The Heart of Africa

“We bring the songs, you make the show!”

So exclaimed Oliver Mtukudzi at B.B. King’s in Times Square. Tuku, as he’s affectionately known, performed as part of the collaboration titled Acoustic Africa, featuring fellow acclaimed musicians Habib Koite and Afel Bocoum.

And what a collaboration it was!

Through their guitars, the musicians weaved Mali and Zimbabwean music together, plucking and strumming, picking and gliding. Their voices too, harmonized together in song, and in camaraderie, as they told the stories that brought them – and their music – together. At times there would be four guitars on stage, accompanied by the mbira or djembe. For others, there would just be the single Mtukudzi and his guitar singing Neria.

Oliver Mtukudzi, Habib Koité, Afel Bocoum

As an encore, they performed a goosebump-inducing Malika in tribute to Miriam Makeba. That performance in itself told the story of the musicians’ respect for Mama Africa, whom they had toured and performed with in the past.

Story-telling, deeply seated in the African oral tradition, helped the audience engage on deeper level with many of the songs performed that are sung in Tuareg or Shona.

Earlier in the week, I went to City Winery to see another African artist use stories to win over a new audience. Johnny Clegg performed a sold-out show as part of his first US tour since 2005, on the back of his first album release here in over 15 years, called Human. The audience embraced his mix of story-telling and dancing, together with all those hits we’ve come to know and love.

In all the years I’ve seen Johnny Clegg perform, I never tire of hearing the stories behind his songs. Aside from the fact that he can craft a great track, his anthropological background comes through. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed watching the series A Country Imagined.

On the way to the restroom, I heard a woman, shaking her head, say that he’d totally ripped off Sting and Paul Simon. I hope that as these stories continue to get told, people like her will realize that it’s not just American musicians who have been plying their trade for many years. It feels as if American stories have been told, and heard, far more so than others. But just because South African or African stories haven’t all been told and heard yet, doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.

This is why it’s so wonderful that all these African events are taking place here in New York. Zimbabwean saxophonist Max Wild told tales with his instrument on a recent Saturday night in Harlem, while Moroccan singer Malika Zara and South African Lorraine Klaasen spun more stories about Miriam Makeba at the Apollo Theater Cafe a few nights ago. There’s a New York African Film Festival kicking off this week, with even more stories to watch and listen to.

I’m certainly not complaining.


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