An obsessive work ethic is at play in the life of Zimbabwe’s master of song, Oliver Mtukudzi. It’s something he alludes to on the 2002 live album Shanda (Shona for work). He even staged a tribute show on the weekend on which he buried his only son, Samson, who died in a car accident in March 2010.
Mtukudzi sings, in Shona, that “you watch like that, thinking that what I am doing is just fun/ when I visit you at your workplace I show you my respect/ … my job is to provide joy/ to dance/ to entertain you, the listener.”
In two interviews — one after a recording session in September and another at the end of November at the offices of his record label Sheer Sound — I sat down with the musician to trace his evolution as an artist and the particular journey his music has taken. Mtukudzi turned 60 on September 22 and has been staging shows throughout Southern Africa to celebrate the milestone.
His music borrows from the rhythmic melody of the mbira, relies on the pace and energy of jit (a drum-based sound) and uses other drumming patterns popular in the north of Zimbabwe such as dandanda and katekwe and the South African sound of mbaqanga, known in Zimbabwe as simanje-manje. All this is melded with the vocalist’s poetry, idiomatic lyrics and social commentary. The result is what the musician’s fans have dubbed “Tuku music”.
To really appreciate Mtukudzi’s music, a basic knowledge of Shona is helpful, but that in itself is not enough to appreciate the genius and the metaphor of his lyrics.
His verses are mostly in an archaic and rich Shona one imagines was spoken around 1900, or before that. My Shona is perfect — I can read it and have even studied it — yet for years I never understood the song Akoromoka Awa.
I have always thought it was a song that was meant to spread awareness of HIV/Aids. But Mtukudzi corrected me: “I wrote this song for my mother after the death of four of our band members, Robert Mtukudzi, Job Mteswa, Sam Mtowa and Nicholas Kunaka. My mom was broken-hearted. The song doesn’t say ‘akakwira mukaranga’ but ‘atakwira mukaranga’ and ‘atakwira’ is Korekore for last breath; mukaranga means an in-law.”
The Shona dialect Korekore, coincidentally, is the word on which the term makwerekwere (foreigners) is based.
Certain critics say the song Hear Me Lord was one that brought Tuku to a wider international audience. The dirge, included on the 1993 live album Ziwere mu Copenhagen, features a person crying “help me Lord, I’m feeling low”. Its central themes of healing and bringing solace to people are crucial to his music. “Our purpose as artists is to heal the people, to heal the broken-hearted. The purpose of song is to give life and hope to the people. If a song can’t touch a person, it’s not serving its purpose.”
And those whose hearts have been touched never forget.
In 1978 he was playing in Gutu, a rural area in southern Zimbabwe, when a woman suddenly started acting possessed.
“We didn’t know whether the woman was drunk or something,” Mtukudzi said. But, on a tour of Canada this year, a woman came up to him bearing a gift and related the same incident, declaring “I am that woman”.
More than three decades had passed, but Mtukudzi remembered the woman and the incident.
“If you are ever going to come up with a song, I don’t think it will be better than Dzandimomotera,” she said. “I discovered myself that day.”
“I saved her life that day,” Mtukudzi said. “Now she is married to a Canadian.”
Dzandimomotera was Mtukudzi’s first single and it was so popular that it stayed in the then Rhodesian charts for 38 weeks, 11 of them as number one. He followed up that song with the percussive hit single Mutavara (1977), now included on the album Shanda, but originally on the album Ndipeiwo Zano (1978).
Subversive and reliant on Shona folk wisdom and dense idioms, the song encouraged young people to go out and hunt. Although appearing innocent, it was interpreted by the more observant as a recruitment tool for the nationalist freedom fighters then fighting Ian Smith’s racist regime. “I am not a politician, but I come up with songs that anyone can use,” he said, refusing to take credit for his cultural role in Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence.
Mtukudzi’s ability to straddle the tricky borders of opposing sides is not more evident than on the song Wasakara on the album Bvuma/Tolerance (2001). “Bvuma iwe, bvuma wachembera, bvuma wasakara” (you must admit that you are old and wrinkled).
In the toxic political atmosphere that existed in Zimbabwe at the time the song came out, the anti-Robert Mugabe crowd took the song as mocking the geriatric leader. The opposition Movement of Democratic Change supporters, realising what a coup it would be to have the musician in their ranks, endlessly played the song at their rallies.
It was around that time when chimurenga (Shona for revolution) musician Thomas Mapfumo, who had released songs deeply critical of Mugabe and Zanu-PF, deserted his homeland for the United States. Other prominent musicians such as Simon Chimbetu and Andy Brown (both subsequently deceased) declared their support for Mugabe. Mtukudzi was the only major Zimbabwean musician who remained neutral, an impossible feat if ever there was one. He consistently stated that Bvuma was not a song composed with the veteran ruler in mind.
“Art is a mirror of society, of the people, whatever their political affiliations,” Mtukudzi said. “Artists are above politics. Right now I am in South Africa raising the Zimbabwean flag, a [cloth] that also covers the politicians. When a politician lifts a flag, he is representing a particular section of people.
“When we play at an MDC rally it’s not because MDC supporters are there, but because they are Zimbabweans and [the same is true for Zanu-PF]. Sometimes when we play for a particular political party, members of the other party come too. We play for the people, we represent the people.”
Chimbetu, Mapfumo and Mtukudzi are credited with having created a style instrumental of the Zimbabwean sound in Shona.
Chimbetu — a war veteran who learned to speak Swahili and appreciate the rhumba sound in training camps in Mgagago, Tanzania — is the link between the percussive music of Southern Africa and the brooding sound of Central Africa.
Mapfumo, meanwhile, took Shona folk music, electrified it on a mbira template and infused it with the
passionate chants of chimurenga and an unquenchable thirst for
Mtukudzi’s sound is based on an update of traditional drum-based sound, but infused with what you might call an urban vibe, the sensibility of the city, but one that at times propagates a poetic, precolonial version of the world.
The highest praise one could pay to Mtukudzi, I guess, is to call him a legislator, someone who redefines the norm. Take, for instance, his song Chinhambwe in which he redefines the notion of one’s neighbour in ways reminiscent of Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan. Featured on the album of the same title — much neglected, but one I rate as among his finest — the song recasts the concept of neighbour.
In explanation Mtukudzi told me: “Your neighbour is your relative that’s your closest relative. Whatever happens to you, your neighbour will get to know about it first, before your blood relatives. By the time your blood relations come by, your neighbours would have helped you already.”
The 60-year-old star has done more to challenge patriarchy in its various manifestations than most musicians in Zimbabwe.
In the song Sandi Bonde, for example, he argues that the ancient custom of a relative inheriting the spouse of a man who had passed on was not meant to enlarge the relative’s harem, but intended to provide support to the bereaved woman and her family.
It is a theme he returns to in songs such as Neria and Muchatuta, in which he berates anyone who wants to kick the bereaved woman off the family property. In the film Neria, for which he composed the sound track, Mtukudzi plays the brother of a woman under siege by the patriarchy. (His other film credits include Jit, I Am the Future and Sarawoga).
It is not that he is against the practice per se. In the song Ndagarwa Nhaka, a female says: “I have agreed to be ‘inherited’, but it was my choice; no one forced me to do it.”
When he started out in the 1970s, it was not clear that Mtukudzi would become an icon and his discography would include 60 albums.
He originally taught himself to play a three-string guitar that he made himself and started out in a Salisbury band called Wagon Wheels. Other band members in this ensemble included Mapfumo and vocalist Susan Chenjerai. Like many around them at the time, they shamelessly covered versions of Western pop music.
Born to parents who were both singers, it is no surprise that Mtukudzi became a musician. “My parents met at a choir competition and the contest never ended. At home my mother would sing a song and ask ‘who is the better performer?’ If you needed a favour from dad, you would say ‘dad, you are the better singer’ and if you wanted something from mum you would say ‘mom, you are the better performer’.”
With his late brother Robert, Mtukudzi used to sneak out to watch a band called Harare Mambos. When he was a little older, he bought a box guitar with his savings.
In the sleeve notes that accompany Ziwere mu Copenhagen, Mtukudzi told interviewers Virginia Mukwesha and Florian Hetze that the purchase “caused a lot of conflict between me and my parents, who did not like to hear the noise I was making with my guitar when, according to them, I should have been out looking for a job. My mother used to cry: ‘Do you realise that you will never get married if you become a guitar player?’”
His parents’ fears were not without basis. In those early days, it was not financially rewarding to be a musician. It was worse for people such as Mtukudzi, whose total ambition was to hear his songs on the radio.
“I didn’t ask them [my parents],” he said, “I was just playing.”
I asked him whether he remembered the first time he sang. His answer: “According to my mother, my birth cry was the most beautiful composition.”
After leaving Wagon Wheels, he formed Black Spirits with his brother Robert on second guitar, the late Bartholomew Chirenda on lead guitar, the late Joseph Alpheus on bass and James Austin on drums.
Austin still works with Mtukudzi at his studio and hatchery known as Pakare Paye Arts Centre in his hometown of Norton, 40km south of Harare.
Other musicians who have worked with him over the years include Albert Kapondoro (bass), Kenny Neshamba (percussions), Mwendi Chibindi (vocals), Mary Bell (vocals), Richard Matimba (keyboard), Philani Dube (guitar), Sam Mtowa (drums), Sam Mataure (drums), also the band manager, Charles Chipanga (marimba),
Picky Kasamba (percussions), Max Chiwara (guitar), Enock Piroro (bass), Never Mpofu (bass) and Namatai Mubariki (vocals and
Most of the critical acclaim and commercial success Mtukudzi has enjoyed have come in the past decade — his importance was consolidated in about 1999. Coincidentally, this was the period in which he worked with multi-instrumentalist Steve Dyer as producer.
But his work from before that period was solid, perhaps even equally good. Albums such as Svovi Yangu (1996) and, my favourite, Chinhambwe (1997), are accomplished and showcase a musicianship as good, if not better, than his later, more celebrated offerings.
But success has its own strange arc and logic. Mainstream success would only begin with Tuku Music (1999), a ground-breaking offering that was followed by albums such as Paivepo (2000), Neria (2001), Bvuma (2001), Vhunze Moto (2002), Shanda (2003), Tsivo (2004) and Nhava (2005).
The reaction to later albums has been mixed; they include Wonai (2006), Tsimba Itsoka (2007) and Dairai (2008). The muted response could be attributed to his attempt to strip down the Tuku sound, creating a wafer-thin acoustic ambience.
His latest offering is Sarawoga (Shona for “left alone”), a moving and sombre tribute to his late son, who was gaining a reputation as a saxophonist, drummer and guitarist. The album is a return (of sorts) to the energy, pace and vibe of the Mtukudzi of old.
“This is music I rehearsed with my son. We loved doing what we did together; most artists never get a chance to work with their children. Sam was more of a friend than a son. I am still learning to live with his death. On the stage he would always be to my left,” Mtukudzi said.
Mtukudzi is unfortunate to share the destiny of the multitudes of fathers and mothers in this region who have had to bury their children who fell victim to various plagues such as Aids and accidents, but a discography of more than 60 albums shows a working musician, a father of a new form, with spiritual children across the region.