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Tonight the National Centre for Early Music in York was awash with the sounds of Zimbabwe as the six-piece band Mokoomba filled the room with their youthful energy and playful exuberance, albeit with a stripped-down version of their usual sound, devoid of keyboards and tantalising brass arrangements as showcased on their current Rising Tide album. After a brief introduction by NCEM's Duty Manager Mark Hildred, Mokoomba's charismatic lead singer Mathias Muzaza entered the venue from the main entrance at the back of the hall, prowling amongst the crowd whilst holding a tribal mask in traditional fashion. The richly textured a cappella vocals of the five remaining musicians soon resounded around the hall in a call and response style as they made their way to the stage to join their enigmatic leader.
The audience didn't have to wait too long before the sounds of the Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) region of Zimbabwe infiltrated the surrounding medieval venue from the stone walls and leaded windows all the way up to the rafters. The music was complemented by the colours of Africa with the presence of the Zimbabwean flag, with its vivid green, yellow, red and black stripes and iconic native soapstone bird draped amongst the traditional African drums on the back riser as well as attached to the headstock of Abundance Mutori's bass guitar. As with much of what we now know and recognise to be World Music, language is conveyed much more coherently through music than in words and during the two sets that followed, there was little banter between the songs, allowing the music to speak for itself. Before the second song was through, people of all ages, young and old, formed a line at the back of the hall and proceeded to dance and sway to the infectious rhythms of Southern Africa.
Hailing from one of Zimbabwe's smallest rural villages, the band sing in Tonga, a language pretty much unfamiliar even to most of the band's fellow countrymen let alone this York audience. Tonight the words of the songs were understood simply through the passion of the performance, not least through the strength of Muzaza's inimitable rasping vocals.
After the short break, Trustworth Samende and Abundance Mutori opened the second set with an instrumental duet for guitar and bass, before one of the most expressively emotional performances of the evening. With his hand resting upon his chest, the seated Muzaza delivered a powerful and heartfelt performance, indicating once again that language is neither a barrier nor a hindrance when conveying emotion; tears are tears in any language.
Midway through the second set, the band launched into what appeared to be Mokoomba's party-piece, where each of the band were invited to join Mathias in the spotlight in order to perform their own particular drumstick dance. Each stepped forward brandishing their sticks in tribal manner before Mathias opened the invitation up to the rest of the audience, one or two of whom took up the offer, even a teenage break dancer who twirled around on his back as six African musicians looked on in delight.
Returning to the stage for the one encore, the band concluded with a percussion only performance, with each of the six musicians grabbing the nearest drum, rattle or stick, for a show-stopping finale, featuring the band's leader on djembe, once again in call and response mode, only this time with beats rather than words. Joining Mathias, Trustworth and Abundance were percussionists Donald Moyo, Ndaba Coster Moyo and Miti Mugande, each contributing in no small part to the band's highly individual Zimbabwean heartbeat. A memorable evening of inspirational music and song from one of the most important bands in African music.