RIP Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi 1952-2019


A life in music

Dr Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi was born in Harare on 22 September 1952 and died on 23 January 2019 – a year to the day after the passing of his fellow musician, trumpeter Hugh Masekela. (In a poignant clip, you can see Mtukudzi reminiscing about Masekela here: Mtukudzi was the oldest of seven siblings, and the early death of his father taught him harsh lessons about the struggle for economic survival – alongside the anti-colonial struggle. Harare’s black townships were at that time in a ferment of resistance against the settler regime, inspired by the independence of other African nations. This intensified after the then Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence under Ian Smith and the Rhodesian Front in 1965.

Rolling with the Wagon Wheels

Before he was 20, Tuku had picked up a guitar and his talent as singer, player and composer of irresistible tunes rapidly made itself known. His first band was the Wagon Wheels, almost a supergroup of young Zimbabwean players  later to become stars, including Thomas Mapfumo.young

Mtukudzi’s first big hit, aged 23, was the 1975 Stop After Orange. After that, the albums began piling up, much of that early music on the Kudzanayi label. It began a discography that, by the time of the musician’s death, stood at close to 70 albums. With the Wagon Wheels, Mtukudzi recorded the gold hit Dzandimomotera, a song in tribute to the Second Chimurenga

By 1977, Mtukudzi had left the Wagon Wheels to helm the Black Spirits, the name of all the groups he subsequently led (apart from a two-year break 1987-9). Mtukudzi and Mapfumo told different stories about the split and the ownership of the band names: late ‘70s/early ‘80s Harare was a fluid, semi-professional music scene where band names and personnel constantly shifted. However, Mtukudzi has acknowledged Mapfumo’s mbira-inspired soundscape as one influence on his own style. He was an innovator, however: the Black Spirits’ music drew from Shona mbira pop, South African mbaqanga, deep rural tradition (Kuvhaira, gospel and everything else he heard – including jazz.

A sound much bigger than jit

jitInternational commentators often label his sound jit (particularly after the success of Zimbwe’s first post-independence 1990 movie of that name, to whose soundtrack Mtukudzi contributed much). That style, however, had many fathers: Robson Banda, The Four Brothers, Paul Matavire and the Bhundu Boys among others. And, like any genre label, it’s an over-simplication. Mtukudzi’s albums over the years have encompassed dazzlingly diverse identities beyond pop. Calling it simply “Tuku Music” fits far better.

Although much footage of that early music scene has survived, little of it is documented in detail. However, thanks to the enthusiasm of collectors, you can find one compilation (there are more) here:, and  see this fabulously evocative clip of a Queen’s Gardens concert here  Or check the tracks Ndipeiwo Zano from 1978 and Ndakakubereka (from the 1982 Please Napota)   zano

With Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 came Tuku’s album Africa, including the hits Zimbabwe and Mazongonyedze. With independence came more freedom of movement, and Africa-continental, and later international, attention.

Solidarity and southern African sounds

By the time South Africa attained its own regime change, there were ears here more than open to Tuku Music. Ardent pan-Africanists, returned exiles who’d heard the music on their travels, migrants from Mtukudzi’s homeland and simply people who appreciated damn good tunes with thoughtful words came together for hisMahube.jpg Johannesburg concerts. The old Melville Bassline was one of his early stages, as well as the city’s Arts Alive Festival. In 1998, the Sheer Sound label released the Tuku Music album (full album at ) and in the same year Mtukudzi worked with South African saxophonist Steve Dyer (whom he knew from Dyer’s time in Zimbabwe) on the theatre project Mahube ( ). That expressed one of Mtukudzi’s (and Dyer’s) dearly-held visions: for cultural unity across the continent, drawing on Africa’s own musical resources and inspirations.

Platforms and messages

Mtukudzi is better described as a social activist than a politician. His solidarity with the liberation struggle (ours and Zimbabwe’s and Africa’s) was unquestionable. Subsequently, he worked on projects speaking out about women’s rights (the film Neria – he sings the title track here with Ladysmith Black Mambazo ); a theatre production about the conditions of street children; and multiple documentaries about AIDS ( the song Todii here ).


In 2001, he released the song Wasakara (“You’re too old”: ) interpreted by many as a coded appeal to then Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to retire gracefully. The song allegedly cost Mtukudzi a second honorary degree. But accessing platforms to talk about what mattered was always more important to him than holding a rigid party position. In 2016, he sang at the pro-Mugabe Million Men March ( ).


A unifying legacy

Mtukudzi was a man who consistently built and crossed bridges: in musical styles and across social and geographical divides. He gained massive international respect, working with artists as diverse as Joss Stone, Bonnie Raitt (who wrtote the sleeve notes for Tuku Music, Baaba Maal, Taj Mahal and, among South Africans not already mentioned, the Muffinz, Sibongile Khumalo and Ringo Madlingozi ( ). That respect came not only because he made superb music, crafting songs that will live forever as classics, but because he was a consummate stage professional, and because, with everyone he encountered, he was a straightforward, loving and compassionate human being. Zorora murugare, Tuku.

(NOTE TO EDITORS: A surprisingly large number of you have asked me today to write an obituary for Oliver Mtukudzi. Much of the soul of his music rests in his words, and a Shona-speaker will write his life, spirit and work far better than I can. But feel free to use this blog under the provisions of Creative Commons 3.0. Please credit the source as



Joseph Jarman: 1937 – 2019


Reedman, percussionist, composer and Buddhist priest, Joseph Jarman, a pioneer member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, has died aged 81. Read these summaries of his life at and, and hear him performing the poem referred to in the second obituary at

Hamba Kahle. May he find peace

Elections & culture: commoditisation made manifest(o)

The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!

  • The government shall discover, develop and encourage national talent for the enhancement of our cultural life
  • All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands – 26 June 1955
KLiptown crowd.jpg
Making the Freedom Charter: Kliptown 1955

Sixty-four years ago, after a popular consultation policy that shames the past two decades, the Freedom Charter of the ANC was adopted in Kliptown. Current election manifestos often ignore culture, hide it away in passing generalities, or re-label it as something else (see below). But in the Freedom Charter, the pillars of a decent, humane cultural policy –  freedom to both create and enjoy culture– had equal status to the policy pillars on land, economy and trade.

Those principles should not have changed. And they apply, with no weaselling about migrants, to “all those who live in” South Africa.

For voters who care about culture, it’s worth looking at whether and how the parties plan to treat it – because that’ll impact on the climate of freedom and creativity we’ll all be living in for the next five years. The ANC manifesto was the first out, so I’ll start there. The EFF’s is due on Feb 2, the UDM’s on Feb 16 and the DA’s on Feb 23. Where they outline distinctive policies, I’ll look at them too. If they just echo similar generalities, I won’t. So, with a leader nicknamed from a Hugh Masekela lyric, what does the party of Thuma Mina have to say about culture?

Market rules

Actually, nothing. ANC manifestos have always had an arts and culture section. This time, the six points are tucked into a section on the economy labelled “creative industries”. That’s a positive acknowledgment of the role of the arts as economic drivers. But it’s also worryingly reductionist – because that’s never all they are. Our artists matter for what we were, are, and can become, even if they never make a cent – precisely why President Ramaphosa sang that song. Reducing the arts to “industries” gives civil servants the nod to sideline anything that can’t be commoditised.

“We will promote and support the diverse creative industries, from folk art, festivals, music, books, paintings and performing art to the film industry, broadcasting and video games.”

As a general statement, this is fine – but so general that any party mentioning culture at all is likely to say something similar. But if books are to be promoted and supported, why has more notice not been taken of the continuing copyright law debates – or the punitive VAT rate? If broadcasting is, can we please look again at the perilous state of SABC?

The devil’s in the detail, and we have to ask – as of every clause in every party’s manifesto – ‘How?’ What forms will promotion and support take? What will be the budget allocations, criteria and benchmarks. Where will the money come from, and who will decide where it goes, with what safeguards?

FC text.jpgFunding

“We will ensure public funding schemes do not exclude the creative industries and work with the private sector to increase investment in the sector.”

Might that include structuring greater flexibility into funding conditionalities? Creative projects – as repeated studies worldwide have established – are often short-term, non-hierarchical and project-based. They thus often fail to fit with rigid government or corporate funding bureaucracies.


“We will develop and implement cultural projects in schools and communities that raise awareness of career opportunities in the creative industries.”

Only “of career opportunities”? How about raising awareness of the joy of making art, theatre and music, and the right to access the resources to do it? Community arts projects already exist – look, for example, at the Moses Molelekwa Art Foundation in Tembisa – and they struggle or fall. The need is not for governments to fabricate new projects from above, but to listen and learn from what works at the grassroots to unleash creativity.

fc posterHeritage

We will promote and invest more in museums, archives, heritage and cultural projects. This will include support to conserve, protect and promote the country’s Liberation History and Heritage archives, struggle sites, values, ideas, movements, veterans and networks.”

How much more will be invested and with what strings? How will access be made easy and affordable for those with low or no income? Who will be defining “values and ideas” and how? If memorialising the struggle involves vast expenditure on, for example, statues (as it has: see ), could we open the debate on heritage landscapes to voices outside the elite heritage “industry”?


“We will work with stakeholders to ensure that innovators and artists are justly rewarded for their labour in the digital age and protect the copyrights of artists.”

That’s an unarguable goal – and, btw, there’s a mountain of unpaid invoices from “innovators and artists” still sitting at the SABC. But justly rewarding creators goes further; it isn’t only about the digital age. Musicians, for example, face punitive taxes on the tools of their trade and tiny performance fees after promoters’ or club-owners’ cuts. Rehearsal time, and wear and tear on instruments, never feature in their rewards. The service workers who support the entertainment industry are casualised and work highly unsocial hours, sometimes forced to exist on tips. Action to interrogate all creative labour conditions, taxation and benefits is needed.


Not tourists: the people of Sophiatown share the music of trombonist Jonas Gwangwa

“We will ensure demand for creative goods and services by tourists by supporting the development of creative industries.”

Creative goods and services and the workers who make them don’t exist for tourists. They exist to give people a voice and to enrich sociality and soul: “the enhancement of our cultural life”. Putting tourism first favours some of the most egregious aspects of the creative industries: the super-exploitation of craft workers; the divisive and archaic ethnography of the ‘cultural village’ concept, and more. The primary concern of any government should be ensuring the best possible support for creativity and access to it.

Arts policy doesn’t stand alone. If the ANC keeps its promises on settlement, infrastructure, social benefits and education, those can all potentially nourish creativity too. But, as Elvis might have said, we need a little less marketisation and much more action.

Cape Jazz Piano dances with the future

The latest Cape Jazz compilation moves from curation to the shock of the new

Mountain Records’ Cape Jazz series has been running since 1994: compilations documenting the city’s distinctive jazz legacy, and dominated by Cape classics. Previous volumes were united by a shared iconography: appealing but stereotyped images of mountain and minstrels that might entice souvenir-hunting tourists, but never adequately reflected the power and originality of some of the music inside.

album coverWith Volume Five, published in November 2018, something magical has happened. Cape Jazz Piano ( and other online music sites) is wrapped in completely new livery: a stylish homage to the graphic language of classic international jazz albums. That’s not all that’s changed. In a transition that began gently in Volume Four, this music talks more about – and to – today and tomorrow than yesterday.

Cape Jazz Piano features six Cape-born pianists presenting solo interpretations of their own or other Cape composers’ works. Producer Patrick Lee-Thorp describes in the informative liner notes how he’d hoped for a set of interpretations, but how the players – Mervyn Afrika, Hilton Schilder, Mike Perry, Kyle Shepherd, Ramon Alexander and Ebrahim Kalil Shihab – overwhelmingly opted to play their own music. (For a sample, see this video: ) So, for example, we have Africa presenting Spirit of the Wind; Schilder offering Khoisan Symphony Parts 1 & 3 and Shihab, Give a Little Love and a new one: All Through the Years.

Reanimating the classics

Ebrahim Kalil Shihab

The classics are treated to a coat of startlingly fresh paint. Shihab unleashes unexpected harmonic possibilities on Give a Little Love. I’ve noted before his intensely personal way of peeling back the musical layers of even a well-known number to show us what lies at its heart. With this kind of encyclopedic musical insight, Shihab’s set at this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival in March should be on your don’t-miss list.

Africa similarly liberates Jonathan Butler’s Seventh Avenue and Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenberg in a medley. London has heard too much of him, and South Africa not enough: he’s not scared to challenge our cherished memories of the classics and evade the straitjacket of nostalgic attachment to a single version. His own composition, Spirit of the Wind, rests on that idiomatic Cape left hand while his right offers rich symphonic colours too.

Dagga dreamscapes

Kyle Shepherd uses prepared piano and overdubs to disassemble Dagga Party (which first appeared as Steven Erasmus’s Hotnotstee Party) and explore the spirit world opened by traditional sharing of the herb. His notes feel simultaneously ethereal and grounded, invoking kora, harp, balafon and Khoisan bow in their textures. It’s a shock to fossilised ideas of ‘Cape Jazz’ – but conjures a vision that’s compelling and respectful.

Kyle Shepherd

Ramon Alexander blends his own new standard, Take Me Back to Cape Town, with music by Mac McKenzie, the late Robbie Jansen, and Allou April in another medley, as well as revisiting the late Tony Schilder’s anthemic Club Montreal. Alexander’s covers are never merely that: he understands, and can show us, what gave tunes their historic appeal, but never lets that block his own musical intelligence.

Inevitably, hearing Mike Perry’s two tracks, Green and Gold and Crossroads, Crossroads stirs up sadness. However appealing the melodies sound, we’re always going to hear an absence too, because Winston Mankunku Ngozi , Perry’s partner in composition and interpretation, has gone. Particularly on Crossroads, the saxophone maestro is now part of the song’s identity.

There are many treasures on this album, not least the chance to hear the pianism of Africa and Schilder as it sounds today. While we already know Schilder’s Khoisan Symphony Part 1, Part 3 is new, from a current work in progress. Although ill health kept him off stages for a while, it’s inexplicable that Schilder isn’t more widely acknowledged outside his hometown. Part 3 offers a kaleidoscope of ideas that make you hunger for the full final work, and a plaintive, instantly compelling melodic hook.

Mervyn Africa

Does this all add up to a unique style we can call ‘Cape Jazz Piano’? Yes and no. There are clear shared roots of inspiration, voicing and idiom: rolling left-hand ostinato figures, relentless as the ocean; jagged Khoisan rhythm patterns; infusions from the Malay Islamic tradition; ghoema beats and night-choir harmonies; and the demands of jazzing feet. Hovering over all is the spirit of Abdullah Ibrahim. That’s not because he’s the only, or first, or even ‘best’ Cape pianist (jazz isn’t a reality-show contest) but because, for those of us born outside the Cape, he provided the recordings that defined the style. Jazz has always been about borrowing, sharing and revisioning. Today, you can detect Cape spices in what, say, Bokani Dyer plays – and he was born in Botswana, raised in Zimbabwe, graduated from Cape Town and plays in Gauteng. But for those born into the Cape and this music, it’s more a matter of the heart. In Armstrong’s words: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

New horizons

This album opens exciting new horizons for Mountain’s series by shifting the concept decisively beyond the curation of a tradition. Don’t underestimate – that was a vital task in the 1990s and 2000s, when national and international homogenisation started to blur a distinctive regional vision. But the need now is to transcend nostalgia and give today’s composers the spaces they need to present and document current work. Cape Jazz Piano shows how it can be done.

More rebuttals for racists

I’ve written before about the astounding ignorance of ostensibly educated racists about African cultural history. This story  in today’s UK Guardian is well worth reading – and forwarding to any such people you may be unlucky enough to know.

RIP The Orbit: time to build new jazz spaces


In 2018, the jazz year began with tragic deaths: Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile followed by trumpeter Hugh Masekela. This year, it begins with the demise of the Orbit, not quite five years old and hailed when it opened as the gold-standard stage for South African jazz.

And that’s tragic too. Everybody who helped to build and keep the Orbit running deserves our massive thanks for the magic they made happen every open night, and we are all poorer for its loss.

But it’s nothing like a death in the same sense. The genre and the musicians and the audiences still live; creativity goes on, and we can make new stages.

That cavernous double-story floor-space in Braamfontein was set up to struggle from day one. Other good restaurants had already gone bust there. City-centre rates in a rapidly gentrifying area, service costs and the scale of staffing and maintenance required to keep it efficient meant the venue needed to fill almost every night to stay afloat. That, in turn, necessitated ticket prices unaffordable for many.

If the Melville Bassline was too tiny to be viable, the Orbit may have been too big.

Even back in the club’s heyday, in 2015, the owners discussed the difficulties of maintaining the space, (in a Financial Mail story that’s since been rendered inaccessible by a paywall).

Do the sums. South Africa has a population far smaller than that of, say, the US, only a tiny minority of that population has disposable income to spend on music, and only a minority of those people spend on any single music genre. That’s before you factor in the recession of the past few years. Coming up with the right business plan to accommodate those circumstances has stumped many venues, including those in Cape Town, which has the extra seasonal cushion of tourists’ disposable income.

Braamfontein’s major landlord was profoundly unsympathetic to the club: uncommunicative, unhelpful about easing parking constraints, and on one occasion telling a principal: “You don’t belong here.” That didn’t help – but then, the power of property developers is part of the placemaking phenomenon I discussed last week.

What set the Orbit apart in its first few years was the respect and support it provided for musicians. There was a decent piano, regularly tuned. There was a Green Room where players could be private and strategise for the performance. There was imaginative programming. And conscious effort went into building a respectful audience who listened to the music.

As the economics of the place pinched tighter, a lot of that seemed to slip. The programming that had kept genre fans loyal was increasingly diluted. Sure, a big “Afro-Soul” (or other pop genre) name may bring numbers in – but for one night, for that name only. It doesn’t build a regular albeit small audience who will turn up on spec, simply because they trust the club to provide quality even when they don’t know the name.

It may be hard to hear for those who struggled to keep it afloat, but by the end some jazz players were losing faith in the place they once called home. Many musicians I’ve talked to recently have told me so, always much more in sorrow than in anger. Sound engineering standards had become less reliable. Too many patrons treated onstage creativity as mere background noise for drinking, making the Orbit no different from Braamfontein’s other booze spots, just pricier. (As one drummer recently said: “In the end, you play, because that’s what you do, but…”). Musicians also muttered about declining transparency around payments.

Because so much of this was anecdotal, up till now, I haven’t written about it. Maybe I was wrong – please tell me if you think I was. Such problems are almost inevitable when a place has no money, and it seemed unethical, with survival hanging in the balance, to exacerbate the venue’s woes with negative publicity.

So, where to now? Musicians and music service workers need work. Audiences need to hear the quality jazz that we know is being made. We all need constant reminders that good music is more than a commodity, and that being together in a music-filled room, whether as players or listeners, is good for our souls and our intellects and breaks down the anomic individualism that global capital thrives on.

Regular venues matter: they build the culture and discourse of engaging with music; they amass institutional wisdom among musicians who work together. They don’t have to be mega-sized, though – just big enough to pay the rent and the artists without setting impossible attendance goals. They don’t need fancy restaurants (by the end, the food at the Orbit was even better, and that turned out to be profoundly irrelevant to what the place was about). They could be collectives, rather than commercial operations – they must just put the music first.

Since, incidentally, live music is good for employment and the economy too (if you want to speak the bosses’ language)  both Joburg and the national government could help. They could initiate and entrench policies and processes more hospitable to creativity and the economy of the Night City. Countries such as Sweden with tiny genre music niches like ours subsidise cultural development. Those are more things to ask questions about when elections come around.

I mourn the Orbit. But we have to learn and rebuild, not just regret. In the struggle days (and, I confess, I’ve repurposed this slogan far too often) when a comrade fell, we correctly urged: pick up the spear. In the struggle for the right to access and create culture  – the Freedom Charter called it ‘opening the doors’  – it’s time once more for us to pick up that piano.

***UPDATE JAN 12. If you liked this, you’ll also enjoy this thoughtful analysis which has just appeared: