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Musicians Randy McIntosh, Amy Stewart Give Back to Zimbabwe

Boulder, Colorado is half-way around the world from the African country of Zimbabwe. But a husband-and-wife team with a love of African music keeps them connected, through concerts that feature Zimbabwean music, teaching fellowships for Zimbabwean musicians, a popular music school and fundraising for rural villages in Africa.

From Mozart to Mbira

When Randy McIntosh first studied music, he never dreamed that he'd become one of the leading champions of music from Zimbabwe.

"I went to college to study piano," he explains. "I also played guitar and cello and bass."

All that changed 15 years ago, when friends invited him to hear their African band. He says he got interested, and then he got hooked.

"Now I hardly play the piano at all anymore. I just play these instruments."

His wife, Amy Stewart, plays them, too. She says the beauty of Zimbabwean music led to their marriage.

"Randy was playing in a band, and I thought he was super cool!" she says with a laugh. "We started playing together also and eventually let go of all those other things we were doing."

He was teaching at a university. She was working for a non-profit organization. Now, the couple performs on stage and runs a music school in Boulder.

McIntosh says they named it in honor of the Zimbabwean word for "fun."

"Kutandara! And it means to get together and have a good time."

And students at the school do.

In one of Kutandara's studios, three teens are playing marimbas, practicing for a concert where they're the star performers.

"It's really unique, and not of lot of people do it," says one of them, adding that the instrument is just fun to play. The other two students agree. One admits she spends all her free time playing.

"It's my favorite thing. I love all the people, 'cause you get to know everybody, and I love the songs."

The keyboards in front of them are each as big as a table, with mallets for striking the wooden notes. The hundreds of students who've taken classes here over the past 10 years also learn to play other Zimbabwean instruments, such as the ungoma drum and a hand-held instrument with metal tines, called an mbira. As he plunks out a tune, McIntosh says, "The sounds that I'm playing right now almost sound like a music box to me."

Giving back to the source of the music

In addition to playing and teaching its music, the couple leads efforts to help the country that music comes from.

McIntosh says, "We do a lot of relief work and a lot of work for the people of Zimbabwe, trying to promote their music and trying to help our friends and teachers who live in Zimbabwe."

Stewart adds that they each put in 80 hours a week on these efforts. "The thing that drives us is the music and the people of Zimbabwe," she says.

Their efforts, McIntosh notes, are more important now than ever.

"Because of AIDS and because of the political situation there and because of droughts, right now, cholera in Zimbabwe, there's a lot of people who are sick and impoverished and need our help."

Three or four times a year, they hold large fundraisers. The money supports Kutandara's Rugare Peace Project, which provides food and medical supplies to some Zimbabwean villages as well as long-term improvements, such as electricity or building construction, decided upon by village elders.

McIntosh and Stewart also stay connected with a visiting artist program. Each year, they bring Zimbabwean musicians to the United States to teach at their music school. Stewart says it's all part of giving back.

"We're blessed with such a gift of their music that giving back to our friends and teachers from Zimbabwe was just natural."