My attempt to broaden my exposure to genres of music and musicians that I had basically ignored in the past was richly rewarded at Duke University’s Reynolds Auditorium as part of Duke Performances. Oliver Mtukudzi & The Black Spirits were making their first appearance in the Triangle area as part of a 17-city North American tour, and it was as big an event to longtime devotees of this unique artist as, say, Yo-Yo Ma would be for classical fans. It took barely minutes for this writer to become mesmerized by the power, energy and virtuosity of the music.

The sixty-year-old Mtukudzi (a model for those of us approaching that decade!) was born in Zimbabwe and has enjoyed moderate international acclaim and extraordinary success on the African continent since his professional debut in 1975. A portion of his name, “Tuku,” became a brand of music used as a description of the merging of his native Zimbabwean music along with that of South Africa. This multicultural blend produced a sound that was especially palatable to Westerners’ ears. This, along with being exuberantly championed by blues artist Bonnie Raitt, propelled Mtukudzi to a global following that continues to expand and climb. While it is unfortunate that it is often the case that it takes Western artist’s “discovery” of African music to introduce it to the American public, our musical atmosphere is vastly enriched because of it. Such was also the case with Paul Simon’s 1986 multi Grammy-award winning album “Graceland.”  

There was an air of excitement and a communal buzz reminiscent of long gone days at the Fillmore East in New York when we could hardly believe we were about to see legends like The Who or Led Zeppelin live. Of course I did not know just days ago who Mtukudzi was, but hundreds filing into Reynolds may have been waiting their entire life to see him. He finally came out – a commanding, long, lanky figure – and began his unique, personal guitar style and slightly raspy, powerful singing. After a brief solo stint, the members of his group, The Black Spirits, ambled out: Tendai Samson Mataure, drums; Enock Piroro, bass and backing vocals; Strovers Maswobe, congas and backing vocals, and Mary Bell, vocals.

There was very little talking to the audience, except for a “thank you” and parting appreciative comments. Titles to songs were not announced, and this, combined with yelps of recognition by much of the audience, made me feel a bit like an outsider although talk was unnecessary to appreciate the magnificence of the music. So, I have no set list available or reporting of the actual songs played. Actually, this is not all that unusual and that fact eventually became irrelevant to me.

But, this was a carefully orchestrated set. The first few numbers, despite the presence of the band, definitely highlighted Mtukudzi. As a guitarist I tried to analyze his playing to make sense of what he was doing and why his sound was so special. After that cerebral approach failed, I was content to simply let its beauty wash over me. When the three backing vocalists eventually joined it was like a bolt of lightning. Now it was my wife’s turn, as a choral director, to try the lame musicological route, which also failed. Lay back and enjoy it! Many of the songs were up-tempo affairs that also featured the musicians dancing and Mtukudzi quite authentically imitating a bird in flight. There was also a rapturously gorgeous ballad with vocal harmonies that straddled the best of jazz and gospel. There were even some mini-skits, one involving the investigation of something on the stage floor! Mary Bell, vocalist, also added to the total effect with deft playing of several percussion instruments. She also got roars form the audience – and responses in kind – when she performed vocal ululations unique to African and Middle Eastern techniques. Conga player Maswobe also amazed the crowd when he performed what seemed to be some impossible dance steps.

It is hard to imagine that Reynolds Auditorium ever rocked like it did on this night. The upper quarter of the auditorium was dancing and celebrating like an outdoor party. When it moved down to the aisles near the front, what appeared to be Duke Performances employees stepped in to stop it.

My search field is now set to Mtukudzi and I’m grateful to again realize that although I think I know quite a lot about music, I sometimes don’t even know what I don’t know.