Zimbabwe’s award-winning band Mokoomba plays Freight & Salvage on Saturday. Photo: Eric van Nieuwland
Zimbabwe’s award-winning band Mokoomba plays Freight & Salvage on Saturday. Photo: Eric van Nieuwland

Politically and economically the news from Zimbabwe is almost unfailingly dire, with the latest dose of misery inflicted by Cyclone Idai last month. But musically, the southern African nation is home to an incalculably rich heritage represented on the international scene by artists like the late Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, the still potent Thomas Mapfumo, and the incantatory Stella Chiweshe.

Like most musicians from Zimbabwe touring outside the country, they’re Shona, the ethnic group that makes up the vast majority of the country’s citizens. But the band Mokoomba has introduced an ebulliently grooving sound that draws mostly on styles from outside the Zimbabwean Shona-sphere. Hailing from Chinotimba township near Victoria Falls, a small city in the northwestern corner of the country on the border with Zambia, the band has become a creative force inside and outside the country. Mokoomba makes its only 2019 Bay Area appearance Friday at Freight & Salvage.

“Popular musicians like Tuku and Thomas Mapfumo are our role models,” says Abundance Mutori, Mokoomba’s bassist. “All those guys came from Shona culture and play Shona grooves. But as a band coming from Victoria Falls we thought of the different styles of percussion and singing that haven’t been heard. We wanted to preserve our languages and cultures through music. We thought it was a great thing to showcase the other side of Zimbabwe.”

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Playing together since they were teenagers, the sextet has earned a devoted following at home, where it was just announced they won a coveted National Arts Merit Award at a ceremony held at Harare’s International Conference Centre last weekend. Zimbabwe’s largest daily newspaper, The Herald, reported that Mokoomba earned a statue for “Arts Personality of the Year.” The band won the award in 2013, the year that their second album, Rising Tide, was nominated in the UK for a  Songlines Music Award (in the “Revelation” category).

The embrace in Zimbabwe is particularly heartening as Mokoomba sings in the regional languages of Tonga, Nyanja and Ndebele as well as English and Shona. The band’s name stems from a Tonga phrase evoking deep respect for the Zambezi river and the communities it supports near its banks. Playing a combination of traditional and electric instruments, Mokoomba’s instrumentation reflects the encompassing nature of the music. While toured the world and collaborating with far-flung musicians the band’s sound has absorbed soukous, funk, and reggae along with styles from across southern, eastern and central Africa. Wherever they play, they seek to spread a message all too rarely heard about the cultural riches of their homeland.

“It’s an honor to be recognized as ambassadors of Zimbabwean culture,”  Mutori says. “We want to put Zimbabwe in a positive light, how the people have hoped for a better future. Our cultures live together and love each other. It’s a melting pot. We’re proud of our own culture and open to others.”

The band celebrates coexistence, but it also champions self-determination. When Mokoomba first started performing, local languages weren’t taught at schools in Victoria Falls. “Now students can learn Tonga in school,” Mutori says. Their success has helped stoke young people’s interest in their own music and culture at a time when Western sounds dominate on the airwaves. Mokoomba offers a cosmopolitan path that encompasses the best of West while not losing sight of the treasure at home.

“What’s kept us going is we’re open to all these different sounds,” Mutori says. “These sounds from Victoria Falls are natural to us. The styles we’ve heard while traveling are something we can add to make it more interesting. The youth have lost that taste for traditional music, but from looking at us, how we’re original but open, they can be proud of our own styles.”

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Venezuelan-born pianist Ed Simon is the only member of the SFJAZZ Collective who actually lives in the Bay Area, and it’s been fascinating to watch as he’s forged relationships with other Bay Area musicians in recent years. A composer, arranger and improviser with a startlingly beautiful pan-American vision, Simon has been at the center of informal movement of Latin American musicians erasing the old boundaries between straight-ahead jazz and Latin jazz. On Saturday he performs at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall with bassist Jeff Denson and drummer Alan Hall, distinguished bandleaders and composers in their own right.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....