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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWjOupjON88) 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.
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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orRGmupfxMg&index=10&list=RDCaZg4DH9IWM
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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orRGmupfxMg&index=10&list=RDCaZg4DH9IWM), gospel and everything else he heard – including jazz.
A sound much bigger than jit
International commentators often label his sound jit (particularly after the success of Zimbwe’s first post-independence 1990 movie of that name https://zimdev.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/jit-the-movie-a-reminder-of-zimbabwe-in-its-glory/, 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaZg4DH9IWM, and see this fabulously evocative clip of a Queen’s Gardens concert here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0uysueiI4A&index=7&list=RDCaZg4DH9IWM Or check the tracks Ndipeiwo Zano from 1978 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OGpF663PTM&list=RDCaZg4DH9IWM&index=5 and Ndakakubereka (from the 1982 Please Napota) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAxhZfcZc1E
With Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 came Tuku’s album Africa, including the hits Zimbabwe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15X_18s1UVs 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 his 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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1fMHsScHVE ) 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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Pn7ZALaaeM ). 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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVwLIvorMck ); a theatre production about the conditions of street children; and multiple documentaries about AIDS ( the song Todii here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUegP24Z_gQ ).
In 2001, he released the song Wasakara (“You’re too old”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQfNLAio8iU ) 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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIrYaRiEdN0 ).
FOR A FAR DEEPER ANALYSIS OF THE MEANINGS OF OLIVER MTUKUDZI’S MUSICAL DISCOURSE, READ THIS SUPERB PIECE BY PERCY ZVOMUYA: https://www.newframe.com/master-metaphor-and-music
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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnjKu4aGJfk ). 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 sisgwenjazz.com)