Master of sub-Saharan strings swings into Alberta

There are few sounds more synonymous with the African continent than the airy reverberation of the Malian guitar. For three masters of the sub-Saharan strings Habib Koite Afel Bocoum and Oliver Mtukudzi their instrument of choice — be it a traditional kamele n’goni or a modified “western” guitar — is an invaluable tool in representing their mutual musical roots and their individual artistic innovations. Braving the elements in the name of cross-cultural enrichment the intrepid trio will make a single appearance in Calgary as they travel across the country presenting the Acoustic Africa tour.

No stranger to the rigours of navigating the pitfalls of a Canadian winter bestselling guitarist Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi can think of but one word to describe the scene he expects to find upon his arrival in the Great White North.

“Horrible” Tuku says. “I’ve been to Canada several times so I know that the weather is too cold for my liking. In Zimbabwe it’s very hot every day even in the so-called winter.”

While Malian griot Koite is widely known for his work with his band Bamada the sun-loving Mtukudzi has been recording with artists such as Thomas Mapfumo since the 1970s. After honing his craft as a member of the South African supergroups Mahube and Wagon Wheels Tuku launched his iconic band Black Spirits and began making a name for himself as the authentic and husky voice of Zimbabwe in the 21st century.

Globally recognized as a wizard of wood and wire Tuku’s quintessentially African sound interweaves hypnotic kateke percussion with socially conscious lyrics and a compelling array of melodies all underscored by the irrepressible pluckiness of the mbira thumb-piano. More than comfortable with the task of melding his signature Tuku Music tones to those of the fleet-fingered Koite and Tamashek troubadour Bocoum Tuku savours the spotlight and the strength he has drawn from the fruits of their collective efforts.

“We all bring our own songs into the set and we all play them and sing together. The dynamic we share is truly excellent it’s so colourful” says Tuku. “The fusion of our instruments and voices creates such beauty. We ask the question: Is the love of the music something we all have in common? Yes I bring my love and feeling to the music. I simply can’t help myself.”

Dedicated to presenting the best their respective countries have to offer the Acoustic Africa threesome individually explores the wide spectrum of African guitar music. Despite adhering to different geographical conventions the heartbreakingly beautiful intricacies of Koite and Bocoum’s Malian blues perfectly accentuate Tuku’s bold Chimurenga-influenced sound. According to Tuku taking on the role of Zimbabwe’s de facto musical ambassador to an international audience has become a journey of personal growth a stepping stone to future achievements.

“Travelling and performing at concerts and festivals is both my job and my inspiration” he explains. “Taking these songs beyond the borders of Mali and Zimbabwe [and] showing people a variety of African guitar traditions is an amazing opportunity. Collaboration is healthy for us and it’s good for the fans to see us coming together in a different form. The whole idea is about improving on what we know and at the same time doing whatever we want. Working with Habib and Afel has made me proud of being an African. What I am is what we are playing; it proves who we are. I’m an African who plays the music of Africa so if you wanna feel real African music come and see a unique Tuareg pure African experience. Oh and the drummers want me to remind the audience to bring their dancing shoes.”