By Maxwell Sibanda
At the peak of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle (1975 to 1979) a group of brave local musicians rose to offer morale to the fighters and the supporting masses.
Oliver Mtukudzi, together with Thomas Mapfumo, Zexie Manatsa, Tineyi Chikupo and Safirio Madzikatire were among those in the forefront of composing classic militant songs that inspired young Zimbabwean black fighters and the masses supporting the war of liberation.
Mtukudzi died on Wednesday at the age of 66.
While the music superstar and the aforementioned musicians had all along been singing cover versions of rock ‘n’ roll, soul and pop, new political developments saw changes in their music compositions.
Traditional war and hunting songs assumed new interpretations and so were some popular church hymns.
The Zimbabwean political song became the new “silent” order for mobilisation in the political struggle for justice as black people continued to be systematically excluded from the national social, economic and political fabric.
Their music, prophetic and proverbial had hidden messages that aroused revolutionary sentiment among blacks.
The urban musicians’ participation in the struggle was welcomed by black nationalists who all along had urged leading artists to contribute to the war.
Mtukudzi weighed in with the song Rova Ngoma Mutavara (Beat the drum fellow country man), a song that sought to inspire freedom fighters to be persistently bold and strong in their quest to achieve social and political freedom.
His other songs; Nyarara Mwanawe (Do not cry), Chido Chenyu Here? (Is this your wish?) and Ndipeiwo Zano (Give me advice) all pleaded with the Almighty for divine power to triumphal end of the ravaging war.
“Before independence in 1980, it was the fight against the Rhodesian regime. My music then spoke against oppression and the repressive regime and how we were suffering at the hands of the regime,” Tuku told the media. “My music then helped people identify themselves…who we were and what we wanted to be.”
But a few years into independence, while Zimbabweans were still enjoying some relative peace in a long time, ethnic violence erupted in the country and thousands of people died as a result.
Since those disturbances, most general elections held in Zimbabwe pitting the ruling Zanu PF party and opposition political parties has never been peaceful — innocent civilians are murdered, others disappear and homes are torched.
Surrounded by such environs of political violence, intimidation and social upheaval, Zimbabwean musicians were quick to dig deeper and compose related songs.
In 2000 Mtukudzi was among established musicians who took part in the production of a government song that promoted the idea of a new constitution.
In an interview with international music journalist Banning Eyre, Mtukudzi said: “Well, I was involved in the song that encouraged people to go and vote. I really wanted people to say out their feelings so that the government knows exactly what they feel about everything.
“And that really happened. The elections were very quiet, but at the end of the day, they had showed their feelings. My personal feeling is that from the time of the referendum and the parliamentary elections, it’s a step towards positive change.
“I think everybody knows now what the nation feels. It’s not just a matter of being dictated to. People showed what they feel about the whole situation. People are tired of the same thing. They want a change, something different from the last 20 years.” he said then.
Mtukudzi’s politically-charged 2000 album Bvuma/Tolerance was a protest voice. On Bvuma/Tolerance it was evident that Mtukudzi was not impressed with the way the country was being governed.
In the song Murimi Munhu (A farmer is also a human being) Mtukudzi accuses politicians of turning the Zimbabwe land issue into a political fighting weapon.
The song traces the violence during the land re-distribution, hence his other song on the same album, Mangoromera (Fighting spirit) in which he deplores the use of violence when dealing with economic and social issues.
After the release of Bvuma/Tolerance there was rumour that Mtukudzi had been picked up by police, which turned out to be false.
But a music engineer at one of his music shows at Harare International Conference Centre, HICC was not lucky at all as he was arrested over the late superstar’s song Wasakara (you are worn out).
The engineer was accused of lighting up former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s portrait which was hanging in the HICC when Mtukudzi played the song.
Then until he was ousted Mugabe’s official portrait was found in almost all hotel lobbies, schools, government offices and several other private companies.
While Mtukudzi denied that the song referred to Mugabe, then in his late 70s, as a spent force, most Zimbabweans thought otherwise.
“…Admit it… you are wrinkled…worn out..,” Mtukudzi sang. The music super star insisted that the song was about growing up and the wisdom that comes along with age.
Fellow musician and trade unionist Raymond Majongwe told the Washington Post Foreign Service then that Mtukudzi practiced “self-censorship” by never mentioning Mugabe or his ruling party by name in a song.
He said Mtukudzi had made a similar calculation in disavowing the political interpretations of the song Wasakara. “He’s also a clever politician,” Majongwe said. “It’s only a fool who will go against the wind. He’d be crushed.”
In the midst of the 2000 and 2002 presidential election campaigns, with political violence reported throughout the country Mtukudzi released his 44th album Vhunze Moto (Burning embers).
On the album’s cover is a flame engulfing the map of Zimbabwe. And he sings: “…Even embers are fire…why wait until it’s a huge flame…you have made the fire…” The song was interpreted as a warning to the presidency of the escalating problems in the country.
Renowned playwright Cont Mhlanga said Mtukudzi was a master in non-confrontational political massaging in his music.
“Unlike other artists who tended to be direct in political content he was indirect but still cut deep through his audience with his political commentary from Wanyanya to Wasakara to Senzenjani.
“It was his clever political commentary that made me collect his long play albums pre and post independence. His contribution to freedom awareness to political accountability awareness raising came through to followers of his music and became classic compositions.
“He was able to keep himself an artist and avoid turning into a political activist because of the popularity of his political massaging,” said Mhlanga.
At the time, asked by World Press Review’s Meron Tesfa Michael if he was disappointed by the way things had turned out in Zimbabwe, Mtukudzi said:
“Of course I am — the dreams and the struggle for independence were shared by all. I still don’t understand why our government has chosen to sacrifice so much to retain the reins of power. The lack of tolerance toward dissenting voices is a great disappointment to me. Party politics will be the ruin of Africa especially when there are so many serious issues facing the country right now, like famine and AIDS. Why we can’t just combine all our energies to deal with these real-life issues is a mystery to me.”
An other critical song by Mtukudzi is Wenge Mambo (behaving like a king) which was released in 2001. The song refers to politicians who view themselves as ‘kings’ and he says to please a witch give him human flesh as he thirsts for blood. He sings: “…Wenge mambo…tamupa mari waramba…kunatsa muroyi, womupeyi…kumupa mwana adye…wati anoda ropa…wona kuvhengedzera ungati irema…”
“All my songs work yesterday, today and tomorrow,” Mtukudzi said in an interview with the Washington Post Foreign Service. “My definition of a good song is a song that the next person is able to use.”
Speaking to The East African Magazine’s Bamuturaki Musinguzi in Kampala during a 12-African nation tour, Mtukudzi said it was not out of self-censorship that he avoids tackling political issues in his music.
He said: “I have never sung about politics, either before or after independence. I never talk about politics because I am not a politician. What I talk about are social issues and everyday life. The main theme in my music is self-discipline.”
Be that may, his responses were as critical especially with the international press. He once told Gambit Weekly’s Robert Nolan about the situation in Zimbabwe. “Right now, there is confusion. I expect people to fight back, but they are not! People are cool and quiet.”
As for his music’s role in the confusion, he says: “If there is one thing that people of different ideas and different ideals are able to share, it is music. I have to perform for them to neutralize the tension.”
Asked in Worldpress if he and Thomas Mapfumo were “heroic artists” as published in Time magazine which claimed that their music was “powerful as it rebukes and encourages the people of a broken nation to take up arms”, Mtukudzi said: “I don’t believe either of us is urging the people to take up arms.
“The minute you engage in violence to win any struggle, you lose so much. For many, the wounds from the war for independence can never heal — I have watched that period of our history and can only urge the people to have the courage to speak from their hearts and let their voices be heard….might is not right! The government has a responsibility to create the conditions that facilitate that kind of forum for the good of the whole.”
Commenting on his music during a 2003 interview Singing The Walls Down with Jeff Chu, Mtukudzi refused to decrypt his lyrics. He said: “I’m happy for people to get meaning from my songs. I want people to think about the right thing whether they sit in the seat of power or not.”
He added: “I hate songs that only work for a particular period. A song has to work yesterday, today and tomorrow.” Daily News