rest in power ‘tuku music’ master oliver mtukudzi

January 24, 2019
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Few musicians reach such a respected and beloved position in their community that an entire style of music is then widely named after them. Yet such was the case with the Zimbabwean singer Oliver Mtukudzi. whose unique sound was proclaimed to be “Tuku music.” It is a mixture of southern African pop styles mbira and mbaqanga; of local dance musics jit and chimurenga (the latter popularized by his one-time bandmate Thomas Mapfumo); and of traditional Shona drumming and Mtukudzi’s unique guitar playing and expressive soul singing. And though Tuku music’s popularity in Zimbabwe and South Africa has been undisputed for 40 years, the 21st Century saw it celebrated around the world. Mtukudzi died on Wednesday at Avenues Clinic in Harare, according to The Herald newspaper, “succumbing to a long battle with diabetes.” He was 66 years-old.

Like most artists who reach stratospheric levels of acclaim and resonance, Mtukudzi had a long and varied career, with work that appealed across social, political and economic divides. He began playing in 1975, when modern-day Zimbabwe was still the white-minority controlled, de-facto British colony of Rhodesia. In 1977, Mtukudzi joined the band Wagon Wheel with Mapfumo, the great “Lion of Zimbabwe,” the country’s foremost political musician; it was as part of Wagon Wheel that Mtukudzi wrote his first hit, “Dzandimomotera,” and though the two legends only played together for a couple of years, Mapfumo said that it was their conversations at the time that convinced Mtukudzi to sing in Shona rather than in English. Advice that would serve him well.

In 1978, with Zimbabwe on the brink of independence, Mtukudzi formed The Black Spirits, a group he would play with the rest of his life. The following year, as freedom arrived, the group released Africa, an album that would begin to firmly establish Mtukudzi’s identity, featuring two huge songs — “Zimbabwe” and “Mazongo Nyedze” — that would become synonymous with the political and social changes taking place in the country. The music was built on a rolling bass playful drums, and lyrical chiming guitars familiar to lovers of mbaqnaga and Zulu jive, but also full of rolling Hammond B-3 that could give the music a churchy, soulful vibe.

Yet Mtukudzi also possessed a voracious musical appetite, and future records would move fluidly from electric jazz to acoustic traditional Shona songs to more spiritual matters. And there was a lot of records: In the mid-80s Oliver launched his own Tuku label, as he and the Black Spirits released an average of two albums a year until the late 90s, as well as creating numerous film scores. He starred in and wrote soundtrack for the 1990 film Jit, which ended up playing in film festivals around the world – giving Mtukudzi some of his first major exposure outside Africa – and winning Mtukudzi an M-Net Award for Best Soundtrack in the process.   

Unlike the politically outspoken Mapfumo, whose critiques of Zimbabwe’s longtime president Robert Mugabe led to a self-imposed exile that only saw him return to his homeland in 2018, Mtukudzi shied away from overtly political content in his music. Instead choosing sides between the regime or the opposition party — AP reports that the musician performed concerts for both — Mtukudzi used his social activism to serve the condition of the people. He was the first major Zimbabwe musician to address the AIDS epidemic and write songs addressing women’s rights, and his long-time work with children’s organizations saw him named a UNICEF Global Ambassador in 2011. So though their approaches were different, it was no surprise to hear Mapfumo pay tribute to Mtukudzi as “an inspiration” and “a freedom fighter.” 

Although Mtukudzi’s worldwide fame had been building throughout the Nineties, it was his 1998 album Tuku Music that made him a global superstar, topping “world music” charts in the U.S. and UK the following year. It also championed the notion that Oliver’s music was different.   “My fans were the first to describe my music as Tuku Music but it was only around the mid 1990s that I began to develop it as a brand name,” Mtukudzi once noted in an interview. “My music doesn’t really qualify as one of the more classified styles of Zimbabwean music like jiti, sungura, chimurenga or even traditional.”

It is a music that has been deeply inspirational to musicians throughout the world communities — not least our own AFROPUNK family. Leon, one of the finalists in last December’s AFROPUNK Battle of the Bands in Joburg, spoke of its importance in his own life. When asked who is the one musician it was his dream to collaborate with, Leon answered, “Oliver Mtukudzi. His Tuku music has been the soundtrack of my life. From as young as I can remember, his guitar has been ringing in my ear. He is my ultimate musical hero and I would love to write with him; to have the chance to marry his intricate arrangements and composing genius to my stories. That is my current dream collaboration and I imagine the music we’d create would transcend!”

According to the South African media, Oliver Mtukudzi was preparing to release his 67th album in 2019.