Outside his native country, Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi has become the second-best-known Zimbabwean musician, after Thomas Mapfumo (who was briefly his cohort in the 1970s band the Wagon Wheels). At home, however, Mtukudzi has eclipsed his former colleague. The singer-guitarist's success owes something to his less confrontational approach; while Mapfumo's political commentary propelled him into exile, Mtukudzi's plaints are more general, and balanced by songs that counsel gratitude or acceptance. Tuku's buoyant new "Nhava" -- Shona for "satchel" -- contains songs about migrant workers and battered wives, but none that address problems specific to contemporary Zimbabwe. The mostly hopeful sentiments suit the upbeat music, an intricate tapestry of chiming guitar, percolating polyrhythms and nimble call-and-response vocals.
This style, known in Zimbabwe as "jit," closely resembles South African mbaqanga (the foundation of Paul Simon's "Graceland''). Mtukudzi has issued more than 40 albums in Africa, reportedly demonstrating a wide stylistic range, but his handful of U.S. releases all feature the same shimmering interplay of high-pitched tones, notably multiple guitars, female backing singers and Mtukudzi's tenor. This album's highlights include "Izere Mhepo," which allows keyboardist Jairos Hambahamba a quick solo, and "Menzva Kudzimba," which emphasizes vocalists Mary Bell and Namatayi Mubariki. The latter tune extols cooperation, an apt theme. In concert, the charismatic Tuku is clearly the star, but on "Nhava" his voice and guitar are just part of the 10-piece band's rippling melodic flow.
-- Mark Jenkins
Appearing Wednesday at the Birchmere.