A Happy Marriage: American Jazz Meets Shona Dance Musicby Peter Holslin
On a February evening at a spacious art gallery in Midtown, Max Wild blew the lively melody of his tune “Tamba” on alto saxophone, shimmering in a purple-and-pink sport coat and silvery sneakers. Suddenly, his band dropped into a driving groove that swelled into a torrent of skittering drums and wailing guitar.
“Tamba” means “to dance” (and in the imperative, “Dance!”) in the language of the Shona people, who are native to Zimbabwe, the southern African country where Wild grew up. In the opening section of the tune, drummer Obed Calvaire follows the 12/8 gallop typically played on hosho, shakers made from dried maranka-pumpkin gourds, filled with seeds, and used in anything from traditional possession ceremonies in the countryside to pop concerts in Harare, the capital. “In Shona music, the rhythm just keeps going,” Wild said. “It keeps going the whole way through.”
When he performs in Africa alongside Sam Mtukudzi, a popular Zimbabwean songwriter, showgoers will be dancing within the first moments of the set. But at the Ana Tzarev gallery, an enthralled audience of about seventy people sat still in creaky wood chairs, and only a few heads swayed.
This did not come as a disappointment to Wild, who feels just at home at Shrine, the bumping world music venue in Harlem, as he does at 55 Bar, the cozy jazz venue in Greenwich Village. He plays for diverse audiences: the New Yorkers who sit as they contemplate his jazzy harmonies and the Harareans who join in the sweaty revelry of his Afro-beat grooves. “It’s a nice challenge to be able to play for different people,” he said. “It’s important to be able to reach everyone, and to make music accessible to everyone.”
Jazz and Shona music are gracefully married in Tamba, an album Wild co-wrote with Mtukudzi that’s set to be released on ObliqSound in Fall 2009. In Zimbabwe, where diversity has been under siege for nearly a decade, this collaboration stands to be refreshingly progressive.
The day before Wild played at Ana Tzarev, it so happened that Zimbabweans had good cause to dance: Morgan Tsvangirai, chairman of the country’s most prominent opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was sworn in as prime minister. In his inaugural speech, Tsvangirai vowed that the new “transitional government” would bring justice to dozens of political prisoners, restore an economy thrashed by relentless inflation, feed a starving population, and contain a raging cholera outbreak.
The result of five months’ worth of negotiations mediated by the Southern African Development Community, the region’s fifteen-nation bloc, the arrangement pairs Tsvangirai with Zimbabwe’s infamous president, Robert Mugabe. Locals are reasonably skeptical. “We are all fine, and of course everyone is hopeful!” wrote Penny Yon, an administrator for the Pamberi Trust, an arts organization based in Harare, in an email that week. “But we have been hopeful for a long time.”
Wild grew up in an atmosphere radically different from the one you would read about in the news today. “Zimbabwe in the eighties was like the jewel of Africa,” he said in an interview at his Washington Heights apartment. “You go back and it’s still the same country, and it’s still beautiful, but it’s just amazing how bad it can get.”
Wild, 31, who has bluish gray-green eyes, a rugged, boyish look, and a penchant for flashy shirts with colorful African patterns, was born in Essen, West Germany. His parents, both left-wing academics, had done research in Zimbabwe when it was called Rhodesia and ruled by the colonial regime of Ian Smith. His family moved into a white colonial-style house in Harare two years after Zimbabwean independence in 1980. At the time, this relatively small country was an economic powerhouse, renowned for its stirring vistas, tasty tobacco, and hypnotic Shona mbira—an ancient African family of iron-pronged musical instruments played with the thumbs and right index finger, a certain type of which is used in time-honored ceremonies to help summon ancestral spirits. Wild remembers growing up in a harmonious multiracial society. “All my friends were either white or black, he said. “There’s no difference.”
But even in Zimbabwe’s cosmopolitan capital, Western instruments like saxophones were uncommon. When Wild was twelve, he was taken by his friend’s extraordinary skronker from the United States. “When you’re a kid, you wanna do what your friend does,” he said. “It just sounded really cool, and looked really cool.” He started taking lessons with Rick Van Heerden, an expressive saxophonist who introduced him to music by the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.
Meanwhile, his dad brought home the latest local LPs, his nanny tuned the family’s “Starship Enterprise–type” stereo system to ZBC Radio 2, and he listened to the driving chimurenga music of Thomas Mapfumo—famous for his paeans to the liberation war, known as the SecondChimurenga (Shona for “struggle”)—and the low-slung grooves of Oliver Mtukudzi, who is celebrated for his perceptive, allegorical lyrics. Wild never guessed that he would eventually collaborate with Mtukudzi on a single, or that he would record an album with Mtukudzi’s son. “Back then, I didn’t really know who anyone was,” he said. “It was just, like, music to me.”
Wild dreamed of being a jazz saxophonist in New York City. He left Zimbabwe in 1993 to finish high school in Germany, and advanced to the bigger jazz scene of London, where he studied at the Guildhall School of Music. Finally, he graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in 2004. Within a few months, he was producing his first album, Zambezi Sunset, with his current band. But after his dream came true, he realized that he was “just one of a thousand other jazz saxophone players in New York,” he said. Then it dawned on him that, “even if it was just subconsciously, my tunes had been influenced by Zimbabwe and my upbringing. So I thought: Well, if I just accept where I came from, that’s really who I am.”
At that point, however, President Mugabe sought to deny whites like him that right. In 2000, egged on by an anti-white veteran’s movement, Mugabe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF, launched a violent campaign to seize the country’s commercial farms from their white owners. Vengeful mobs of war veterans—many of them clearly too young to have fought for independence—set upon white farmers’ homes, terrorizing their families, attacking their staff, destroying their property, and haphazardly parceling out their land. The economy fell into a death-spiral of rapid inflation.
Vilifying whites as “Rhodesians” and dismissing blacks in the rising MDC as “puppets” of Britain, ZANU-PF worked to silence anyone who dared to speak out against its schemes. As a minority of political and military elites built extravagant mansions and zoomed around in brand new Humvees, lush farmlands lay fallow and the average Zimbabwean struggled to pay for a bag of cornmeal, the local staple. Gradually, food evaporated from supermarket shelves. A deep, widespread hunger set in.
In a country where artists and activists say that ordinary aspects of daily life have been eclipsed by divisive politics, Wild’s collaboration with Sam Mtukudzi may come across as a bold statement. Tamba is an intercontinental call to swinging hips, invoking the cathartic act that Zimbabweans have long cherished as a cultural institution—a way to connect with ancestors, to mend collective wounds, to express love, to simply have fun. As Wild puts it, the music “speaks for itself”: Over the hosho beat of “Tinomutenda” (“We thank you [Lord]”), Soren Moller’s jazzy, offbeat keys interlock seamlessly with Jesse Lewis’s jumpy, mbira-style guitar phrasing.
Tamba was written and recorded in three weeks in April 2008, in a house in New Jersey. It was finished in March, a few weeks after about Tsvangirai was injured and his wife was killed in a tragic car accident. Grim news, speckled with glimmers of hope, continued to emerge about Zimbabwe’s transitional government: Shortly after Tsvangirai took office, ZANU-PF began a final push to remove white farmers from their land. Civil servants now get meager $100 vouchers as monthly salaries, and food has returned to store shelves, but not everyone can afford it. According to the World Health Organization, the cholera epidemic has waned, but dozens of people still die of the curable disease every day.
Some observers never had faith in the transitional government to begin with, and others are beginning to lose it, along with their confidence in the determined Tsvangirai. As for Mugabe, it seems that nothing short of a miracle will win him the trust of international leaders, who are wary of giving the shaky administration economic aid that could help rebuild Zimbabwe.
For Wild, finishing the song “Kuvakidzana”—Shona for “to build something together” and also “to build each other”—had been a struggle all its own. But it came together beautifully.
Opening on a bracing 12/8 groove, “Kuvakidzana” blossoms into a divine 4/4 section. Like a gospel choir, Mtukudzi and Alicia Olatuja, a New York-based singer, reach into the upper register as they punctuate each passage with “Kuvakidzana!”
For months, the song was without lyrics and mbira. Oliver Mtukudzi enthusiastically agreed to fly over from Zimbabwe to record, but the contract was mysteriously cancelled. Mapfumo, the chimurenga music star who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 2000, dropped out the day before a planned studio session in late February. So Wild sent the mix to his California-based friend Chiwoniso Maraire, a Zimbabwean-American songwriter who was planning to contribute to another track. She began writing the lyrics for “Kuvadizana” that night.
Maraire thinks of “Kuvadizana” as a love song about “the bigger picture,” about a people working towards a greater goal, she said. “In this time that we are now loved ones, we need to listen to each other,” she wrote in Shona in her thick notebook, according to her rough translation. “Nothing can go wrong when we understand each other / Nothing is impossible if we know each other / This time of giving each other trouble and stress, let it end here / In that way, our building of each other [building something together] will begin now.”
In a low-lit recording booth the next day, wearing her glasses and faded-camouflage jacket, Maraire sang ideas for the opening section. “OK, just stop it there,” she said. “That’s a direction. Is that a good direction?”
“Yeah, that’s a good direction,” Wild told her, standing next to the mixing board. “Except, what I didn’t like at the end of the phrases—you were still kind of making it too pretty.”
“Dude, that’s what I do!” she said, giggling. “OK, I’m going outta my boundaries. Seriously, it’s cool. Alright, so don’t make it that pretty…”
When the sound engineer replayed the angular guitar and cool keys, she sang a series of breathtaking flourishes, making the words move to a unique rhythm.
“Yeah, that’s exactly it!” Wild said. “Just let it breathe.”
In the mixing room, Wild’s two delicate hosho, with their natural handles, laid on the coffee table. One was wrapped in a white ACE bandage. Content with the take, Maraire proceeded to add harmonies to Mtukudzi’s and Olatuja’s “Kuvakidzanas.” In a month, the American mbira player Chris Berry would complete the song with the resonant voice of the ancestors. Wild smiled gently. “It’s going to be the new hit for the summer,” he said.