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Luke Tamborinyoka: An ode to Oliver Mtukudzi

By Luke Tamborinyoka

Oliver Mtukudzi achieved both in life and in death what our national leaders have failed to do: uniting a deeply polarized and fractured nation.

Music superstar Oliver Mtukudzi at Tsvangirai's funeral
Music superstar Oliver Mtukudzi at Morgan Tsvangirai’s funeral

Such was his greatness.

In life, he performed at a ceremony to celebrate the appointment of Joyce Mujuru as vice president of Zimbabwe and second secretary of Zanu PF. Mujuru is a daughter of Mashonaland Central province where Mtukudzi came from and at the carnival, Tuku performed the song “Dzoka Uyamwe’ in salutation of the political achievement by a woman he referred to as the girl from Dande.

After that performance some said Tuku was Zanu PF.

 Tuku then performed at former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s wedding in Harare in 2012 and last February, he was in Buhera when we buried Zimbabwe’s doyen of democracy at his rural home at Humanikwa village.

After that performance in 2012and his appearance last year in Buhera, some said Tuku was MDC.

In this politically divided nation, it was only Tuku who could afford to live his life well beyond the political party card; beyond partisan regalia and party slogans. Partisan politics was too petty for his vast character.

Tuku, the legend buried in Madziva last Sunday, was simply far much bigger than our fractured politics. 

In the soft requiem of death, Tuku has unified our divided politics. At his death, we saw Nelson Chamisa, Emmerson Mnangagwa and Joyce Mujuru casting aside their political jackets to attend the funeral of this hero of Zimbabwe.  The vastness of Tuku’s character had ample space for this deeply divided political lot.

Such was the unifying nature of this lyrical master of our time; indeed an undisputed national hero.

He died as he lived—simply as an artist.

I have long memories of Oliver Mtukudzi that stretch some 20 years back to my other life as a journalist. 

I remember covering the launch of one of his most controversial albums to date, Bvuma/Tolerance, at a joint along Julius Nyerere Avenue in central Harare. The place was full to the brim and the inimitable Mtukudzi was forced mid-stream to cut short his performance of the controversial song, Wasakara.

He abruptly stopped performing after his fans literally plucked the song from his lips, flashed out red cards and started infusing their own lyrics into a song that was to take the country by storm

Robert Mugabe was not even 80 at the time but his age had already become a topical national issue. Music fans believed Mtukudzi’s song, Wasakara, was a reference to Mugabe’s age. He was a master of perfect art which often has multiple meanings to multiple listeners in multiple circumstances.

The red cards had become part of the MDC’s campaign paraphernalia which the party’s supporters would symbolically bandy around as a send off sign for Mugabe to leave the political stage due to his old age.

Stamping their feet and singing wildly in mock rendition of Mtukudzi’s powerful lyrics, I can still vividly remember the sonorous unison of wild music fans infusing their own lyrics in mockery of Mugabe’s old age: “Nyika yese yati wakwegura hauchaigona wachembera, wakuraka usazoramba Bob bvuma (The whole country is agreed that you can’t govern because you are too old. Bob (Mugabe’s nickname), you must just admit you are now old). 

Probably afraid of political repercussions during those highly charged political times, Mtukudzi stopped the song mid-stream during the album launch and called for a break.

When I sought his comment during the crowd-induced hiatus, a visibly shaken Tuku, unnerved by the moment, calmly said to me: “Tamborenyoka, this is the time when I want to speak to my fans. I do not wish to grant interviews to journalists during my shows. Let us talk tomorrow.”

Weeks later, the controversial Wasakara was to lead to the arrest of an audacious lighting engineer for invariably blazing the lights on Mugabe’s portrait every time Tuku shouted Bvuma iwe” during a live performance at a local hotel. 

Tuku’s music fascinated the nation, charmed revelers and consoled the bereaved.

My maternal uncle, Constantine Makumbe, is a Tuku fan. But my paternal uncle, Thomas Gombera, now a pastor, was a fundamentalist of Tuku music. Through his influence, the entire family ended up warming to Mtukudzi’s powerful lyrics. Somehow, we all ended up Tuku’s ardent fans.

At one of our family end of year shindigs, way back on the 20th of December 1990, I remember the whole family aping Tuku’s lyrics at a colourful bash that spilt into the early hours of the following morning:

“Kumhuri yekwedu, haungadaro, Carol…” we boomed, slotting in my sister’s name for colour and rhyme in a deafening chant that reverberated in the nearby Dambatsoko mountain. We were enjoying ourselves at our rural homestead at Tamborenyoka village in Domboshava and my sister, Carol, was only eight then.

Indeed, Tuku’s music would cut across generations, nations, tribes and political parties.

It was Tuku who almost provided the sound-track to the real-life movie of my near-demise. When I was involved in a near-fatal accident in the company of my uncle and brothers as we drove home in the early hours of Sunday, 4 November 2012, it was Tuku’s lyrics that almost accompanied us to our death. Playing in the car in what almost became the lyrical backdrop to our deaths was the album Abi Angu, a collection of Tuku’s collaborative effort with his friends.

In the flash of a moment, the Prado vehicle had overturned. With its wheels still spinning as it lay on its roof, Abi Angu was still playing in the background as my five colleagues battled to clamber out of the vehicle. 

I had lost consciousness, which graduated into a coma that was to last five weeks.

Tuku’s music was pregnant with all sorts of exhortations. His lyrical prowess was unparalleled as he was one musician who advised just he chastised. He could console as he taught. He entertained as he praised.

Samanyanga simply had a song for every situation including the powerful lyrics that have almost become the theme song at his death: Pangu pese ndasakura ndazunza (I have fought my good fight).

Indeed, Tuku, you have done your part. It is sad that the signature cough is no more.

We shall always remember you. But we know that you are now in great company up there with Safirio Madzikatire, Simon Chimbetu, James Chimombe, John Chibadura, Job Mashanda, Leonard Dembo, Marshall Munhumumwe and many others of your trade who left before you.    

Heaven is probably lyrically richer. After all, one from your own loins Sam is already there. And the two of you will charm the heavens with the same lyrical lure that for decades lulled a despondent nation into an odd mixture of laughter and comfort.

Tuku and son Sam; the elephant and its calf charming God and the angels in the ultimate kraal of heaven (nzou nemhuru mudanga).   

Tuku’s former publicist Shepherd Mutmba has written a damning book which details some of his blemishes, including even adulterous relationships. If true, what this may only show is that Tuku was no saint. He was a mere mortal like the rest of us. His blemishes will neither subtract from the lofty standard of his art nor blight the overwhelming reverence that this nation has rightfully accorded him.

  And it was not any motley political grouping that conferred Tuku with national hero status. They may have done so to provide a distraction to the current crisis in which State security agents are terrorizing innocent citizens. But Zimbabweans in their diversity had already duly accorded him the iconic status he deserved. Even if this regime had kept its silence, Tuku was always going to be a national hero.

After all, hero status is never conferred by anyone. It is earned by one’s deeds in their lifetime. Tuku deserves his place among the country’s cream; among those who raised the country’s flag high by the talent and sweat of their endeavours. 

One could surmise that even those who think they are leaders when they pick-pocketed victory may not have the legitimacy to purport to be conferring  hero status on anyone, let alone on the great Tuku.

Indeed, pretence of legitimate kingship is the political bane of our time. Wenge Mambo, to borrow a lyrical line from the indefatigable Tuku.

It was Tuku who told us that death leaves a painful scar but the fairness is that each one of us will have their turn.

“Vanga ramatipa rorwadza,

Misodzi mokoto

Haiwaka rwendo rwacho mazoro…..” 

Go well, lyrical master.

Luke Tamborinyoka is a multiple award-winning journalist. Among his many awards was the Delta prize for the arts journalist of the year that we won at the National Journalistic And Media Awards in 2002. His passion during his journalism days was politics and the arts. He is currently the Director of Communications in the MDC. He writes here in his personal capacity. You can interact with him on facebook or on twitter @luke_tambo.