I'm going elsewhere for my frolic," why I would not be surprised.
Memorable bits just keep coming, like the cheerily meandering "Tereregereiwo" or the quietly positive closer "Dzidziso" (which tells us we are all flowers in God's garden, and I believe I am convinced...); you would be hard pressed to come across a more accomplished African folk-pop recording this year. It's good enough, in fact for me to add that, if you aren't looking for an African folk-pop CD right now... well, broaden your horizons, why don't you.
by Kenneth Egbert
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