The man who united a nation in death
HE sang anthems of social lament, celebrations and timeless wisdom. A music legend, a national hero, unifier and an ever-green entertainer.
Oliver Mtukudzi — fondly known as Tuku, was a guitarist, singer and songwriter, goodwill ambassador and role model who was celebrated for the messages in his lyrics, stage performance and consistency.
Men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him. Every local musician dreamt of enjoying the fame he had and corporates, business and industry as well as politicians never missed a chance to associate themselves with him at their events.
On this day January 23 last year, he breathed his last. A year on a cluster of memories sprinkle with tears, with many wishing God had spared him a few more years. He would have been 67 this year.
Tuku succumbed to diabetes on a Wednesday morning at Avenues Clinic in Harare, and was declared a national hero for his illustrious career spanning over four decades.
To him music gave a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. Music is a language that does not speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions.
His music was healing. Four decades of it is an explosive expression of humanity. It is something we are all touched by. No matter what culture one is from. His music pulled from traditional local rhythms and sounds while incorporating influences from South Africa’s more cosmopolitan, jazz-inflected mbaqanga tradition, as well as African-American dance music, giving birth to what became known as Tuku music.
A prolific songwriter, who recorded 67 albums. Tuku also wrote the music for, and starred in movies such as Jit (1990), the first feature film with an all-Zimbabwean cast, and then the massively popular Neria (1993) — the story of a woman reduced to poverty because customary law did not allow her to inherit her husband’s property and wealth. He was a musician who was always an extension to many households, and will continue to be so for many years to come.
More so, today as the nation remembers him and his songs, which provided sound track to real life drama and experiences.
Tuku achieved both in life and in death what many political leaders have failed to do ― uniting a deeply polarised and fractured nation.
They say music is the great unifier, in his case Tuku’s personality was a great unifier. People who differed on everything and anything found something common from Norton to Dande, (Madziwa village, Mt Darwin) be it people from different political parties, rivals in sports or competitors in business. His rollicking, captivating performances with his band the Black Spirits won him devoted fans worldwide.
His over four decades career produced a string of hits that spread his fame across Africa and eventually to an international audience. He was arguably Zimbabwe’s finest ambassador.
Born in Highfield, Harare, Tuku was brought up in a devoutly Christian family. The oldest of seven children, he sang in the church choir, and listened to traditional mbira― thumb-piano― music and the drumming of the local community. In an interview with a local radio station on his 60th birthday, he said in the early 1960s, he first heard the American soul music of James Brown, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett after a local businessman bought a small radio “and the whole community used to go to his shop just to sit and listen”.
He bought a simple box guitar and learned to play by trying to imitate the sound of the mbira, he said, Despite opposition from his mother, who warned “don’t you realise you will never get married if you become a guitar player?”, he continued to practise and to write his own songs.
“The first ones were love songs,” he said. ”Professional guitarists at the time used to laugh at me. I’ve always been experimental,but after I left school, I couldn’t get a job, so I started to write about that, about my experiences.”
He recorded his first song, ”Stop after orange,” in 1975, but became famous across the country in 1977 after he joined the Wagon Wheels band, which included fellow musician Thomas Mapfumo.
Their single ”Dzandimomotera” was a huge hit, spending 11 weeks as the country’s No 1.
Mtukudzi left Wagon Wheels to front his own band, the Black Spirits, whose bestselling 1978 album ” Ndipeiwo Zano” (Give me advice) was produced by the South African star West Nkosi. Nkosi introduced the South African music style mbaqanga into the Tuku mix. And like they say the rest is history. May his soul rest in peace.