Tuku: Man of Substance Healing society through music


Harare – Zimbabwe’s music granddad, Oliver Mtukudzi, is without doubt the country’s most celebrated musical icon, with a musical flare that transcends the borders of the southern African country of 13 million people.

Not only is the 61-year-old Afro-Jazz a sensation when it comes to the guitar, but his husky voice complemented by seamless strings of rich lyrics and sobering messages in all his songs, also makes the humorous musician-cum-actor a sweet melody at the mic.

This is Oliver Mtukudzi for you. A man whose deep foresight and relentless sincerity to unleash his artistic supremacy has seen him weather social and cultural misgivings that could have easily offset his rise to fame during his formative years.

Ironically, while African art and culture commanded, and still commands, great recognition from the whites who were then colonisers, Africans of the day shunned music as a profession.

It was either one distinguished themselves in the fields, talking to the land or any of these white-collar jobs ushered in by the white rule. But the red-hot musician, who carved his own Tuku Music brand, chose to talk to the people through music.

With over 60 albums to his name, the man in every song has a resonating message for the young, the old, the rich and the poor, the hopeful and the depressed, the ailing and the fit – and even the dead too!

Tuku music comes as a unique perfect blend of numerous African elements, from South Africa’s hard-driving mbaqanga rhythm to jiti ‑ a fast percussive Zimbabwean dance beat ‑ together with the eloquent mbira keys.

That the man is proud of his culture can also be seen in that most of his songs are in Shona and blended with his Korekore dialect while he pounces on Shona idioms and lyrics to sell his message. And judging by the electric atmosphere characterising his ever sold-out shows; enveloping audiences into this one mad but happy family that knows no tribe, race, ethnicity or age, his messages have a place somewhere in them.

“It was an uphill task to convince my family and society that one can actually take music as a profession and bring food on the table in the same manner farmers do.

“I had to contend with social labelling ‘anoita zvechirombe zvemagitare’ (he wastes his time on music), the man remembers.

He recalls how he was met with society’s wagging tongues for choosing music as his life. 

It also appears that singing from the heart is the driving force behind the phenomenal rise of Tuku, who regards himself just like any other musicians of substance, as doctors with a duty to heal society.

“Music should not by be about drums or high sounding lyrics, it should have a message. Musicians are just like medical doctors who have a duty to heal society, to relieve people of their everyday hurdles. Music should bring happiness to a sad face, offer hope and comfort and trigger some serious thinking in society,” says the comic and humble musician.

True to his assertion, Tuku ‑ who started off in 1977 when he worked with another yesteryear hit-maker Thomas Mapfumo ‑ the man focuses on pertinent issues of the day from HIV/AIDS, child and women abuse, peace, social harmony, perseverance, good parenting, among other subjects, and often drawing from his own life experiences.

Just last year, in mourning over his son Sam’s tragic death, he released another golden album titled ‘Sarawoga’ laden with emotions painting the great loss of a loving father who had pinned hopes on a youthful child whom he assumed will be left behind on his death.

“Tapera” (We Have Been Decimated) another hit from Mtukudzi addresses the AIDS pandemic, advising men to adopt responsible sexual behaviour. “A mature man, why behave like a child?” he laments.

Just as the saying goes, where there is a will there is a way, for Tuku the rise to fame was never an overnight phenomenon as the man who cut his musical teeth in 1977 was only to receive his first ever award in 1988 as the best-selling artiste for 1987 to 1988 marking a turning point in the musician’s career. He boasts of over 20 awards to his name, including being the first African musician to scoop the prestigious Italians Cavaliere of the Order of Merit in 2011, and holds honorary degrees from local universities outshining fellow musicians as the most decorated musician in Zimbabwe. 

Away from the stage the Black Spirits front man is also a humanitarian who in 2004 established an arts academy, Pakare Paye Arts Centre in his home town to nurture promising young voices through voice and instrument coaching.

Tuku, as the eldest of seven children, had to help his widowed mother to make ends meet from a very early age and later seized this experience to become a formidable social activist, venturing into theatre as well, where he wrote, directed and played prominent roles in films such as ‘Jit’ and ‘Neria, among others. ‘Neria’ highlighted pertinent questions faced by society.

The man has maintained fruitful relations with fellow musicians such as celebrated South African stars Ringo and Steve Dyer and through their regional grouping ‘Mahube’, Tuku and Dyer have fostered cultural exchange among musicians from the region.

So maverick is the success story of Mtukudzi that a big lesson is not to be missed from his life story. Tuku shunned family and society’s misgivings to pursue his dream to become a musician. Had he succumbed to the hostility his success could have suffered a stillbirth.

Add on the story of Africa’s literature god-father and internationally acclaimed prolific writer, the late Chinua Achebe who courted family disapproval after dropping from medical school to pursue literature, and then one big lesson is driven home.

Things can never fall apart if we give the much-needed material and moral support to our aspiring kids, as they seek to achieve their dreams, whatever the discipline.

November 2013
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