The Book Café was packed. Fans were even trying to bribe the doorman to get into the show, but we had to turn them away. I’d printed a ‘Sold Out’ sign earlier that day in anticipation — I had to pin it to the door before the support act had even started playing. This was the ‘Tuku’ effect in full force.
Oliver Mtukudzi’s shows at Book Café were rare because we were a relatively small venue, and he was a superstar. But he always seemed to love playing to our attentive crowd.
Inside the club, diplomats and celebrities sat alongside our regulars. A buzz ran among those who were lucky enough to get a ticket — only those who had come early were lucky enough to get a seat.
Backstage, he would be surrounded by a throng of young Zimbabwean artists trying to soak up some of his effortless talent or grab a selfie. Despite his fame, Tuku would always oblige his fans, even as he stood there, guitar at the ready, about to begin the show.
With Sam Mataure — on drums — and Enock Piroro — on bass — already on stage, all that remained was for me to announce the legendary performer.
The first time I had done this had been at our sister venue, the Mannenberg Jazz Club, a few years earlier. I had only just taken over as manager, and I found myself oddly star-struck, a feeling that never entirely went away. I always found Oliver to be disarmingly relaxed and polite, as only people unfazed by their own popularity can be. He was also a modest man. At most, we’d serve him a burger and a soda before the show, and there no wild rockstar riders — he only ever requested water on stage.
I wouldn’t say I knew him well. But my father Paul did. Over the years they often sat and talked about music, cultural heritage and the arts in Zimbabwe.
They both felt strongly about the role of art and culture in shaping the independent Zimbabwean nation. And they both invested heavily in the development of the sector — my father through the Book Café, and Oliver through his Pakare Paye Arts Centre near his home in Norton.
Each held the other in high regard and when my father was diagnosed with cancer, it was Oliver who suggested that we should honour him with a solidarity concert while he was still alive. The gesture touched our family deeply and the show — which Oliver headlined — was the most spectacular line-up that the Book Café ever hosted on a single night.
Tuku concerts at the Book Café always had magical energy that was difficult to explain. The small size of the venue — with a capacity of only 150 people — had something to do with it.
As Andy Brown, another Zimbabwean musical icon, once said to me, “playing to 50 000 people is easy, but playing to 50 people is much harder”.
Tuku could easily fill the 5 000-capacity International Conference Centre — Harare’s largest indoor venue — and he regularly played for tens of thousands of people all over the world.
But to see him ‘Up Close and Personal’ — as our tagline for his Book Café performances would read — was especially thrilling.
At large venues, there would be a huge band: percussion, marimbas, backing vocalists — all fantastic musicians in their own right, and adding to the sound.
Watching the stripped down ‘Tuku Trio’ captivate a Book Café audience to the same degree was to truly appreciate the power of Oliver’s showmanship, musical talent and songwriting genius.
Tuku continued to play Book Café over the years, even though we could never match the performance fees of larger venues or corporate events.
Maybe part of it was a special atmosphere that only a more intimate venue could offer.
I know he really enjoyed the Book Café shows but we appreciated it all the same — his presence acknowledged a homegrown Zimbabwean venue in a way that money couldn’t buy.
Watching Tuku on stage at the Book Café was at times an almost spiritual experience, as he held the crowd in the palm of his hand for two solid hours.
He liked to end those shows by walking off stage during the last song, still playing his guitar. Then, like now, he would leave us wanting, wishing that he would play just one more.
Tomas Brickhill is a musician and a filmmaker, and was the venue manager at Harare’s Mannenberg Jazz Club, and later at the Book Café, between 2010 and 2015.