Oliver Mtukudzi - Tsimba itsoka

Oliver Mtukudzi
Tsimba itsoka

(Heads Up)

First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2007, Volume 14, #11

Written by Douglas Heselgrave

Fri November 23, 2007, 08:30 AM CST


Over the course of his three-decade career, Oliver Mtukudzi has made some vital, energetic, and beautiful music. Unfortunately, Tsimba itsoka, his second album to be released internationally on the Heads Up label, is not among his best efforts. Still, even a mediocre album from this truly gifted Zimbabwean singer/songwriter has moments of interest, and for new listeners, it serves, despite its flaws, as a satisfactory introduction to a canon of work that is worth exploring.

Mtukudziís voice is the main attraction of Tsimba itsoka, and his breathtaking multi-octave range shows no signs of diminishing, despite his advancing years. Throughout the setís dozen songs, his voice soars and dives, expressing a wide range of emotions with the sort of clarity and precision that would put to shame many singers half his age. The tunes, which are sung in the Shona language, have socially conscious lyrics that explore the political and personal turmoil that plagues Mtukudziís beloved Zimbabwe. Full of haunting melodies and bolstered by some truly great backup singing from several of Zimbabweís most celebrated female vocalists, Tsimba itsoka should have been an outstanding endeavor. So, what went wrong?

In short, despite the terrific songs and otherworldly vocal performances, the musical foundation that supports Tsimba itsokaís tracks is often inadequate. None of the arrangements are up to the task of elevating Mtukudziís singing to the heights it deserves to reach. Certainly the musicians who contributed to Tsimba itsoka represent the top flight of Zimbabwean session players, and their individual contributions are never less than professional. However, the arrangements too often veer toward the kind of middle-of-the-road, adult contemporary sounds that plague so many potentially worthy albums these days. The ferocity and commitment of the lyrics and singing simply are not backed up by the music itself, and the whole affair has a generic, cafť latte-ready, Starbucks-y feeling to it.

The music on Tsimba itsoka approximates what polite listeners might imagine all African music sounds like, but world beat fans with even a passing knowledge of Zimbabwean fare will realize that what theyíre hearing is heavily diluted. It is one thing for an album to be laid back; many artists from Ali Farka Tourť to Salif Keita have produced masterful collections of traditional, "easy listening" material. Unfortunately, the choices that were made by Mtukudzi, who produced the effort, fail to give his songs any punch. They simply are too unimaginative and derivative of the adult contemporary style that was prevalent in the 1980s. Bland, watercolor-type washes of synthesizer pop up all over the place in ways that only do a disservice to the compositions. Tsimba itsoka may have been designed to be a crossover endeavor, but if thatís true, then it can only be considered a failure. World music fans will think it is uninspiring, while those who enjoy the brand of dinner music that is offered by Diana Krall and Neil Diamond will find it to be too lyrically challenging.

By all means, the work of Oliver Mtukudzi ought to be explored. Nhava, his release from 2005, is a much fuller sounding album, and consequently, it is a better place to start appreciating his vibrant musical expressions. It also bears mentioning that his Zimbabwean colleague Thomas Mapfumo hasnít ever laid a single bad note to tape. In the meantime, Mtukudzi is touring North America this fall. His live shows are wonderful, and they give complete expression to his gifts, at which Tsimba itsoka unfortunately only managed to hint. starstarstar

Tsimba itsoka is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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