Listen to the music of African guitarist Oliver Mtukudzi and you might begin to suspect American pop is intellectually and spiritually empty.
Mtukudzi, 58, has written songs for more than 30 albums over the past 30 years. He is arguably Zimbabwe's most accomplished musician.
His mournful and mysterious 2002 song "Ndakuvara" features lead guitar that is pensive and full of regret. The rhythms of bongos and bass keep the song forging ahead, searching for meaning. The lyrics convey an elder's disappointment in a youth gone astray: "Call the mother of my children," sings Mtukudzi with a soulful voice. "I am hurt. I was injured while training the ox. I thought this young ox would be like its elders. And yet it ignored its elders' good examples."
The music is rhythmic and melodically accessible. The words confront the experience of everyday life in direct, simple and starkly honest ways.
Mtukudzi performs at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Thursday, March 10, in a program called Acoustic Africa. He'll appear with two other world-music guitar masters, Habib Koite and Afel Bocoum, both from Mali.
On the phone with Mtukudzi, I ask him how his music compares to Western pop. "Everything about it is different," he says. "The way we play. The way we sing."
It's hard to argue with that. There are no thumping drum machines copied and pasted into an audio file by an engineer. There is no obligatory use of explicit words - words that will get bleeped in a radio edit.
There are lyrical subjects that extend beyond the shallow reach of clubs, alcohol and booty. Mtukudzi writes songs about the pain of watching someone die, or the hope found in social unity.
"How painful it is to look after someone you know is gonna die," sings Mtukudzi on "Todii." "When they have AIDS. This is a condition that will not spare them. Death has been made manifest."
"Tiende, Tiende" looks to unlock the potential of a continent's people. "We need love to unite so we can succeed," sings Mtukudzi. "There's more to Mama Africa than poverty and war."
The Acoustic Africa show also features the bluesy and rhythmically meditative music of Habib Koite. His lyrics tell stories, too. "Abana" is a song about a boy resisting the vice of cigarette smoking. Koite's meandering guitar lines reinforce the emotional turmoil at the core of this decision. As the song concludes, the rising percussion celebrates his steadfast determination.
Koite, 53, formed his band Bamada in 1988. His unique vocal style never wavers from its peaceful and serene posture. You can hear it on "Baro," a song that merges Koite's brooding guitar with his beautifully contemplative voice.
The third Acoustic Africa performer, Afel Bocoum, 55, was only 13 when he joined the musical group of Malian legend Ali Farka Toure. He formed his own group, Alikibar, in the 1980s. His debut album came in 1999.
Bocoum has made the Niger River a central theme of his music. Bocoum grew up near it, and Alikibar means "messenger of the great river."
Accordingly, his song structures are broad, open and flowing. Most songs last six to seven minutes and have few sharp contrasts of verse and chorus. On tracks like "Ciro Kayna," Bocoum sets a mood that gently rises and subsides across musical time.
The Acoustic Africa tour may be a stark departure from American pop, but Mtukudzi has this to say about its universal appeal: "Anyone who gets near our music experiences it the same way."