Oliver Dairai Mtukudzi was 66 when he died on 23 January, yet he released an improbable 67 albums, almost one for every year he was on this Earth. It’s a prodigious output, even for a musician who once told me — half jokingly, half seriously — that according to his mother his most beautiful composition was his birth cry on 22 September 1952, as he made the transition from the warm, watery dark into this world.
His extensive oeuvre was the result of a tireless work ethic, which he spoke about on songs like Yorira Ngoma (Let the Music Play), Shanda (You Should Work) and Mean What You Say. Even though Mtukudzi grew up in Highfield, a ghetto in Salisbury (now Harare), his ears were well trained to the traditional percussive katekwe sound of his rural home in Dande, in northern Zimbabwe near the Zambezi Valley.
Katekwe was a sound he frequently revisited in his four-decade career, which spanned the regimes of Ian Smith, Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa. When he picked up a guitar in those early days, the drum-based music of the ancestors wasn’t the only sound he knew; in the 1960s and 1970s, he was also listening to mbira, mbaqanga, soul and the blues, influences that are sometimes evident in his sound.
His later collaborations with people like Ringo Madlingozi, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Steve Dyer and other South African artists happened seamlessly — in part because of his early work with West Nkosi, a Gallo Records producer who was involved in making the music of many Zimbabwean musicians.
Like many others of my generation, I grew up around Mtukudzi’s music. My single mother was a big fan and had a stash of his records. So it was natural that when I sat down to write one of my first published pieces, around 2000, I gravitated towards Mtukudzi (popularly known in Zimbabwe as simply Tuku or Samanyanga, his clan name).
The piece in Moto, a radical and now defunct Roman Catholic magazine in Zimbabwe, ran with a headline along the lines of “The female world and female authority in Mtukudzi’s music”. It was meant to celebrate the recurrence of strong women and feminism in the musician’s oeuvre.
Challenging the patriarchy
I looked at songs like Neria (the soundtrack to a movie of the same name), Muchatuta and Sandi Bonde, at the heart of which Mtukudzi placed bereaved widows at the mercy of a grasping patriarchy. I also referred to Ndagarwa Nhaka, a song about the practice of “inheriting” women, in which a woman says she has agreed to be “inherited”.
It wasn’t just about making women central to the song because, in Sandi Bonde, he was effectively reinterpreting customs like inheriting a woman in the event of her husband’s death. These customs, Mtukudzi was saying in his role of artist as cultural legislator, were meant to protect bereaved women and their children, not simply enlarge the harem of the patriarch.
At the time I wrote the piece, Mtukudzi was enjoying unprecedented success following the release of Tuku Music, an eight-track CD produced by saxophonist Dyer. With hindsight, it’s clear that Tuku Music was an album of breathtaking beauty and originality, the record that bridged early Tuku with later Tuku, Tuku at home and Tuku abroad.
It was a popular and critically acclaimed album that brought the musician to a new generation of fans, as well as to the attention of fans in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Kenya, Europe and beyond. It was, in some ways, a summation of his work, even though there was more to come.
On the album, songs like Todii, a dirge for the hundreds of thousands living and dying of HIV and AIDS; Tsika Dzedu, a call to celebrate African cultures and languages; and Dzoka Uyamwe, about a mother calling out to her child in the rough cities to return to her rural bosom, were party favourites.
Mtukudzi capitalised on the success of this album, releasing further hit albums Paivepo (2000), Neria (2001), Bvuma (2001), Vhunze Moto (2002), Shanda (2003), Tsivo (2004) and Nhava (2005). It’s significant that Paivepo was the album immediately following Tuku Music as “paivepo” is the evocative Shona word used at the beginning of a folktale, the equivalent of “once upon a time”.
Paivepo was the sonic device Mtukudzi used to revisit his oeuvre, songs that his old fans knew but his new listeners didn’t. Even though the old fans knew these tunes, we listened again to the old-new songs, bewitched by their newfound swagger and world-conscious smanje smanje (updated modernness).
For Mtukudzi was no newcomer, even though mainstream success came late. He had been a fixture of Zimbabwean music since the 1970s, ever since the release of his hit single Dzandimomotera, which was so popular it remained in the then Rhodesian charts for 38 weeks, 11 of them at number one. He followed up that song with the subversive 1977 single Mutavara, perhaps my favourite of all his songs, later included on Shanda but originally on his debut album Ndipeiwo Zano (1978).
The song features a romantic figure, a lone hunter called Mutavara about to go out into the wild to hunt. In those days of the armed struggle against Smith’s racist regime, the idiomatic song was rightly interpreted by listeners as being a call to young people to go and join the war then being led by guerilla leaders Mugabe and Zapu leader Joshua Nkomo.
The song exhibits defining Tuku traits: his mastery of poetry and facility with the Shona language that enabled him to pretend to be saying the commonplace while really speaking the language of the ancients. Mtukudzi spoke and sang in a northern Shona dialect known as Korekore, itself a revolutionary act because of the dominance of Zezuru, the dialect spoken in and around Harare that is deemed to be standard Shona; Zezuru is the language spoken by Mugabe, so it is the language of power.
It’s instructive that Mtukudzi died in the city in which he was born. Unlike his contemporary and friend, Chimurenga music maestro Thomas Mapfumo, who still lives in Oregon in the United States, Mtukudzi lived in Zimbabwe all his life. Unlike Mapfumo’s rebarbative, revolutionary and direct stance against the Mugabe dictatorship, Mtukudzi managed to couch his criticism of the leadership and society in idiom, folktale and metaphor, chibhende in Shona.
Mtukudzi reminds me of the idea of the middle ground contained in Igbo wisdom. To paraphrase: in a procession of three people walking in a fearsome forest, the one in front “encounters spirits”, the one in the middle is the “dandy child of fortune” and the one at the end has “twisted fingers”.
What may not be immediately clear is the quiet celebration of “the middle ground as the most fortunate … The middle ground is neither the origin of things nor the last of things; it is aware of a future to head into and a past to fall back on; it is the home of doubt and indecision,” wrote Chinua Achebe in Hopes and Impediments.
It is this middle ground that Mtukudzi occupied, which enabled him to be liked by both Zanu PF and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters. In a polarised country, this wasn’t always a popular position; people wanted artists to take sides. (I would have preferred him to take a stand against Mugabe.)
Take, for instance, his song Wasakara on the 2001 album Bvuma/Tolerance. “Bvuma iwe, bvuma wachembera, bvuma wasakara” (you must admit that you are old and wrinkled). At the time, most took the song to mean that Mtukudzi was advising Mugabe, then only 77, to retire because he was old. MDC supporters adopted the song as the party’s anthem and played it at their rallies and outreach programme events.
But Mtukudzi, ever the denizen of the middle ground, rejected that interpretation and explained that he was singing generally about old age. It is, I guess, the secret meaning of what Mtukudzi meant when he told me, “I am not a politician, but I come up with songs that anyone can use.”
In an interview from 2012, Mtukudzi said: “Art is a mirror of society, of the people, whatever their political affiliations. Artists are above politics. Right now I am in South Africa raising the Zimbabwean flag, a [cloth] that also covers the politicians.
“When a politician lifts a flag, he is representing a particular section of people. When we play at an MDC rally, it’s not because MDC supporters are there, but because they are Zimbabweans and [the same is true for Zanu-PF]. Sometimes, when we play for a particular political party, members of the other party come, too. We play for the people, we represent the people.”
It was music that the people appreciated at home and abroad, which explains the tearful grief at news of his death. He was, I think, the most loved musician in Zimbabwe. Wherever you are, rova ngoma, mutavara (beat that drum, mutavara).