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Oliver Mtukudzi: How Tuku Music sheltered a Zimbabwean refugee in Harare and enhanced an excellent tradition

By Tafi Mhaka

Music is soulful shelter. I became a refugee when I discovered potential life hidden in the works of Mbare-born guitarist Louis Mhlanga and the late Mozambican Afro-Jazz singer Gito Baloi and slowly rekindled a childhood passion for the sounds of Oliver Mtukudzi.

Zimbabwe music legend Oliver Mtukudzi
Zimbabwe music legend Oliver Mtukudzi

The dollar had crashed and caused volcanic economic aftershocks and seismic social aftereffects and I had lost dear childhood friendships to fresh alliances, rapid relocations, undisclosed illnesses and road accidents.

So I needed a safe and regular escape from a land of certain economic and social chaos. I discovered Hona Ka and Gwenya Mbira from Mhlanga when I was so set on exploring the entertainment scene in Harare and finding direction life.

Gwenya Mbira is the quintessential composition for a big city dreamer and I lived on dreams man. When I was at university, I got a copy of Na Ku Randza, an enigmatic offering from Baloi. It is a lush and expansive construction of African love, colourful optimism and infinite reflection that allows you to dream and flourish. 

This fresh indulgence of mine surfaced after a spirit of reassessment and renaissance spread across the nation in the wake of a call from Dzikamai Mavhaire for President Robert Mugabe to step down in 1997. Consequent developments left the nation on tenterhooks and the all-important referendum on a new constitution and land resettlement exercise led to low consumer and business confidence.

And it so happened that Oliver Mtukudzi released Tuku Music a few months before preparations for a big family wedding began. While this union represented the creation of fresh life for the couple and an extension of the clan, the release of Tuku Music spawned wholehearted happiness around the nation since we all required immense faith, effusive goodwill and sufficient tenacity to quell the stresses and strains that social and economic upheaval had placed on relationships, families and communities.

Mtukudzi found a fresh voice when I needed inspiration and crafted an African classic that I could dance to at the wedding: the genre-bending production, delightful metaphors, powerful enunciation and feel-good factor in Tuku Music made me see my African self in a whole new light.

I basked in the glory of the occasion and socialising with friends and colleagues proffered excellent entertainment on its own: an inebriated uncle passed out early in the afternoon and that elicited ridicule and bouts of hysterical laughter. 

All the while, long, colourful and off-key speeches tickled our collective ego and eccentric dances entertained guests and down-to-earth joy and satisfaction filled each scrap of food that friends and relatives consumed. A ubiquitous view of love in the air prompted sudden smiles and incessant storytelling and excessive imbibing and the sound of Tuku Music also narrated an unbelievable tale in the background.

Although Mtukudzi had entered the national conscience in 1977, he had reinvented himself on Tuku Music and further displayed vocal and musical expression that questioned the quintessential substance of Africanism and economic and cultural emancipation with ever-rising microscopic emphasis.

I loved the culture; I loved the music. I braved the cold to see Daiton Somanje and Pengaudzoke work instrumental magic on an icy cold stage in Eastlea. I saw Andy Brown sing at the Seven Miles Hotel in Waterfalls and encountered a sprightly character that cleaned pockets on a professional basis. I watched Simon Chimbetu show off a number of chopper-like dance moves at Copacabana on a Thursday night.

I witnessed excellent performances from Thomas Mapfumo at the National Sports Stadium and a nightclub located in the CBD of Harare and watched Mtukudzi go head to head with Alick Macheso in a massive showdown at Hellenic Sports Stadium that ended when the sun rose and an inexhaustible Baba Shero ran short of darkness.

And that is why I remember that I had lost faith in Mtukudzi before 1999. He had experienced an artistic lull and released songs that belied his immense abilities. You can check out Chimambaira Chiri Mupoto. It could have represented the creative wilderness struggling musicians do not rebound from. 

I recall an occasion when I paid about Z$20 to see Mtukudzi perform at the Plaza de Castilla in Greencroft and the atmosphere inside the club resembled a damp squib. His solo guitar act in front of a handful of people said it all: he had hit rock bottom on the live performance circuit and experienced the commercial wrath of a fickle and unappreciative fan base.

Local music seemingly did not sound cool and sophisticated enough for all. I loved it though. I found an emotional connection with the vocal guitars and elaborate horns. I remember how I related to the Marxist Brothers in the 1980s.

Simon and Naison Chimbetu created a refreshing sub-category that sounded East African and the lingering agony in their voices sounded real. The Marxist Brothers couched common realities and painful challenges in relatable and enjoyable songs such as Mwana Wedangwe, Bvuma Mukwasha and Ndiri Wenhamo.

Joy and pain stood out as central motifs in the 80s and 90s. I recall buying Jemedza from James Chimombe in Spinalong on a Friday afternoon in 1991. I found his horn arrangement fascinating, and whenever I listened to Cecilia and Bindura, joyous satisfaction overwhelmed me.

Chimombe critiqued the social complexities of human interactions and romantic simplicities of affections and spitefulness of friendships. When Chimombe passed on, Kudakwashe, the tearful ballad from the late Ocean City Band lead singer, became more than a song for his son: it developed into a touching tribute to a gigantic composer who died aged 39.

Another song penned for a much-loved son is Thabiso from Southern Freeway. If there is a song that can articulate the sweetness and innocence of childhood and express the richness of an indestructible umbilical bond, well, Thabiso does, especially since the delicious-sounding horn Steve Dyer crafted exudes subtle lushness.

Along with Thabiso, I found Hupenyu Hwangu from the Bhundu Boys to be an instant classic that filled me with promise. Although I love Hatisi Tose and Simbimbino and think the rhythmic arrangement on the latter song is outstanding, Hupenyu Hwangu is the definitive celebration of how musical African cultures are.

What better way is there is to commemorate soulful existence than through homegrown music? We sing and dance and celebrate each elevating and menacing manifestation with passionate expressions and Hupenyu Hwangu was the first song I heard where a man embraces his death with obsessive ballyhoo.

Whenever I play Hatisi Tose, while working out at the gym, I hear the sounds of the morning chart show on Radio Two ring in my head. I hear the sounds of bus conductors at Mbare Musika loading cargo onto a Seke-bound Chigumba Express Motorways bus. I can see the long and dusty path from the general dealer shop to our communal homestead. I can see small-scale farmers ploughing the land – and I can see Gogo smiling in a smoke-filled hut on a warm summer evening.

Perhaps I longed for a dose of cosy and memorable feelings when I walked into the Plaza de Castilla. Mtukudzi reaffirmed his star status: he entertained the crowd with choice selections from an impressive catalogue. Yet for all of his professionalism: Mtukudzi, who, together with Simon Chimbetu – could be the best Shona songwriter of all time, had to be bigger than this minimalist response in an inconspicuous bar.

Mtukudzi has been loyal to his observations in a manner that only a fearless and talented artist can. Dzoka Uyamwe laments the loneliness of reluctant resettlement for economic and social reasons. Tsika Dzedu condemns a misplaced fascination with external cultures in preference to local traditions.

And Pindurai Mambo reveals frustrations with economic inequalities. Poverty has long surfaced as a central theme in local productions. The Marxist Brothers penned Ndipeiwo Zano in a candid illustration of a man chained in economic and social destitution.

Nothingness is further explored in Samatenga, where all a man has in the life after death is heartfelt concern for his family and memories of a much-cherished frock. Chimbetu explored economic neediness and asked Samatenga for answers yet consciously exonerated and ignored the corrupt comrades who stole earthly treasures.

And while people want to hear Mtukudzi declare his political allegiance as fact, his music has bared a tormented soul for so long and made clear where the singer stands on crucial matters. Mkuru Mkuru warned leaders to carry themselves with respect and dignity and watch what they do and say. Murimi Munhu asked the nation to spare a thought for vilified farmers.

Bvuma called on an old leader to stare at the mirror in the bathroom for once and face an anthropological truth: nothing lasts forever. Handiro Dambudziko could be the ambiguous soundtrack that plays alongside calls for Reserve Bank Governor John Mangudya to resign. Although his bond note actions have been exceptionally problematic and the RBZ has introduced absolutely destructive economic policies in the past: is Mangudya the scheming statesman that the nation should vote out of office in 2018? 

Virtually 18 years have passed since Ronald tied the knot but the nation could still be stuck in 1999 mode. Mtukudzi however: has done us proud. Let us celebrate the great artists he has toiled with and remember the likes of Don Gumbo, Marshall Munhumumwe and Biggie Tembo. Let us also thank the big man – who probably still misses Dande – for the soulful shelter he has offered cheerful dreamers the world over.

  • When you say conductors loading luggage on Chigumba buses to kwaSeke it touched me. It takes me down memory lane. To think that now when we want to go kumusha kwaSeke we dont go to mbare anymore. But hike kombis to Makoni be it at Machipisa or Kumbudzi then get another kombi at Makoni for another 25km to reach home. How things have changed for the worst.