Ep. 13: Oliver Mtukudzi: Zimbabwean musical ethics of relationship and dialogue with Dr. Jennifer Kyker
Dr. Jennifer Kyker
Oliver Mtukudzi is one of great Zimbabwean/Shona musicians within the post-colonial history of Zimbabwe. He is a musician who lived out ethics of community, relationship, and dialogue in challenging listeners with songs of advice and dialogues of questions. With Dr. Jennifer Kyker, we explore how his music is an expression of Hunhu (related to the South African concept of Ubuntu).
At its simplest level, Hunhu is a description of interdependent nature of our relationships, being a person through others. At a more complex level, we explore how Mtukudzi's songs of Neria, Tozeze Baba, Wasakara, and Izere Mjepo transform and deepen notions of dialogue, empathy, multiple interpretations, and take a strong stand in advocacy of justpeace and humane care.
Keywords: Hunhu, Ubuntu, Shona, Zimbabwe, Mtukudzi, Tuku Music, Ngoma, Dialogue, sawhira
Dr. Jennifer Kyker is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Rochester. She received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011, after attending Mount Holyoke College for her BA. Her book is Oliver Mtukudzi: Living Tuku Music in Zimbabwe, published through Indiana University Press. She has published articles on topics including listening and reception, music and gender, HIV/AIDS, and Zimbabwean musical bows in journals ranging from Ethnomusicology to the American Journal of Public Health.
Her born-digital humanities project, Sekuru's Stories explores the musical life of the renowned Zimbabwean mbira dzavadzimu player, oral historian, and ritual specialist Sekuru Tute Chigamba. Kyker has also founded Tariro, a non-profit organization, working with orphaned and vulnerable teenage girls in Zimbabwean communities affected by HIV/AIDS.
Selected Albums - Recordings
Agawu, K. (2003). Representing African music: Postcolonial notes, queries, positions. London, UK: Routledge.
Floyd, S. A. (2002). Ring shout! Literary studies, historical studies, and black music inquiry. Black Music Research Journal, 22, 49-70. doi:10.2307/1519943
Kyker, J. (2016). Oliver Mtukudzi: Living Tuku music in Zimbabwe. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Trent, T. (2018). The awakened woman: A guide for remembering & igniting your sacred dreams. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
A fantastic tribute to Oliver Mtukudzi on an episode produced by Afro-pop worldwide that includes Dr. Jennifer Kyker: https://afropop.org/audio-programs/remembering-oliver-mtukudzi
Thomas Mapfumo Playing Guitar:
Mtukudzi Tiny Desk Concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11po9xKBsbw
Oliver Mtukudzi playing Neria: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhXGyer-cIg
Tozeza Baba Music Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bByuF4e4v0
1) What is the ethic of hunhu and how it might speak to the crises of peacebuilding we face today?
2) How is hunhu rooted within Shona language and tradition? What is lost when we extract hunhu from cultural context?
3) How did Oliver Mtukudzi musick for dialogue and change? What is his unique approach to social activism?
4) What is the role of a sawhira in navigating grief, ethical/moral dilemmas, and conflict? What might be the gift of a structure of a sawhira in today's challenges? Where are the sawhiras in present times?
5) What does the language of signifyin(g) and call-response mean when discussing Afro-centric musical traditions? How is the practice of resignifying a helpful interpretive device when studying Afro-centric music traditions?
6) How might the wisdom of Mtukudzi and Tuku music inform deeper, relational approaches to artistic peacebuilding?
And I think that's one of the things that Mtukudzi did very well, was maintain a very firm moral position on a lot of issues and yet not state the position in such a way that alienated people on the other side. How do we do that? How do we maintain our firm moral position and state it clearly repeatedly without yielding, but also in a way that doesn't alienate people on the other side,
you are listening to the music and peacebuilding podcast, a professional development network at music peace-building dot com exploring intersections of peacebuilding, sacredness, community, creativity and imagination through research and story. This podcast is produced in the digital humanities hub at Elizabethtown college. Dr Jennifer Kiker is associate professor of music at the University of Rochester. She received her PhD from the university of Pennsylvania in 2011 after attending Mount Holyoke college for her BA. Her book is Oliver Mtukudzi living to Tuku music in Zimbabwe published through Indiana university press. She has published articles on topics including listening and reception, music and gender, HIV/AIDS, and Zimbabwean musical bows in journals from ethnomusicology to the American journal of public health. Her born digital humanities project. Sekuru's stories explores the musical life of the renowned Zimbabwean mbiras dza Vadzimu player, oral historian and ritual specialist Sekuro Tute Chigamba. Kyker has also founded Tariro, a nonprofit organization working with orphaned and vulnerable teenage girls in Zimbabwean communities affected by HIV AIDS.
This is the first of a two part series exploring Zimbabwe. In this conversation we explore Doctor Kyker's scholarship and the life music and philosophy of Oliver Mtukudzi. Mtukudzi's musical embodiment of the ethic of hunhu is a beautiful model of musical advocacy that might deepen our understanding of musical ethics of care, dialogue and community. I first asked Jennifer about how she became captivated by Zimbabwean culture and later by Oliver Mtukudzi.
New Speaker (02:29):
So let's start with your background. I overheard in one of the interviews that you spent part of your childhood in Zimbabwe and I'm curious about how you moved into kind of a lifetime of work now towards the music of Zimbabwe.
Yeah. I actually spent part of my adolescence in Zimbabwe, and this is because I grew up playing Zimbabwean traditional and Neo traditional music in Eugene, Oregon. In the 1970s there was a Zimbabwean ethnomusicologist who did his PhD at the university of Washington in Seattle. His name was Doomie Marire and he started teaching a type of Neo traditional music. It was based in Zimbabwe in precolonial traditions, but didn't look exactly like them. And this is the tradition of Zimbabwean marimba playing, which kind of emerged in the 1950s and sixties as part of a moment of temporary like political and cultural loosening of apartheid in Zimbabwe that then closed back down in the 1960s. So he was teaching marimba in Seattle and it kind of spread like wildfire throughout the entire Pacific Northwest. So anywhere you go on the I-5 corridor now from like Victoria, BC all the way down to Monterey, California, you're likely to find some Zimbabwean music.
So I started playing Zimbabwean music as a fifth grader after a group came and performed at a school assembly. And as it turns out, I didn't know this but my elementary school music teacher was also playing Zimbabwean marimba in a community group at the same time that she was working in the public schools, although she didn't really bring it into the classroom. So I started with the marimba and then I started playing mbira when I was 12 and at the time there were really no in theater teachers in the United States. There was one woman, Erica Azeem, who still has a nonprofit organization that brings mbira players to the U S and sells instruments in the Bay. But it was too far away from me to study with her. So really my only option to keep studying mbira was to go to Zimbabwe. So I told my parents, I have to go to Zimbabwe, I need to study this music.
And they kind of, you know, laughed it off, but they realized I was serious and they tried to put up all these barriers like, well, if you can figure out how you're going to graduate from high school on time, find a host family, figure out your visa, raise $500 toward the trip, then we'll let you go. And I was 14 at the time and I came back six months later and said, I'm done. I've done all the things, I'm ready to go to Zimbabwe. Wow. So to their credit, they let me take six months off from high school and go to Zimbabwe by myself as a 15 year old. I didn't have to go to school there. I lived with a host family of professional musicians and professional dancers. My host brother was a professional modern dancer in Zimbabwe's only modern dance company.
His best friend who lived with us taught mbira at the best government boys high school in Harare. So every day I would just follow these incredible musicians and dancers to their various day jobs and shadow them and see what they did and, and learn. And study with them in a kind of apprenticeship or even like unschooling model. And that's really where I learned to speak Shona, the predominant language in Zimbabwe. And, um, really got to see up close how the mbira is played in various contexts in Zimbabwe including ritual or ceremonial indigenous contexts where there are, um, people are actively consulting with their ancestral spirits. And the name mbira dza vadzimu means the mbira of the ancestors spirits. So that instrument in particular is seen as a way to like call the ancestors to come and consult with their living descendants.
Yeah. You know, my host brother who was the modern dancer, was actively collaborating with all of our motive cozy in the late 1990s. So I went back and took a gap year after high school and stayed with the same family. And during that gap year, my host brother was traveling to the ivory coast, um, with Oliver Mtukudzi and his band and they would be performing at the same festival. Um, his dance company was involved in several music videos for Oliver. So you know, Oliver was a common subject of discussion at my host family's house even before I ever met him. And I remember my host mom repeatedly talking about how moral he was and what a sort of upright person who was deeply invested in communicating Shona moral values through his music. And she kind of directly contrasted this with some of the other very big popular musicians of the times whose music was fabulous, but who as people were known for being corrupt or not following through on contracts, not paying their musicians well, being abusive in their speech or so for her, Oliver Mtukudzi was this kind of like example of what Shona morality could be at it's sort of best.
And at the time I didn't even really love his music because I was an mbira player. I liked the more mbira based popular music of artists like Thomas Mapfumo. So there is this, there was this sort of multiyear period in which my first appreciation of Oliver was actually of his position, his philosophy, his kind of ethics. And then I sort of grew into loving the actual sound of his music.
So as we set the stage to move in to talking about some music, um, I want to talk about the morality, but maybe first talk about the music. So from your tradition of being an mbira player, you write that his guitar playing is a representation of that style.
Yeah. Zimbabwean guitar is very distinct in some ways. And here's where Oliver starts to look like a very ambivalent figure. People can't quite make sense of him because his music doesn't use this language of Zimbabwean guitar throughout every song. It's not the most prominent thing that you hear in the music of Thomas Mapfumo, who's sort of Oliver's main rival throughout the decades. They both got their start in the 1970s in fact, in the same band, the Wagon Wheels, um, Thomas Mapfumo uses this very distinctive style of guitar playing in which the notes are dampened. So the performer actually holds a part of their Palm, like the heel of their Palm, kind of on the strings as they play. And what that does is create a quicker rate of decay for each note that kind of mimics that timbre of a mbira. Right. So it sounds like, more like mbira keys and this is part of the innovation of, of Thomas Mapfumo's band and musicians.
Speaker 4 (10:06):
And along with that Thomas Mapfumo's musicians often just wholesale adapt and mbira songs. They're just creating arrangements of traditional mbira songs. I could just take my mbira and sit in with the band and play in more than half of Thomas Mapfumo's songs. Like I know those songs as an mbira player, Oliver's music is really different. So how do we make sense of that difference is one of the questions that I'm asking in this book. And a lot of people have suggested that he is more of a, his, his style is more South African, that it fits more into this genre called ?baconga?, Which I I believe emerged also in the kind of in the 70s and then other people say, well maybe he's kind of more of an Afro jazz musician. And at one point in the 70s, he was even trying to build himself as an average jazz musician.
But people rejected that. They said, this isn't really a jazz. It isn't, it doesn't conform to what we expect of, of a jazz song, but it's so distinctive that they just started to call it Tuku music. Well, sort of all of his efforts to brand, his music failed and it ended up just being known by his own nickname. Right. But as it turns out, his music does draw on a lot of traditional elements. He does have the dampened guitar sound in his songs, but as his guitarist, Mono Mukunda explained to me that dampened guitar sound is only happening in the portions of his songs where there are vocals being sung. In instrumental portions of the song they open it up and the guitar player plays with a more open sound. So they're combining different timbres on the guitar. Um, and the portions of the song that people are more attuned to are the instrumental portions where you can really hear the guitar and then you don't hear that dampened sound and you think, Oh he is, he's really different than Mapfumo
is. But in fact that sound is also there in, in the vocal sections of the song. Even more so, as I started listening to his songs, I started identifying particular songs that came from Zimbabwe's drumming, dance and song traditions. And the word for drum in Shona is Ngoma. Ngoma also refers to genres of music that combine the three elements of drumming, dance and song. So when I talk about Ngoma, I'm not only talking about the physical instrument of the drum, I'm talking about this combination of drumming, dance and song. It's very prevalent. This is the kind of music that you are most likely to hear if you go to Zimbabwe's rural areas or really anywhere where people are making their own music and not just turning on the radio, right? Drumming, dance and song. Even if you go to churches, you're likely to hear that combination. People are likely to have a drum, they're likely to be singing and they're likely to dance to go with it. Right. So almost everyone in Zimbabwe is familiar with Ngoma music, but it's rarely discussed in the scholarly literature on Zimbabwean music. And it rarely comes up in recordings.
New Speaker (13:29):
So really in Oliver's music. I started to realize how much he draws on these Ngoma traditions and it ranges from arrangements of particular songs that people know and recognize, particularly from the Northeast of Zimbabwe where he's from. To original compositions that have really strong and clear elements of Ngoma music in it. Whether it's something as simple as the tempo and meter of the song, that alone can signal Ngoma in some cases or in other cases we get him using particular rhythmic motifs that are associated with very specific Ngoma genres and reinterpreting them and putting them together with like original melodies and original lyrics. So I came to really conceptualize him of more of an Ngoma musician. So we have Thomas Mapfumo on the one hand, the mbira pop star. And my argument in this book is, and we have Oliver Mtukudzi the kind of Ngoma pop star, really, he's not an outlier, it's just that he's playing, he's drawing on a different set of Zimbabwean traditions [Ngoma music].
I asked Dr. Kyker about the core feeling within Ngoma that of a 12/8 triple feel set against the syncopation of duple body percussion.
There are Ngoma genres that are in four, four that are not in 12, eight. Um, some of those Ngoma genres in four, four are more associated with different languages, not shown as speaking communities, but DiBelle communities for example, or NDow communities. There's really only one Ngoma genre that is a Shona and Ngoma genre in four, four and that is a genre known as Jerusarema. Um, so really to say it's about a 12 eight meter with a lot of syncopation or a polyrhythm or interlocking, um, rhythmic patterns is quite appropriate. Yes.
And what I remember seeing on that video is it's the dancers who are playing against that 12, eight, like that, they're creating that syncopation that's driving it forward.
Yes. And this is something distinctive about Zimbabwean music. It's one of the things I think we can take away from it as an exciting concept that bodies in motion are also creating sounds and those sounds can be amplified and enhanced. So one of the Zimbabwean innovations in this realm is the use of leg shakers. So find something that will make a percussive sound and tie it to your legs when you dance and all of a sudden your body has become an instrument as well as a kind of visual display of, of kinetic prowess, right? You're also executing sometimes very complicated rhythms through your footwork. And those rhythms are being heard very distinctly by the audience [Ngoma music].
People used to use all kinds of materials for these leg shakers from hollowed out shells of fruits that were filled with seeds to actually Caterpillar chrysalises that could be filled with seeds. And now people usually use plastic toilet floats. They're very durable, they won't break. They're louder than the precolonial materials. So you see a mix of the more traditional style. And then the plastic toilet floats.
Doctor Kyker writes that Oliver Mtukudzi is a window into understanding the lived ethic of hunhu related to the more well known South African concept of Ubuntu. Hunhu who is a Shona concept of nhu, which means to be human. Hunhu is a concept of personhood that only exists in relationship.
Oliver, like so many other Zimbabweans conceptualizes this very clearly as being a person among others. ?Couva Muno Pave Mano? To be a person with other people, right? And relationality, dialogue, mutuality are all fundamentally at the root of what Shona people feel is our human nature. You can't be human in isolation. You can only be human through your relationships with other people. So moral relationships with other people make us into sort of fully realized fully actualized human beings. And this often plays out through language. People put a high emphasis on acknowledging the other through something as simple as greetings. But those greetings often are phrased in such a way that your wellbeing is rhetorically positioned as dependent on the other person's wellbeing. So when Shona people greet each other, they say, how are you? And that person who's responding says I am well, if you are also. How did you sleep? I slept well. If you did also, how was your day? My day was fine if yours was also. So there's this constant recognition that if one person in the group, whether it's a family, a community, an organization is not well, then the health of the entire unit is going to kind of suffer as a result of that. That one person's suffering, right? So emphasis is on a sort of holistic wellness.
We spoke about South African Ubuntu and Shona, what happens when an ethical concept becomes universalized and disconnected from language, culture, music, and relationships
in the post-apartheid period. Ubuntu has come to be kind of canonized as a kind of official philosophy. So in South Africa people talk about, um, Ubuntu as an economic principle, Ubuntu in the realm of business, Ubuntu in all of these different spheres. It's kind of being placed in the service of other things. And I think things start to change when you bring Ubuntu into dialogue with, for example, capitalism. Um, in Zimbabwe that has not happened. We don't have people trying to make an Ubuntu centered business model. People are still really feeling Hunhu as a very indigenous philosophy that has not yet been co-opted by the official state or by um, development economics. Right. Or by conservation it, it hasn't quite gone there yet. And so I think it maintains in some way its original character in Zimbabwe, perhaps a bit better than in South Africa. Of course, South Africans, you may disagree with this conception. Please feel free to disagree. Let's have a conversation. Email me your feelings about Ubuntu versus Hunhu,
but I think that that point is really important because I feel like this moral structure is grounded in language or like you say, the idea of deep Shona and that if I was to rip this concept away from the language within its, which is grounded than I, it really has become more of a Universalist concept now. It doesn't have its architecture.
Absolutely. Even if you and I try to live out Hunhu here, when we greet each other, I'm just going to say, Hey, how are you? You're going to be able to go, I'm good. There is no Hunhu in that greeting. So without the structure of not only the language, but all of the kind of, um, cultural morays that go with it, we can't live out Hunhu, we can't just take it and, and, and try it out. Right. It is very deeply contextual. There would be a lot of learning that we would have to do before we would be able to really enact what Shona people consider Hunhu. One of the most telling things for me when I was living with my host family, I had this, um, a good friend from the United States who I considered my uncle and he was bringing me back from a weekend trip to go visit musicians in the rural areas.
I came home and my host family said, we saved you some dinner. Please go and eat. So I went and started eating at the kitchen table and they said, what is wrong with you? Are you not going to invite your, Sekuru, your uncle to share your food with you? That thought had never crossed my mind. I was a 15 year old kid from America. If somebody gives you food, your first thought is not, how can I share this food with the people around me? How might I divide this resource equally between the people who might be in need in my environs, but for Shona people, that's like a sine qua non of being human. You had never consider eating without offering to first share your food with the others who are around you. No matter how small it is, no matter how hungry you are, the first thing you say before you eat is ?Sere Kudjka?.
We're eating. It's an invitation to anyone else to share your meal and that person has to say ?Idja Kay Enyo? Go ahead and eat. I don't want any. No thank you. Right? It's every time before people eat, they they invite people around them to eat with them. We don't have that philosophy, I would say, you know, this is where Oliver comes in. Because for him, he considers this philosophy of Hunhu to be the umbrella that covers everything he thinks about in every single song he's ever written. He is trying to sing Hunhu. He is trying to get this message of a sort of mutually beneficial way of being with other people in the world across to listeners in every one of this songs.
Speaker 4 (24:11):
[Mtukudzi plays Tozeze Baba ]
Speaker 3 (24:27):
your book, the first musical example that you move into is Tozeze Baba. And as I watched the video of this song, I saw husband coming home drunk. I saw him beating his wife. I saw that his son was watching and huddling under a table during this whole thing. And so this song is very much about domestic violence and patriarchal power relations at the first level of meaning, maybe. Um, so could you tell us about why you chose this as the first example in your book to explore the musical expression of Hunhu?
Yeah, absolutely. One simple answer is that it's one of his most popular and most beloved songs. So almost anyone who has listened to Tuku music is familiar with this song. And in Zimbabwe people just absolutely love it. It's very danceable. It's very catchy, it has a great riff in the chorus. It has a kind of call and response structure that asks people to be actively engaged in singing along with Mtukudzi at a concert or singing along with a cassette that might be playing in their car as they take a trip. Um, and this is very typical of his style that he broaches really difficult topics, domestic violence, HIV AIDS in an uptempo, danceable, catchy, wonderful song that you want to listen to again and again. So this is almost the opposite of how Americans expect music to function. We expect a song about a sad thing to sound sad.
It should be in a minor key or it should be slow or it should sound like a lament. And we expect songs about happy things to be uptempo and in a major key. And Oliver is doing the opposite of this. And he, he's doing it very deliberately because he says, if someone is suffering, the last thing you want to do is increase their suffering and make them feel even worse about the situation they're in. There are likely to be people at the concert who have experienced domestic violence or who are HIV positive. You don't want a song that's going to make them feel - one called singled out or two just very despondent. So how can we engage with our suffering and our social problems in a way that allows us to work through them and really, um, not shy away from them. So Tozeze Baba is doing that work of asking people to engage with really difficult social problems in a way that is culturally relevant and almost even fun for them. Um, it also is one of the songs that draws very specifically on the Ngoma language of the rhythm known as Mhande. Tozeze Baba is essentially a modern Mhande song, right? And original composition in a Mhande style.
Mhande style is characterized by a pattern that is like one, two, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, one, two, one, two, three, four, one, two, three. And then people will often put a timeline on it where you're dividing it into groups of three in groups of two. So this song has all of those kinds of rhythmic ideas in it. So it was a good place to start in terms of introducing his musical language as well as what is motivating his songs and what he wants to communicate with his audiences.
Oliver Mtukudzi identifies himself as a sawhira, someone who is intimate and relationship distant enough to offer advice and critique.
This concept of the sawhira. It's a friend. It's a kind of best friend. That's how we had a, if I were to translate it in English, I would translate as best friend, but it's really much more than that because in the precolonial era, the sawhira was someone who had the responsibility for washing the body of a deceased person. Your sawhira can't be a member of your family. A family member cannot wash the body of their deceased child or mother or it's too close. You need someone who's very, very close to you, very trusted, very intimate, but also not kin. And that's who the sawhira is. It's someone who can intervene in any situation in your family freely because they're an intimate, a close intimate, but they're also outside of your kin group. And um, if people are interested in reading more about this concept of the sawhira, there is a Zimbabwean author named Tererai Trent who has a new book out and there's an entire chapter in her book about the sawhira, how important it is in Zimbabwean culture. And she really encourages people here in the United States to try to think more about the sawhira and cultivate some sawhiras. She's like, this is a person you want in your life, the sawhira, how do you find one? How do you get a sawhira? Um, so Oliver really considers himself a, he his, his conception of himself was that he was a sawhira to the nation in his songs. And his songs, of course, permeated almost every space in Zimbabwe through the radio, right? So this voice of the sawhira was in almost every house
in her book, the awakened woman, dr Tererai Trent writes about the gift of the sawhira. She shares her memory of the passing of her mother and the role of the sawhira to empathize, grieve with, and lighten the load of those who mourn. She States "the sawhira is the one who becomes your sacred sister because she believes in what drives your soul without judging. Dr Trent notes that we might all benefit from pushing back against Western individualism. Becoming sawhiras to our deepest relationships of mutual support. She writes, my sawhiras our wholeness comes from knowing that we belong, that we are, but pieces of a larger community. And Therefore the joy of others is our own. And so is their suffering. As a sawhira to the country we turn to Wasakra and the multiple critiques and advice that are found in sawhira song, Oliver musicks a call to admit when we need to make space for others to lead.
Wasakara means "you're worn out." So this is a song that Mtukudzi described as a song about aging and in interviews he said that it was a song about his own process of aging, realizing his children had grown up, realizing it was time for them to take over some of the responsibilities he had previously held. But this song came out right at a very charged political moment when there was increasing momentum for a shift in governance in Zimbabwe. People really wanted Mugabe to step down. They really wanted a new president. They wanted a new political party at the helm. And in that context, people immediately interpreted these lyrics, which say, you've grown up, you're, you're old, you're worn out. It's time to step down and let the new generation take over has a political, a direct political critique. They started waving red cards at Mtukudzi's performances in a kind of soccer metaphor that Mugabe should, should be ejected from the pitch and all kinds of demonstrations of sort of political allegiances started happening at his shows, which made for some very rough shows. Some canceled shows, some shows that had to be terminated, right in the right in the middle of the performance.
Speaker 4 (32:53):
But consistently he said that's not what the song is about and I don't think that he was lying or intentionally covering up his intentions. I think if we look at the, the deeper intention, his intention was always to write songs that would be applicable in multiple contexts. So if this song is fundamentally about people who refuse to let a new generation take over, people who cling to power after I think what he referred to as the sell by date, then this is not only a critique of ZANU PF, it's not only about this political moment, it's about all of the situations in which people are experiencing this happening in their own lives, whether it is in their families, in their churches, in their workplaces, or in the nation as a whole. And reducing a song like that to being about only this one political moment kind of eviscerates its larger power to speak to multiple levels of human relationships. And he wanted to maintain that multi-filament power for his songs. He did not want them to be reduced as being about only one kind of historical incident and then, um, be a flash in the pan and disappear the next day. He really wanted to write songs that were, that were durable and that spoke to kind of enduring, um, human situations [Wasakara Music].
Speaker 4 (34:46):
And as a peacebuilder. I wonder about the wisdom of this kind of dialogue. Like even in the hypercharged political situation we're in in our country right now, that his approach to dialogue is one that seems to bring in people of any point of view together into a concert and then he just gently probes them with questions over time and it allows, to me, this is my opinion, but to me it allows people to stay together while disagreeing and while moving into the same sorts of question.
Absolutely. It really is. And I think one of the things a song like that can do is, well first of all, it definitely holds a position. The position is clear. People who have stayed in power too long should step down. So there isn't much negotiation about the position of the song. Similar with Tozeze Baba, men who are abusing their wives or children should stop. That's the message of the song. Um, it isn't just kind of acceptance of all viewpoints, but it is sung in a way that invites people in even if they are on the wrong side of the song and ask them to think about that message, um, in a way that is not necessarily directly confrontational. So I would say similarly in our political moment, there are lots of things that are happening that should not be happening under any circumstances.
And simply saying all viewpoints are welcome can sometimes dilute that very firm line that we should be maintaining. Some things should not happen. Babies should not be separated from their mothers and jailed in detention centers at our borders. That should not be happening. It's a firm line. So this idea that we just kind of need to accommodate all viewpoints, you know, can sometimes blur those lines. And I think that's one of the things that Mtukudzi did very well was maintain a very firm moral position on a lot of issues and yet not state the position in such a way that alienated people on the other side. How do we do that? How do we maintain our firm moral position? And state it clearly, repeatedly, without yielding, but also in a way that doesn't alienate people on the other side.
Speaker 3 (37:22):
And it's a position that prompts me to reflect on myself and my actions while I'm also reflecting on the actions of others, like, like if we went back to Tozeze Baba. You had mentioned in one interview that yes, it can be about domestic abuse, but it can also, in listener's imagination move up to thinking about the entire country. You know the father coming home as the leadership coming home in some ways, right? Absolutely. Yes.
Speaker 7 (37:48):
Jennifer pointed the Floyds article, ring shout, the term signifying notes that Afrocentric art symbols live in an ecosystem of meaning making where multiple meanings have multiple interpretations that critique, play, question, and transform. The essence of Floyd's call response within Afro-centric culture is a symbolic conversational work of interaction. Tuku engages audiences with call response questions like, what is growing old? Is it alcohol that says to beat mother? With whom shall I be happy? Is it left to you to do the rest? Dialogic art. Call response. Mtukudzi's song Neria is a dialogic movie soundtrack that looks at the grief of a widow and social practices that accompany this grief. Jennifer writes of the power of the song to bring tears to listeners.
One thing is just how many ordinary Zimbabweans had experienced this in their own lives or in their own families. Instances where someone dies and that person's family tries to take advantage of supposedly traditional customs to go in and claim property as their own. This song, Neria, is about this happening, um, to a woman who is widowed. But it also happens to men. And when women die in Zimbabwe, their family can claim the right to all of their household utensils that they used. But often sometimes people take advantage of this custom and go in and really wipe out everything that was, that was in the house and leave the widower with like nothing. No pots, no pans, no dishes, no sheets on the bed, right? So imagine that this moment in which you're grieving and you've, you've lost your partner, and then suddenly on top of that you're dealing with, with the theft of your mutual property that you held with that partner. So a lot of people in Zimbabwe know of someone who to whom this has happened. And that's why the song really touched people so much. People could really identify with the message of what is happening.
Speaker 4 (40:20):
And in this song Mtukudzi was taking the role of a kind of supportive brother saying, don't lose heart, don't lose hope. It's a, it's a terrible time, but you're going to get through it. Right. And I think again, that message of, of support and encouragement, um, is something that Zimbabweans need to hear in all kinds of contexts right now and in the past, right as they move through periods of very intense suffering. So I think this song speaks to people who are experiencing suffering, even if that suffering isn't exactly the kind of suffering described in the song itself of, of losing a partner.
Speaker 4 (41:11):
Speaker 8 (41:20):
Speaker 8 (41:28):
so he has some songs that deliberately, I sat through the quote wife inheritance ceremony. I found someone who loves me. I found someone who will care for me. My suffering has gone. Right. Um, that song is called. But then he has other songs that are, that say this practice known as naca, Inheritance is not about sex. That's not what it should be. So deliberately critiquing those people who might try to take advantage of this inheritance practice to gain a sexual partner rather than to be taking care of a widow and her children. Right. So he's, he's very attuned to the sensitivities of what is going on in a way that Western lawyers and development officers are not. They just come in and see this thing. Wife inheritance. What kind of crazy thing is that and want to shut it down right away.
The song Izere Mhepo is a carrying bag. One that speaks to the experience of having left home and the dissonance between home and living in a displaced diaspora. What is home to those who are displaced?
Speaker 3 (42:46):
For diasporic residents home denotes not simply a physical location, but rather the place remembered in time, a constellation of geography and temporality. So what, what were your experiences about members in the diaspora and how this carrying bag idea meant so much to them?
I mean, to put it very simply, when you go back home, you realize things have changed a lot. And the home that is active in your imagination, it doesn't look like the home that now exists in reality. The longer you're out of the country, the more true this is. If you come here to go to college and you don't get to go back for all four years because your scholarship doesn't include that kind of travel money at the end of four years, you're going to go back and be shocked. What is this place? Where is my home that I remember and that I've been longing to come back to? Does that home even exist anymore? People die. Your physical home might be sold or rented out or occupied by somebody else or just collapse if it's in the rural areas and no one's living there anymore.
Um, the things that you took for granted, being able to go to the bank and take out money might no longer be possible. Um, the friends you had might have moved elsewhere. So what is home anymore? The longer time goes on, the more complicated the question becomes, right. And um, that idea of the carrying bag is very pre-colonial. It's about a bag woven from bark or from string or made from animal skin that you were carrying in the forest as you, um, hunt or collect medicine or herbal medicines or forage for food or whatever you come across in the forest in your journeys that might be useful. You have a carrying bag to put it in, right? So this idea of the carrying bag is fundamentally a creative idea about how people can interface with their environments. And as it turns out, Ursula Le Guin wrote an essay called, I think it's called the carrier bag theory of fiction or something.
So she also is kind of theorizing the carrier bag as a kind of fundamentally feminized, like technology that helps us to create stories about ourselves as we move about the world. And I think this is the same place that that Mtukudzi is coming from in this song, right? It's so odd. People are coming from very different cultural kinds of of conceptions, but they, they really share this idea of the carrying bag as being kind of a fundamental human technology for moving through an environment and in the process, creating a coherent and yard of about yourself that you can then use to re present yourself to others around you.
One of my favorite authors, Ursula Gwyn writes of wanting to replace masculine, heroic stories of war, destruction and triumph with stories of carrying bags. She writes that science fiction and writing in general is about quote, "how people relate to everything else in this fast sack, this belly of the universe, this womb of things to be and tomb of things that were. This never ending story. There are seeds to be gathered and room in the bag of stars."
From my own peacebuilding theory. You know, I'm, I think that this type of genre is so important because, you know, we're about to face probably one of the largest scenes of human migration that we've encountered as climate change moves on. And I'm, and I think that these musical explorations of what home is and what identity is in a very mobile context are incredibly important today.
Absolutely. And on that note, I'll say that I, I, I have been working with climate groups here in Rochester. I think it's a critically important issue. Um, and a lot of Zimbabwean musicians are singing about place in ways that suggest that people are very concerned with human relationships, not only with each other, but also with the places that they live and are moving through, um, on. Izere Mhepo in particular, you know, Mtukudzi's re-interpretation of this carrying bag is so brilliant because on the cover of the album, he is pictured with a very kind of, you know, humorous look on his face reaching into a Jansport backpack. So he really gets it. What is the carrying bag of the diaspora? It's this like American brand backpack. You know, he's speaking to those college students who are carrying their books around in their Jansport and he's speaking to those people who are raising children and the diaspora who are carrying their backpacks to school. Like he gets it. This isn't about, although we're using a word for something that has a pre-colonial like real deep meaning. It's also about the present day. He's not lost in history. You know, he's bringing things from the past into the present for people to really, really use in their daily lives.
So one of the most important theorists in the field of peacebuilding is Elise Boulding. And she's written eloquently about the family as being at the heart of peacebuilding and, and, and that they, they write the kind of that the first moment when we start to explore our sense of ethics. That leads us to understand the empathy and the very idea of pursuing a good for the benefit of others happens within the family. And then you write that, that approaching the household as a microcosm of society Tuku music brings to life a vibrantly imagined universe of moral social relations. And I wonder if you could talk about, um, how does a family-centered notion of Hunhu and dialogue seem to be relevant to our conflicts today?
Well, I'm very happy to hear about Boulding's work because I was not familiar with that work. Um, and in fact I kept thinking, you know, Zimbabweans are so insistent on the family as the microcosm of society or as the place where larger social and political issues should start being worked through. And I thought, you know, is there something here that that isn't quite enough. It is this focus on the family in a way. Reductionist or this is really coming from my interviews with Zimbabweans, this focus on the family, not my personal, you know, I had some reservations about, about this actually, this, this intense focus on the family as you know, a microcosm of, of, of society or the place where we should start working on these issues. What about organizing? What about community level solutions? What about right. So it's very interesting to me, to me to hear that, um, people who work on peace-building outside of Zimbabwe have also come to a similar conclusion.
Zimbabweans are very insistent about the family being a microcosm of the larger society. Um, so I don't have a good answer to this question because I don't really know. I still am not entirely convinced that the family is the starting point or I have some reservations about the family, especially the nuclear family here. What is a family for us? How many people are in the family? If you're working out these issues in a group, three or four, is that helpful? Who breaks up the power dynamics when you don't have a sawhira to come in and say, you know, sit down and listen to me? So in some ways it's possible that the Zimbabwean extended family with sawhiras involved and you know, local traditional leaders involved and you know, is more functional for working out social and political issues than our kind of isolated nuclear families that people tend to fall into in the United States where, we're much more mobile, we move away from our families. Often, we don't live with our extended families. We put older people in nursing homes, in younger people in preschool. You know, we don't have this kind of family structure that people in Zimbabwe have as a resource to think about these very complicated social and political issues in the context of your daily life.
[inaudible] and I think it's something too that my listeners really seem to understand too, in the struggles of working in a public school environment, that the strength of family structures is often a reflection of the, of your place within the socioeconomic context and what that context allows you to do as a family structure too. So yeah, I agree with you. I think it's a very complex answer and situation.
So my last question. Uh, so you have started a nonprofit and you've worked, moved into this digital humanities area. So I sense in you kind of a moral movement toward turning your scholarship toward toward a sense of good if you have, and I'm curious about how your work on this subject and other subjects has impacted your own sense of moral work as a teacher, a scholar, a person.
I think this is very interesting because for me, my relationships with people predate my scholarship. I was living in Zimbabwe playing music with people for 10 years before I got into grad school. And now I've known some of my, you know, quote unquote informants or collaborators for 25 years, more than half of my life, they've known me since I was 15 I'm still working with the same musicians. I'm bringing people to Rochester who I lived with in 1995. Right. So really for me, the moral and ethical considerations outweigh and predate my interest in scholarship. I really saw becoming an ethnomusicologist as a way to channel resources and money to the people I work with in Zimbabwe to try to create opportunities for Zimbabwean musicians who might not otherwise have them to come to the United States and teach and be recognized as the experts that they really are and who I know them to be.
So the nonprofit that I started, I actually started it in thousand three before I went to grad school, um, after living in Zimbabwe for another year after I finished my undergrad at Mount Holyoke college. I went back to Zimbabwe on a Fulbright fellowship for a year. And after coming back, I just thought I have to do something that the neighborhood I had lived in originally was really experiencing the effects of structural adjustment, HIV and AIDS. There were so many kids who could no longer afford to attend a government public school. So that nonprofit was formed specifically to pay school fees for teenage girls who are at the highest demographic risk of contracting HIV to just attend school, which is the best proven intervention in lowering someone's risk of contracting HIV. So it's really an HIV prevention program that is also about um, education and women's development. And I started that without any conception of it relating to scholarship in any way.
But um, as it turns out, my relationship with that organization has influenced my scholarship. For example, the Mhande clip that you would like to play is those students, the students in the nonprofit, because we have a music and dance group for those students that meets every Saturday. So I've really used a lot of material that has come out of my relationship with them whenever I'm in Zimbabwe, I go and study with them and participate in the rehearsals on Saturday mornings and learn traditional Zimbabwean music with them. And it has really, greatly enhanced my knowledge of a lot of the Zimbabwean Ngoma styles that I write about.
As we close, we return to the recording of the Mhande clip that Jennifer Kiker spoke about. I encourage you to watch this clip on our website.
In our next episode, we will feature a conversation with a Zimbabwean peacebuilder with the Mennonite central committee as he reflects on what Tuku music has meant to him personally and in his work on peacebuilding. Our special thanks to dr Jennifer Kyker for her time, welcoming me into her home to record this podcast and the deep relational work of her scholarship. Her book, Oliver Mtukudzi living Tuku music in Zimbabwe, is published by Indiana university press and is a brilliant exposition of the themes explored in this podcast.
I wish to thank a community of people for providing permission to use the recordings in this podcast. Thank you to teams at Putumayo records, Gallo records, and Sheer publishing Africa for communications and permissions. I have left links to the purchase of albums on our website. One of the best ways to support musicians and artists is through the purchase of their albums. I encourage you to check out the many beautiful recordings of Oliver Mtukudzi and as we publish this podcast, we grieve the many who are sick with the Corona virus. Those who are in fear of viral spread, those who are missing loved ones. We grieve Syrian families and Yemeni families who are freezing and cold refugee camps. The wisdom of Mtukudzi is that our lives, our struggles and our grief are eternally bound up in relationship. I am because we are. As we act out our sawhira to lighten the burdens of our brothers and sisters. We ask the question from Mtukudzi's song on AIDS toady because the question is never what should I do, but rather what should we do?
A blessing: Where the call of injustice appears and the crust of division hardens. May we embrace the question, the dialogue, the language, opening drawstrings of our carrying bags of our solitary wilderness into an ecosystem of us that asks, what shall we do?
This is the music and peacebuilding podcast hosted by Kevin Shorner-Johnson at Elizabethtown college we host a master of music education with an emphasis in peacebuilding. Thinking deeply, we reclaim space for connection and care. Join us at music peacebuilding dot com.