And so it goes with the music of suffering people. But in a turn of phrase, Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi announced from the stage that yes, the song may be about suffering, but the music can still be beautiful. On the evening of the anniversary of Zimbabwean independence, and in a time when things in Zimbabwe are not so good, Toronto's Koerner Hall was packed in anticipation of one of the living legends of African music.
The evening opened with a short set by Kinobe, a remarkable talent from Uganda with a Pan African take on the kora, tama (talking drum), kalimba and endongo (a kind of African lyre) and a rich and relaxed voice to match. His mastery on the kora and tama was brought to full effect as he came back to join Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits.
Oliver Mtukudzi hit the stage backed by a superb band that danced, played and engaged the audience with equal measures of virtuosity and joy. Drummer Tendai Mataure deserves special mention, as he displayed jaw-dropping technique and feel as he effortlessly burned the grooves. Mtukudzi himself was a study in elegance and positive spirit as his voice rang with conviction in engaging with the audience on the meaning and story of the songs, as well as a deep and beautiful delivery of them.
The song "Neria," written as a tribute to women's struggle, managed to beautifully evoke echoes of Bob Marley's softer works, yet held true to Mtukudzi's African vision, while "Mutserendende" rocked the South African Mbaqanga party vibe.
The evening was also given to extended instrumental jams that showcased the inspired interlocking genius of African music — music honed in community and presented in a communal form. There was no lack of dancing, onstage and off, as the audience danced in the aisles and in their seats and Mtukudzi and his band inspired all with grace, spirit and some joyful dancing themselves.
There was a reminder of the harshness of the world outside, as drummer Mataure brought the audiences attention to the sadness of xenophobic, anti-immigrant violence racking South Africa and the band's firm stand against it. Then, they launched into a rousing encore, as if in defiance of such terror.