The take on Tuku

Oliver Mtukudzi’s performance at this year’s Arts Alive festival in Johannesburg is the culmination of a five-week tour. Once done he will have performed on three continents—North America, Europe and Africa—and in cities as diverse as Seattle, New York, Dublin, London, Leeds and Birmingham.

In a telephone interview with the Mail & Guardian, Tuku, as he is affectionately known by his multitude of fans, dismissed speculation that the emergence of his son Sam is proof that he is thinking of quitting music. “It’s not true,” he says. In fact an album titled Dairai (Believe) is coming out before the end of the year.

Dairai is Tuku’s middle name. When I ask him whether this self-titled album will define his musical legacy, he answers with a clear, “no”. Everything he has put out is part of what his music stands for, he says. On this album, he tells me, he uses the mbira (thumb piano), an instrument considered the most spiritual by Shona people, and acoustic guitars. “We believe that traditional African instruments can be used to make music in the same way we use Western instruments,” he says.

Tuku, who views his role as artist in terms that recall Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s dictum of the artist as teacher, says he puts out music, “to give hope, to entertain and to educate”. He talks about his music in almost abstract terms, referring to “the purpose of song”.

When I ask him whether he writes his songs differently now that he has two primary audiences (Zimbabwe and the world) he replies in a slightly husky voice, with traces of jet lag, “I write for the people.” So, the message is essentially the same.

“But,” he adds, “people derive value from my music in different ways.”

He is aware of his world appeal, achieved in part by the seminal success of his Tuku Music album of 1999 and by the dispersal of the core of his Zimbabwean fans to Botswana, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Tuku Music brought him commercial success and a broader audience that has seen him perform duets with Ringo Madlingozi, Kenyan Eric Wainaina, Judith Sephuma, Cape Verdean Caesaria Evora and the German saxophonist Max Wild.

Immediate follow-up albums all rode on the success of Tuku Music. There was my favourite Paivepo (Once upon a Time), Bvuma (Tolerance) which his fans interpreted as a call for Robert Mugabe to resign, Vhunze Moto (Fire is Fire) and Tsivo (Revenge). More recent offerings like Nhava (Bag), Wonai (Look) and Tsimba Itsoka (Footprints), recorded in the past three years, have been warmly received, but not with the same euphoria as his earlier CDs.

Tuku says his music remains the same although his people’s distance and exile lends the songs different meanings and contexts to those at home.

For instance, he says, the song Nhava, on the album of the same name, is about exiled people who send remittances home but whose families abuse the funds because they think that those abroad are enjoying the good life. He says it’s also about people who emigrate, in the prodigal son fashion, and don’t make much of their lives. Both sets of people, he says, “have bags that are full of air and nothing else”.

In 2004 Tuku located his state-of-the-art studio Pakare Paye to Norton, a small town outside Harare. The move, he believes, is part of his commiseration with the underdog. From this small town that lives in the shadow of Harare, he nurtures raw talent and this year albums will be released by his protégés Poda Murehwa, Munya and the Pakare Paye Ensemble.

Tuku is still involved in filmmaking, his other vocation, and he recently submitted a movie titled Ndichiri Mudiki (When I was Young), about female solidarity, to a film festival in Harare.

Ndichiri Mudiki is about a widowed mother-in-law who offers solace to her widowed daughter-in-law. It is familiar ground for Tuku, a consistent and vocal feminist voice. Over the decades he has sung against marital rape, violence against women and the abuse of customs such as the inheritance of widows for lusty ends. In the song Sandibonde (It’s not about Sex), for example, he argues for a reinterpretation of the ancient custom. The inheritance of a departed brother’s wife shouldn’t pave the way for rape.

Tuku argues that the idea is to provide support for the bereaved woman and her kids. This theme recalls the Nineties movie Neria, written by Tsitsi Dangarembga, about a widowed woman who stands strong against a marauding patriarchy that wont allow her to define her own life after her husband’s death.

“They should come up with a solution,” he says, referring to the standoff between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai. “As a nation we are waiting for an agreement.” After the rather quiet years since Tuku Music, his fans are waiting for another album in the same league, a definitive album that will propel him into the next decade.

Oliver Mtukudzi performs at the Bassline in Newton on September 6 at 8pm. Tickets are R115.

Percy Zvomuya

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