The outpouring of tributes that has greeted the death of Zimbabwean singer and guitarist Oliver Mtukudzi is a reflection of the reverence and esteem that he had earned around the world during the course of a half-century career in music.
The 66-year-old Mtukudzi and his band, The Black Spirits, performed in Kenya numerous times and commanded a huge fan loyalty even though many fans identified with just a handful of his songs, notably the signature hit “Todii”.
One of his closest friends in Kenya was singer and guitarist Suzanna Owiyo, who says they connected when she first met him in a TV studio in Kenya more than 10 years ago.
“He saw me carrying a guitar and asked me to play a tune which I did. We ended up jamming in the studio and became friends since then,” she recalls.
One of the highlights of her career was the experience of recording the song “Uyie” from her second album My Roots with Mtukudzi.
“He gave me the confidence to play the guitar for my own recordings rather than hire a session musician as I did in the past,” says Owiyo.
She says she learnt that even musicians of Mtukudzi’s calibre face some of the same challenges as lesser known artists in managing a group of musicians.
“We once played at a charity show in Uganda and he wasn’t happy with his band, so when he returned to Harare, he fired the entire group and recruited fresh musicians. He told me that managing a band requires strong leadership because artists can be a tough lot to handle.”
No matter how many times you watched the tall, lithe figure with a searing voice on stage, he always seemed to step up the quality of his trademark high-energy performance.
The longevity of his music career, spanning 67 albums and many tours around the world, was due to his prolific writing and recording of material, an ability to remain relevant by winning new fans while retaining the loyalty of those who have known and loved his music.
Mtukudzi combined electric guitars, keyboard and bass with traditional mbira (thumb piano), marimba and the hosho shakers to create his brand, “Tuku Music” named after an abbreviation of his surname.
It was a sound that veers between traditional Shona music, South African township music and American gospel and soul.
That husky voice remained the most distinct identity of his music as heard on the 1997 hit “Todii” that dealt with the HIV/AIDS transmission within the family at a time when it was still considered anathema, and other popular songs like “Ndakuvara”, “Neria” and “Hear Me Lord”.
Fans who had the privilege of watching him perform will remember an artist with abundant energy whose repertoire on stage would run into hours.
“He was two different personalities,” says Owiyo. “Offstage he was reflective and measured while his stage personality was explosive,” she says.
Mtukudzi once said that he didn’t come to a performance with a set list of songs as is the practice, but instead gauged the mood of the crowd before him and knew exactly what song to start the show with and how to proceed from that point on.
He retained a work ethic that made him one of Africa’s leading and most loved musicians. “He was a regular guy but with very sophisticated tastes,” says Owiyo. “When I first visited his home in Harare, I was astonished to find that his swimming pool was designed in the shape of a guitar.”
Mtukudzi recorded his first song “Stop After Go” in 1975.
Then it was just him and his guitar and the idea was to hear his music played on local radio. He returned to his acoustic roots three decades later when he recorded his first acoustic album Tsivo (Revenge).
Incidentally, the album, his 47th, was the first to be recorded in his own Samanyanga studio at his home in Norton, Zimbabwe.
Over the years, he collected acoustic instruments including an acoustic bass given to him by one of his biggest fans, US musician Bonnie Raitt.
Mtukudzi was born on September 22, 1952 in the Harare (then called Salisbury) township of Highfield, the cradle of Zimbabwean nationalism and home to Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo and other liberation heroes.
His career started in 1977 when, as a 25 year old, he joined a band called Wagon Wheels whose members included Thomas Mapfumo, the other truly global Zimbabwean music star.
It was some members of this group that left with Tuku to form a new band, the Black Spirits, which remains his recording and touring Band until his death.
He developed a style so distinct from other forms of Zimbabwean music styles like chimurenga and jit that Tuku Music became a brand on its own, wholly associated with the man himself. By the late 1990s, Mtukudzi had acquired an international status, on a par with contemporaries like Papa Wemba from the DRC, Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, Mali’s Salif Keita and Cesaria Evora from Cape Verde with whom he recorded “Africa Nossa” in 2006
When the US news magazine Time run a cover story on Tuku in 2003, they called him “The People’s Voice.”
In a country that has experienced its share of political and economic upheaval, it comes as no great surprise that most of Tuku’s lyrics dwell on the social and economic issues that dominate the every day life of Zimbabweans.
But unlike his compatriot Mapfumo, who fled to exile at the height of Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship, Tuku lived in Zimbabwe throughout the political turmoil perhaps because his music did not explicitly challenge the regime in the manner that Mapfumo’s did.
In her book Oliver Mtukudzi: Living Tuku Music in Zimbabwe, American ethnomusicologist Jennifer Kyker writes that Mtukudzi’s music was grounded on the Shona concept of hunhu, which he called the ‘umbrella that covers whatever I talk about in every song of mine’ “He invoked hununu to encourage listeners to reflect upon what it means to live well with others, and to embody principles of mutuality, reciprocity and dialogue in the context of their own lives”
As a result, his songs about gender relations, HIV/AIDS, or migration, assumed metaphorical significance as political commentary. Mtukudzi said his intentions as a songwriter were not political.
“I truly believe I’m way above governments, because I am an artist. I am not a politician in art … An artist represents everybody, a politician in art represents a certain class of people,” he famously said at the height of Zimbabwe’s political crisis.
Though his hectic tour schedule kept him on the road for months at a time, Tuku remained committed to mentoring the next generation of musicians through a training centre called Pakare Paye Arts Centre in Norton, near Harare.
This is an institution where boys and girls as young as 7 attend music lessons and whenever he was in Zimbabwe, Mtukudzi could be found jamming with different musicians at the Centre on weekends.
Zimbabwean singer, songwriter and guitarist Tariro Negitare, who performed at the Women In Music series in Nairobi in September last year, recalled how her compatriot mentored her.
“The first time he saw me, I was still playing in a band and he said ‘well done, but next time, remember to tune your guitar. Since that day he literally took me under his wing and became a father figure for me and other artists in Zimbabwe.”
He was concerned about the direction of African music and Owiyo recalls an encounter he had with musicians in Kisumu when he advised them to remain true to the roots of African music.
“He told them that it was OK to borrow from other sounds in the world but to only use that to enrich your own music, not to replace it.”
Members of his own family have also followed the legend’s footsteps with his daughter Selmor Mtukudzi gaining attention as a jazz and soul singer. Mtukudzi recorded the song “Sarawoga” (Shona for left alone) to express his grief over the death of his son Sam a guitar player and saxophonist who passed in 2010 in a car crash at the age of just 21.
In a strange twist of fate, Mtukudzi’s death came exactly on the first anniversary of his friend, the legendary South African Hugh Masekela.
The two musicians worked together on the song Tapera that talks about the devastating effects of HIV AIDS in Zimbabwe for Masekela’s last album, No Borders.
Mtukudzi’s acting roles included films like the 1990 movie “Jit”, the first feature film with a cast composed exclusively of Zimbabweans and 1991’s “Neria”.