Zimbabwean musician Oliver “Tuku” Mtujudzi and his band, the Black Spirits, have been on tour in the U.S., playing dates from California to Quebec, including a stop at Lake Eden Arts Festival last weekend.
From the start of the band’s set on the LEAF main stage, it was apparent that they were showcasing a different side of the “traditions” theme of the spring festival. LEAF has a long history of bringing impressive world music acts to the stage — from Japanese taiko drummers to Tibetan singer-songwriter Yungchen Lhamo. But Tuku and the Black Spirits’ sound didn’t seem as far flung as it did instantly recognizable. Okay, maybe “instantly recognizable” isn’t the exact phrase. But instantly comfortable, digestible and, most of all, just easy. The kind of music you dance to without thinking about; the kind of music you relax into.
Tuku is a grandfather but moves lithely across the stage, defying gravity. He bounces along with the percussion, his dance moves another texture in the soft and multi-faceted rhythm of each song. There’s a lot of percussion. A kit drum, congas, a rain stick and other auxiliary instruments. And the percussion builds over a definitive drum and bass downbeat, but in building it adds complexity rather than noise, and the buoyant harmonies lift each song even farther from its rhythmic base.
Each member of the band is long and lean, stork-like and graceful. There’s an economy both of instrumentation and movement — they play fluidly and expressively, but also tastefully. No grandstanding, no solo given a note more than it needs, as if anything extra would weigh down the whole meringue of the song. Instead, beat and melody continually pulse while the vocals add bright strokes of color of the sonic canvas.
Songs tend to morph effortlessly from melody into syncopated breaks. The congas pop; Tuku and vocalist/percussionist Sam Felo fall into a galloping synchronized dance while bassist Enock Piroro grins from ear to ear (very un-bassist-like). (Other band members are drummer Tendai Samson Mataure and percussionist/backing vocalist Strovers Maswobe.)
While most of the Black Spirits’ set list is in the band’s native tongue, one prettily emotive song asks, in English, “What does it take to be a hero? Do you have to die to be a hero?” According to press about the band, Tuku prefers education to political advocacy, but the song certainly nods to charges questions about human rights and freedoms. Its delivery, however, is much closer to a lullaby than a fiery blast, with the congas ringing warmly and the easy, boomerang of the rhythm — out and back, out and back like an audible tide — casting a glow over the darkening evening.
As night fell and colored lights glittered, reflected in Lake Eden’s dark water, it was hard to imagine that Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits’ songs, traveled all the way from Southern Africa, could belong to any place more completely than they seemed to belong to Black Mountain.