News Column

African superstar headlines Nightfall

May 9, 2013


May 09--If there were a royal court of African music, Zimbabwean vocalist Oliver Mtukudzi would undoubtedly occupy a place close to the throne.

Since the release of his debut single, "Stop After Orange," in 1975, Mtukudzi -- or Tuku, as his fans affectionately call him -- has combined the infectious rhythms of traditional South African music with songs championing the causes of peace and equality. He used music as a lectern from which to address human-rights violations, including taking an impassioned stance against the decades-long rule of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.

The combination of upbeat melodies with such dense political messages may seem jarring, but it has helped earn Mtukudzi an international following and immense respect as an artistic humanitarian. His many honors include recognition from the International Council of Africana Womanism for advocating in favor of women's rights, a UNICEF goodwill ambassadorship and numerous Kora Awards, the sub-Saharan African equivalent of the Grammys.

Friday night, May 10, he and his backing band, The Black Spirits, will take the stage at Miller Plaza as the second headliner of this year's Nightfall concert series.

Local musician and Chattanooga Presents media coordinator Jonathan Susman said he has been a fan of Mtukudzi's work since he was a member of local reggae group Milele Roots about 15 years ago. Seeing Mtukudzi on the Nightfall lineup was an unexpected surprise, he said. "I'm excited, really excited, about this show," Susman said. "I didn't even know it was a possibility."

Since the '70s, Mtukudzi has been incredibly prolific, releasing about 60 singles and albums, according to his website.

Although much of Mtukudzi's music is sung in the Shona language of his native country, Susman said he believes the musicianship of Mtukudzi's show will translate, even if his songs' underlying messages do not.

"With a language barrier like that, the music is what speaks to people," he said. "People who don't understand him can focus on the international language of music -- good musicianship and great melodies, something that makes you dance. You don't necessarily have to know what he's saying to enjoy it."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.


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