Insight: Music

Oliver Mtukudzi sings his last note: People's storyteller falls silent

Just a fortnight ago, Zimbabwe erupted once again in anger and dissent, a lifelong 'voice of the people' slipped quietly away

03 February 2019 - 00:00 By FRED KHUMALO

The bass-and-drum combination was solid and powerful; the brass section on fire. The lead singer climbed on stage.
His mouth worked mechanically on a melody, which soon became torture to the listener. He closed his eyes, threw his head back, and started swaying so dangerously along the precipice of the stage he almost toppled over.
By this time, the listener had started privately praying that the singer would, at some stage, "wake up" from the trance and get on with the song. Or fall off the stage and be done with it.
The man was bellowing "hhhuuh-heeeh-hhuuu-hhhee" in a deep baritone, like an ox with a spear stuck in its side.
The man on stage was Thomas Mapfumo, styled as the king of Zimbabwean chimurenga music. The place was Queens Beer Garden in Harare. It was the summer of 1990. I was young, musically critical and still smarting from the fact I'd missed Bob Marley's performance in the same city 10 years earlier.
By the time Mapfumo's performance was over I was highly relieved. The man had been a great disappointment. Throughout his performance, he'd looked high as a kite and appeared to have forgotten his lyrics, which I regarded as disrespectful to his audience.
The following evening, my friends said we should go back to the beer garden for a performance by somebody called Oliver Mtukudzi.
I was violently opposed to the idea: if Mapfumo, the king of their local sound, could give such an atrocious performance, what could we expect an upstart called Oliver Something to sound like?
But I bowed to pressure from my friends and went to the venue. What a good decision it turned out to be.
Mtukudzi's performance marked the beginning of what was to become, for me, a long and fulfilling admiration of the man and his art.
After my discovery of "Tuku", as he was known, my mind opened up to other Zimbabwean acts such as the band Ilanga, Biggie Tembo and the Boyoyo Boys, and, of course, the guitarist Louis Mhlanga, who was still an upstart back then. I also bought Mapfumo's albums even though his live performance had been such a damp squib.
When I first saw Tuku back in 1990, I could never have imagined that 10 years later he would, like hundreds of thousands of his fellow compatriots, be spending more time in SA than in his mother country.
When Zimbabwe's economy imploded, Tuku couldn't help but join the migration to the south. Water flows because of gravity. People flow because of need and opportunities.
When Tuku arrived in SA, his music immediately resonated with locals. It also helped that he was versatile, finding it easy to perform and record with local artists such as Ringo Madlingozi.
While Mapfumo could be taciturn to the point of being dismissive of his listeners during live performances, Mtukudzi strove to be "in the moment" with his audience. He valued the call-and-response format of African performance, where listeners are also encouraged to be performers.
First and foremost, Tuku was an entertainer. At the risk of getting the natives' knickers in a knot, I want to say Tuku reminded me very much of Stevie Wonder.
Wonder, an all-round entertainer, can sing grim and disturbing songs like Superstition and then seamlessly move to the popular Happy Birthday (a tribute to Martin Luther King Jnr, reprised for Nelson Mandela).
Tuku, like Wonder, would sing a gospel song - Now Hear Me Lord - and move effortlessly to Gunguwo (The Crow), a song condemning Bishop Abel Muzorewa for selling out the Zimbabwean people's anti-colonial struggle.
He could belt out a groovy Because I am a Girl with Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Suzanna Owiyo, and then have people weeping to the tortured strains of Neria, a song that pays tribute to Zimbabwean women fighting against patriarchy in their country.
Tuku had a knack for melodies that were groovy and memorable. Songs that you hum, even though you don't know the lyrics.
That he did not take up a singing career until he was well into his 20s is almost unbelievable.
The oft-repeated story is that he was walking in the sweltering heat in a street in Harare, on his way to his home in Highfield, when a man saw him faltering and gave him a drink. While still resting his weary feet, barely covered by his worn-out shoes, Oliver started humming a song.
During a performance three years ago, he recalled that moment: "It was then that I started singing to myself: 'Nhamo dzandimomotera, ini handidi nhamo' (I am surrounded by suffering. I don't want to suffer any more)."
Born on September 22 1952 in the populous area of Highfield, just outside what was then Salisbury, Tuku was the eldest of seven children. His was a musical family; both his parents sang in a church choir. In his spare time, he sang and played a home-made guitar, never thinking much of it.
However, when it was clear to him that he would never find "real work", he joined a local band as one of the singers.
The first song he wrote - Stop after Orange, a heady mix of South African mbaqanga, rock and bits of local jazz - was met with derision. Thomas Mapfumo, far more experienced than Tuku, would later tell the media about his immediate response to Stop After Orange: "I said, 'You, guy, why are you not singing in your mother tongue?' "
Embarrassed and shaken by this challenge, Tuku henceforth reverted to his mother tongue, Shona.
The beauty of music is that sometimes lyrics don't really matter. How many times have you been driven to tears by Pavarotti or Plácido Domingo without knowing the meaning of the words?
The same would in later years apply to Tuku's music, once he'd become a household name in SA, where locals hummed along without having a clue what he was singing about.
But the rise to the top was not instant. After he'd left the band with which he'd sung Stop After Orange, he embarked on a solo career, releasing in 1977 a single titled Nhamo Dzandimomotera - the same song he had hummed to himself out of the blue when he was hungry and thirsty many years before. The song became a hit, spending 38 weeks on the charts.
The message in the song resonated immediately with freedom fighters and ordinary Zimbabweans, who were suffering in that country that was still called Rhodesia. In later years, Tuku would describe, in a BBC documentary, how he'd gradually transformed from being a wet-behind-the-ears musician to the spokesperson of a generation.
"They [underground political activists] would give us [musicians] a message that they wanted us to tell the people. So we took these words and made up a song, of course, made it in a clever way using proverbs that the then-government wouldn't understand, but the people would understand."
It was a strategy also used by South African musicians, such as Caiphus Semenya and his wife Letta Mbulu, who would write songs about the "return of the cows" - a code for the return of African wealth stolen by the colonial and apartheid regimes.
In the 1990s, Tuku really came into his own. He performed in Neria, the highest-grossing movie ever made in Zimbabwe. The soundtrack for the movie put Tuku on the map, introducing his sound to people outside his home country.
Buoyed by the success of the movie, he decided to take his career to another level. He got together with the South Africa-born musician and producer Steve Dyer, who was in exile at the time, and hired a new manager, Debbie Metcalfe. The result was the now evergreen album, Tuku Music.
In 2001, when violent election campaigns began in Zimbabwe, Tuku released the album Bvuma, a song in which he begs an elderly politician to admit that he is old and must bow out of the political arena.
Zanu-PF supporters were in high dudgeon, while followers of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change embraced the song as their anthem.
A story is now told of how, that same year, Tuku's lighting engineer was arrested after he repeatedly beamed a spotlight at Mugabe's portrait while the "offensive" song played at a venue.
Because Zanu-PF unashamedly controlled the airwaves in Zim, radio stations immediately stopped playing Tuku's music around this period.
However, by this time he was already enjoying good airplay in SA and elsewhere. It also helped that even corporate SA gave him support, in the form of requests to perform at high-end functions.
Like musicians from Johann Strauss and his waltzes to Bob Marley and his reggae beats, which ranged from love songs to calls to arms, Tuku believed there had to be a song for every occasion.
Who can forget the driving bass in Todii? Sung in the Shona and Ndebele languages, the song asks the question: what is to be done in the face of the HIV/Aids scourge sweeping across the landscape?
In Pindurai Mambo, Tuku asked God to answer the prayers of Zimbabweans for change. In Mukuru, he challenged political leaders to lead by example. He sang this song at a Zanu-PF gathering, causing his hosts to choke on their sadza.
Some have seen his versatility - swinging effortlessly from gospel to Afro-pop - as a sign of weakness, an indication that he was not sure of the musical direction he wanted to follow. But to open-minded lovers of music, his unpredictability was an asset rather than an albatross.
Whether performing at a corporate function in Joburg, at a packed Dome with Hugh Masekela, at a benefit concert with Yvonne Chaka Chaka or on an album with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Tuku always left a lasting impression on the minds and souls of those who heard him. By the time he died, on January 23 at Avenues Clinic in Harare, he had released 59 albums as leader and collaborated on many others. He was perhaps the most recognisable Zimbabwean, after the Mugabes.
He received several honorary degrees from universities in Africa and abroad, and was the Unicef Goodwill Ambassador for Southern Africa, a fitting tribute for someone who saw himself as a vehicle for people's stories, be they spiritual, cultural, political or simply personal.
One of his last compositions was Ndima Ndapedza - "I have played my role in life; I'm done, let others take over."
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