Creating a successful fusion of pop jazz and rootsy African music is tricky. The brisk, clean sophistication and polish of the former is not always an easy fit with the rough edges and unbridled spirit of the latter. Max Wild, a young saxophonist and composer whose life has made homes for him in Harare, Berlin and New York, takes on this challenge with determination, chops and unwavering commitment, and the result is a rather remarkable recording. Tamba means roughly “to play” in Shona, the main language in Zimbabwe where Wild received his initial musical education. And play he does, whether taking a freewheeling solo on the album’s expansive title track, or making a skilled journey from a keyboard-driven mbira groove—reminiscent of vintage Thomas Mapfumo—to bouncy pop—reminiscent of Spyra Gyra—on “Tinomutenda.”
Wild shares the credit here with a number of important collaborators, most notably Sam Mtukudzi, son of the Zimbabwean music legend, Oliver Mtukudzi. Wild and the young Mtukudzi forged a friendship and a fruitful musical alliance. Mtukudzi sings with plaintive force on five of these ten tracks, and shares composing credits on seven. There’s no mistaking the affection, chemistry and shared vision between these two young artists—all of which makes it that much more tragic, that Sam Mtukudzi was killed in a car accident in Zimbabwe just months before Tamba was released. He was 21 years old. Transcending heartbreak through music of hope and uplift was a already theme in this music before this personal tragedy struck. The social and political tragedy that marks Zimbabwe’s recent history is an unspoken but unavoidable subtext here. Mtukudzi’s shocking death only adds to the melancholy undertones within these warm, yearning compositions.
Another new-generation force in Zimbabwean music, Chiwoniso, also contributes to Tamba, adding layers of vocal to the opening track, “Kwatinobva,” a collaborative composition by her and Sam Mutukudzi. Chiwoniso also sings gorgeously on “Kuvakidzana,” a track that opens in mbira mode (the mbira played by inimitable American music maverick Chris Berry) and morphs into a buoyant gospel anthem. The groovy optimism of African gospel music emerges elsewhere too, as on “Odun De,” featuring Mtududzi and vocalist Alicia Olatuja. There’s also a cover of an Oliver Mtukudzi classic, “Ndakuvara,” with Sam poignantly channeling his father in a snappy new arrangement.
Throughout, Wild’s sunny alto sax wheedles and brays, working in just enough heady jazz harmony to stretch the formula without breaking it. In the end, Tamba may be too squeaky clean and clever to satisfy roots music diehards, but it shows persuasive understanding of all its sources, from the squirrely rhythms of Zimbabwean traditional music to the neat arranging tricks of jazz fusion. This is passionate, skilled work by a team of young artists for whom genre boundaries seem made to be broken. Wild, with his multi-national background and broad musical vocabulary announces himself as a willing and able contributor to the future of African music in our globalized world.