Mtukudzi: a life well lived

Mtukudzi: a life well lived

Music cares not that you know or understand the language it is being sung in, it is a universal language that transcends all human ramifications of culture, custom, tradition, or creed: for music like the smile is understood by all, is loved by all, and is there for the enjoyment of all. It was in 1994 when I saw the motion picture Neria with Oliver Mtukudzi playing the melancholic eponymous title soundtrack and the words connected with the tale of the lonely widow Neria.

I did not know that I would be singing along in a few moments though I understood none of the meanings in the anthem of those that loved Oliver Mtukudzi but knew not the meaning of Shona. That is the essence of the man who came to wow an entire continent and prove that indeed music speaks in a universal language. The soulful words:

Neria, Neria ooo Usaore moyo kaNeria Mwari anewe (2)…

And then one would just follow with a hum because the Shona words would twist one’s tongue, for Shona is a soft language on the tongue and Sesotho is firm. But ‘Tuku’ is well loved in this country and will sorely be missed, having graced the annual LETOFE and other previous festivals in the Kingdom in the Sky. What we cannot speak in Shona, we feel in the music of Oliver Mtukudzi.

Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi was born into a family of six on the 22nd of September 1952 and passed on the 23rd of January 2019 and is noted as the most popular a Zimbabwean musician, businessman, philanthropist, human rights activist and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Southern Africa Region. Tuku is considered to have been Zimbabwe’s most renowned and internationally recognised cultural icon of all time, a feat many in the music industry that began careers with him have thus far not really been able to equal, largely due to one simple fact: Tuku’s music is easy to connect with in terms of its rhythm and simplicity.

From Neria to Todii, one can find crowds from different cultures singing along to the songs the husky voiced maestro from Zim sang in a long career spanning almost 50 years and 66 albums (exactly equal to the number of years he spent living in this here world, meaning that he had an album for each one of the years he lived on earth!).
Mtukudzi grew up in Highfield, a poor neighbourhood in Salisbury (modern-day Harare) in the then called Southern Rhodesia of the British colonial years. I guess the poverty of the times had some positive effect in moulding the best artistic minds into becoming world ambassadors in terms of showing the impact music can have in transforming the world into a better place.

It is said by some accounts that he began performing in 1977 when he joined the Wagon Wheels, a band that also featured Thomas Mapfumo and fellow legendary guitarist James Chimombe, but some records denote the year he began the music as 1972 (which is more believable if one is to consider the fact that he was an already seasoned musician when he met Mapfumo).

Like many other bands in Africa, they got the rare opportunity to express themselves through music through Paul Tangi Mhova Mkondo, an African nationalist and music promoter, who provided money and resources to the group. He got them to perform at Club Mutanga (Pungwe) which, at the time, was the only night club available for blacks under Rhodesia’s policy of segregation (Apartheid). Their single Dzandimomotera went gold and Tuku’s first album followed, which was also a major success.

With his husky voice, Mtukudzi became the most recognised voice to emerge from Zimbabwe and his entry onto the international scene earned him a devoted following across Africa and beyond. He was a member of Zimbabwe’s Kore-Kore group, with Nzou Samanyanga as his totem singing songs in the nation’s dominant Shona language along with Ndebele and English.

The music incorporates elements of different musical traditions, giving his music a distinctive style, known to fans as Tuku Music (a fact which I attribute particularly to his style of playing guitar, that guitar is actually what made the difference in sound clearer to the ear of the listener). Mtukudzi toured around the world, playing on stages in the UK, US, Canada, and the rest of the world in front of large audiences.

All were entranced as we were here in the Kingdom, for there was no way one could ignore those clawed fingers strumming the strings, barely touching them, as if floating across the copper of the strings and the wood of the fretboard as if the guitar were merely a messenger he used to pass the message in the songs he sang in his long lifetime on stages across the world.

Mtukudzi fathered five children and has two grandchildren. Two of his children are also musicians. His son Sam Mtukudzi, a successful musician in his own right, died in a car accident in March 2010 and in 2013, he released an album titled “Sarawoga”, in tribute to his son. Mtukudzi’s music career started at the age of 23 with the 1975 release of his debut single, Stop After Orange. It’s been stated widely, including on Mtukudzi’s own website that in 1977 he teamed up with Zimbabwe top musician, Thomas Mapfumo, in a famous band called Wagon Wheels. The brief sojourn in the presence of another Zimbabwean music giant marked his official entry into the Zimbabwean music industry. Mapfumo has denied this by saying:

I was coming from Mutare myself where we were contracted at a hotel in Dangamvura. When I returned to Harare, that’s when I met Oliver. He was practicing at James Bond’s place because this guy used to own equipment, so a lot of youngsters used to go there just to practice music. After I met Oliver, we had a short tour together.
I was already singing my Shona music, and he was playing something strange… he was playing the guitar, singing a song like… we used to call the song Green for Go and Red for Stop.

This means that Oliver was already a seasoned musician, with the only influence from Mapfumo being the encouragement to sing in his mother’s language and being the good guy he was, he took Mapfumo’s advice. The song by Mapfumo Tamba Zvako Marujata (Rova Ngoma Mutavara) had a great influence in Oliver’s transformation from his previous English song roots into singing traditional tunes.
It is a song which Mapfumo used to sing himself. Oliver later came to Mapfumo and asked if he could record the music and the maestro gave him the permission to go on and record it. The song came out beautifully and everybody liked it. With the Wagon Wheels, Mtukudzi went on to record Dzandimomotera, a song inspired directly by the Second Chimurenga. Dzandimomotera depicted the black man’s life struggles under the white minority government; a rather common lament and slogan that transcends the African music landscape of the near-independence times.
Mtukudzi left the group (Wagon Wheels) in 1978 to form his own group The Black Spirits and released the album Ndipiweo Zano which became a hit. Mtukudzi said he intended to use the name Wagon Wheels with the new group but the Wagon Wheels managers found other musicians to continue with the band, which forced Mtukudzi to find a new name for his band.
Mtukudzi took several of the Wagon Wheels musicians with him to The Black Spirits. Another account, however, taken from an interview Mapfumo had with New Zimbabwe says The Black Spirits was actually Mapfumo’s group first and in Mr Spears’ words:

The Black Spirits (now the name of Mtukudzi’s band) was my band, he was with Wagon Wheels, and then they changed it to Black Spirits. Our Black Spirits disbanded, and then we formed the Blacks Unlimited. He never played with Blacks Unlimited; he was with Wagon Wheels before they changed their name to Black Spirits. We played together on that short tour when he was singing Red for Stop and Green for Go. At that time, that group had no name when we toured… it was just Green for Go and Red for Stop.

The subtle rivalry between the two is a matter of the fans that want to compare the two but the fact of the matter is that the two are incomparable, with each being the master of their craft in their own way. It was with the Black Spirits, Mtukudzi recorded many albums including Africa which was done at the country’s Independence in 1980 and included two hit songs, Zimbabwe and Madzongonyedze.
The album was regarded as one of the most important albums of its time. The Black Spirits have been described as ‘a group of rag-tag young stylish ghetto boys who were to become a sure force on the music scene, progressing into a household name in the ensuing years’.
In the 90s Mtukudzi’s music started taking him beyond the borders. He performed at a number of festivals in Africa (especially South Africa) as well as other continents and in the process becoming a contributor to Mahube, Southern Africa’s first music super-group including the best of the best in jazz and afro music circles.
It is during this time that Mtukudzi hired a new manager, Debbie Metcalfe who went on to help him with his contracts, revamp his business strategies and firmly established the Tuku Music brand. A South African musician Steve Dyer helped produce his first album under this brand and the album was called Tuku Music. This album is widely considered as having re-launched Mtukudzi’s music career. Metcalfe is credited by many for Mtukudzi’s success, especially his international career.
Though generally considered to be Afro-Jazz, Mtukudzi’s style of music is a fusion of a Zimbabwean music style called Jiti, the traditional drumming patterns of his clan called Katekwe, marimba, and South African mbaqanga as well as modern genres such as Afro-pop.
The introduction of a keyboard to his music in the early 80s is said to have been influenced by West Nkosi, a well known South African producer who produced for Tuku in his early career. Mtukudzi himself labelled his music “Tuku Music”. He says however that:

My fans were the first to describe my music as Tuku Music but it was only around the mid-1990s that I began to develop it as a brand name…

Ever the musical philanthropist (passing the baton on) between 2014 and 2015, Tuku helped a young gospel Musician Mathias Mhere in one of his albums and was featured on the song Tsano Handei, an extract from the biblical verse found in the book of Numbers. Tsano Handei was extracted from Numbers 10 where Moses and his brother-in-law Hobab were prominently featured discussing the divine commissioned-journey from Mt Sinai to Canaan.
This was not a new thing for Tuku since his career had always been spiced by collaborations with other local artists: a journey with others to the Promised Land of African music. In recent years before his passsing, he did successful collaborations with EX-Q and Fungisai Zvakavapano in projects which were well-received by the market.
The Forbes magazine included him in the Top 40 Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa in a list that included icons such as Chinua Achebe in 2011. The message in his music prompted the United Nations to consider him as the UNICEF Goodwill ambassador in Eastern and Southern Africa for children’s development and HIV awareness.
Mtukudzi died on the afternoon of 23 January at Avenues Clinic in Harare, after a long struggle with diabetes. He was declared a National Hero by the Zanu-PF Politburo which meant that he could be buried at the National Heroes Acre. His family, however, decided to bury him at his rural home in Madziva. Following his death, the City of Harare announced that it would rename Willowvale road Oliver Mtukudzi road. Humble to the end, the maestro lives on in our hearts. Famba zvakanaka mudhara.

Tšepiso Mothibi

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