Music Has No Language

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Where musician Oliver Mtukudzi comes from—a ghetto neighborhood in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare—singing is not for music’s sake.

It has purpose. It has passion. And it has a message, though most Americans cannot understand it—as Mr. Mtukudzi sings in his nation’s dominant Shona language, as well as Ndebele and some English.

But that’s no matter, he said last week during a telephone interview, on the road in Virginia. His audiences don’t need to know the words to feel the songs—foot-stomping music described as a mixture of Zimbabwean pop-style “jit” and South African pop that he will perform on Sunday night at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.

“Language is not a barrier,” Mr. Mtukudzi—or “Tuku,” as he is affectionately called by his fans—explained in a thick African accent. “In fact, language makes us who we are. This music, it’s who I am. I can’t stop. It is who I am. I can’t run away from myself.”

With nearly 60 albums under his belt, the veteran musician is showing no signs of letting up. He writes what he sees around him, what he hears in the streets and what he experiences in life.

“As long as people have something to say, there is something to sing about,” he said. “And there’s always something new to talk about.”

At one point, in 2010, the musician—who is also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for eastern and southern Africa—did not have anything to say. His beloved son and fellow musician, Sam, was killed in a car crash at age 21.

“He was more a friend than a son. Kind of difficult to continue working,” Mr. Mtukudzi said. “I had lost him.”

Three years later—on Mr. Mtukudzi’s 60th birthday—he released his 55th studio album, “Sarawoga,” which means “left alone” in Shona, as a tribute to Sam.

“Some of the pieces of music, they were meant to be collaborations with my son,” he said. “It took me time to actually work on it. I use the music—my performing—as my therapy to try to help myself. It was more than coming up with a song.”

Coming off a three-month tour of the United States, Caribbean and United Kingdom, Mr. Mtukudzi will return to his hometown on April 17—the eve of Zimbabwe’s Independence Day celebrations—and perform a concert of his greatest hits.

“The theme of the show is, play whatever. Whatever songs that get shouted, we will play. We’re not going to write a set list,” he said. “Yes, the way to do this show is at home. When we are back home.”

Oliver Mtukudzi & the Black Spirits will perform on Sunday, March 9, at 8 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Admission is $25. 288-1500 | whbpac.org.

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