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Music Review: Oliver Mtukudzi – Tsimba Itsoka (“No foot, No Footprint”)

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Environmentalists use the word footprint to describe the impact each of has on the planet. Ideally, according to them, the smaller the footprint we leave behind us the better as it means we have used up the least possible resources and left behind the least amount of non-biodegradable trash possible.

But is living without leaving any record of your having been here really how you want to live your whole life? It's one thing not to scar the environment with your presence but it's another thing all together to have so little impact as to not even metaphorically disturb the dust of the world with your passage. To sit by idly as people suffer from the indignities of war, poverty, famine, and disease is as much a crime as if it was your hand that caused their suffering in the first place.

In North America, we surrendered our precious individual rights and freedoms with barely a whisper of protest, yet we still insist on the sanctity of the individual over the whole. But without the former the latter is just a type of selfishness that prevents us from seeing beyond our own personal fulfillment and recognizing the needs of others.

oliver2007_blackspirits.jpgOf course selfishness is not unique to North America and people everywhere need constant reminders to look beyond the tip of their nose when looking out at the world. On his latest release on the Heads Up label, Tsimba Itsoka (translated as "No Foot, No Footprint") Oliver Mtukudzi has written a series of songs that talk about that issue and the various forms it can take.

Oliver Mtukudzi is a member of the Shona language group of tribes living within the borders of what is now Zimbabawe. Unlike her neighbour to the south, South Africa, who achieved majority rule primarily through international pressure and surrender to the inevitable by the government, Zimbabawe's path to independence came through revolution. Her current President, Robert Mugabe, was also one of the leaders of the rebel forces that forced the abdication of Ian Smith and the last minority white rule government in what was then Rhodesia.

So when he speaks of change through participation in order to make things happen he know what he's talking about. But what I find very interesting about this disc is that instead of talking about any of specific issues that face both his own country and all of Africa, he sings about people's personal actions and attitudes — the stuff that makes up the composition of their footprint.

Take for example the opening track of the disc, "Ungade' We?" in which he upbraids people who deceive youngsters for personal gain. He asks them to think about their actions from the other side of the coin, and asks how they would feel if it were their children being victimized.

As he proceeds through the songs on the disc, he dispenses advice couched in the gentle tones of a father speaking to an errant child. "Don't waste your time on negative emotions" he admonishes on "Kauipedza" ("Wasting"), or on "Kuroposdza" ("One who talks too much") where he says that if you just talk without bothering to make space for someone else to speak you will never be able to have a conversation.

But it's not just advice he gives out; he also calls people on their behaviour, especially in the song "Mihinduro" (Reply"), addressed to all those people who give answers when there were no questions asked because of the guilt they feel. "You're explaining yourself when no one has asked you to. You're trying to cover your guilty footprints."

On "Kumirira Nekumirira" ("Waiting and Waiting") he admonishes those who would allow adverse conditions to control them instead of taking some initiative to exert some effort to affect their circumstances — "We can't wait for miracles to happen… if our feet are not moving, then there's no footprint for people to follow". If we can't show people how to be self-reliant, he wants to know, whom are they going to learn it from?

Musically Mtukudzi's music is on the mellower end of the African pop music spectrum with saxophone and keyboards adding lushness to sparse and muted guitar work. Everything about the disc breathes gentle persuasion, from Mtukudzi's rough hewn but calm voice that rises up through the music, to the vocal harmonies and percussion added by backing vocalists Mary Bell and Namatai Mubariki as emphasis.

Instead of the high energy beat of the Nigerian sound or the sharper rhythms of their Zulu neighbours to the South, the music of Oliver Mtukudzi's band seems more reminiscent of the wind blowing through the high grass of the savannah. There is a continuous flow of sound that has been gathered at the beginning of the disc that is allowed to move through all the tracks, making occasional adjustments in tone and speed as per the requirements of each song's message.

Tsimba Itsoka, by Oliver Mtukudzi, is, like the environmentalists, concerned about the size and nature of the footprints we leave behind. But instead of being concerned with the size of our traces left behind, Mtukudzi is interested in having us explore the nature of the footprints that mark our passage through life for the example they leave for those following in our wake.

Instead of lecturing us on child poverty, disease, and the usual litany of desperation we hear about life in Africa, he focuses on the work we need to do as individuals that would enable us to work with those around us to improve conditions for us all. Sometimes he says it's important to leave a good strong map of footprints that can be followed. At least that way, we'll know that we've set people on the right track.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.