Oliver Mtukudzi: 'It's not me, it's the song'

It’s impossible to miss Oliver Mtukudzi.

Dressed in an all-black outfit that makes him look like a Vietcong guerrilla, Zimbabwe’s super-bard stands head and shoulders above anyone else.

The lanky and tall “Tuku”, as he is known by his fans around Africa, is in a buoyant mood at a press conference with a group of fellow musicians ahead of a weekend concert to celebrate his 53rd birthday.

On a background screen at an upmarket Harare hotel, images flash of the arts centre he’s building in a small town just west of the capital and to which the proceeds of the bash will be donated.

“This centre had to be finished yesterday,” Mtukudzi tells journalists.

With a community hall and recording studio, the Pakare Paye centre—which means “that place” in Shona—located in Norton, 40km outside Harare, is to become a breeding ground for future talent in the southern African country.

Tuku now hopes to have it finished by next year.

Despite his growing stature as one of Africa’s superstars—he’s being mentioned in the same breath as Senegal’s Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour—Oliver Mtukudzi remains a humble man.

“I’m just the same old Oliver that I have always been all these years. It’s just the figure that’s changed,” he tells Agence France Presse with a faint trace of irony in his voice.

“It’s not me, it’s the song, it’s the product that’s important,” he says while his face remains as still as a carving from Zimbabwean soapstone.

Two days later, on a balmy Saturday evening, Tuku’s “product” sets on fire a home crowd of several thousand at a sports ground in Harare.

Dressed in a flamboyant cream suit and wearing his trademark crochet-skullcap, Mtukudzi is every inch the superstar that has gone from Harare to South Africa and on to Europe and the United States.

“Yayayayayaaaaaa!” Tuku draws the crowd which responds with the same greeting, before launching into a trio with guitar ace Louis Mhlanga and long-time friend and music producer Steve Dyer.

“Tuku music”, as it has become known, is a mixture of ethnic styles including guitar rhythms of Zimbabwe’s mbira, some South African traditional mbaqanga—a distinctive guitar sound—backed with a voice like sandpaper.

After 48 albums, Tuku still possesses the wired energy that makes him so electric on stage.

It was with fellow “collaborator” Dyer that Mtukudzi’s star-status grew rapidly beyond the borders of Zimbabwe, where he has laboured as a songwriter, producer, writer and singer since first starting off in 1977.

After many years of slaving on the local market in which he wrote music and starred in two movies, Tuku and Dyer formed the “Mahube” group in 1997 and toured Europe.

The two men co-produced a second album to go gold in South Africa called Bvume (Tolerance) in 2000 followed by Vhunze Moto (Burning Embers) in 2002 in which Mtukudzi plays with Dyer as well as his long-time band The Black Spirits.

In March last year, Mahube released an album entitled Qhubeka (Moving forward) while Mtukudzi released his 48th album this year, a solo work called Nhava.

Singing in his native Shona and in English, Tuku’s music often carries social messages about HIV/Aids and alcohol abuse, encourages self-respect or puts traditional Shona proverbs and wisdom into song.

These days Tuku’s music also carries a message of hope in Zimbabwe, a country were people are facing food and fuel shortages.

“Things are not good at the moment,” he says.

“How people really survive here is a miracle,” he adds, but forgets to mention that his music inspires many, both inside and out of Zimbabwe. - Sapa-AFP


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