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Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye: A memorial — Ode to Oliver Mtukudzi

Today, 23 January 2022, marks exactly three years after we lost the great Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, the master of song who entertained and charmed this nation for decades. Today I republish an edited version of the obituary that I wrote when the legendary icon passed away.

In the week that his in-law and fellow music legend Zexie Manatsa passed away, it is only fair that we spare a thought and pay tribute to those whose industry has lyrically accosted our collective daily trials and tribulations.

It has also been the week of the fallout of the coalition of Hades personified by Thokozani Khupe and Douglas Mwonzora, whose treacherous political chorus came to a tumultuous, acrimonious halt.

The two performed a toxic, treacherous and surrogate duet that betrayed the sovereign expression of the people in the 2018 plebiscite. They too belong to a treacherous aptitude whose political music album has vexed the nation in the past one year or so.

The people are angry and as we stand on the cusp of the March 26 by-elections, someone’s political career appears to be staring at the dark rictus of death simply because you don’t sleep with the Devil and expect to wake up in Heaven.

But that is a story for another day.

I have great respect for yesteryear music legends. They wowed Zimbabweans and gave music lovers value for money when they turned up for their live shows. They literally created their sound through their musical instruments and did not download their beats from the computer. They were real artistes.

Death is a beast that continues to rob us of the talent in our midst as exemplified by the nation’s loss of the iconic Zexie Manatsa some 72 hours ago. And yet, when the dreaded spectre of death visits us, we can’t run away and all we have to do is brave up and “Luke” the beast in the eye.

Tuku was a talented artiste. Artistes will always be the true repository of the conscience of a people, with their art and the attendant enduring message reflective of the people’s daily challenges.

As Emmerson Mnangagwa’s physical, emotional, economic and psychological violence wreaks havoc across the country, leaving corpses as well as battered and tortured souls in its wake, one is reminded of Tuku’s timeless lyrics when he tutored us on the futility of violence and its lack of dividend:

” Ngoromera ingoromera ,
Harina zvarinoshanda
Haringabatsire …..”

Today, all we can do is remember this icon and the footprints that the man and his art left on the sands of history. Tsimba itsoka , to borrow the phrase by which he named one of his albums.

Tuku achieved both in life and in death what our national leaders have failed to achieve —- uniting a deeply polarised and fractured nation. Such was Tuku’s greatness.

He was one of the unique few who traversed with unparalleled ease the great political divide that has become the bane of our nation.

Tuku performed at a ceremony to celebrate the appointment of Joice Mujuru as second secretary of Zanu PF and Vice President of the country. Mujuru hails from Mashonaland Central province, where Mtukudzi also came from.

At the carnival where he played to celebrate Mujuru’s elevation in politics, Tuku performed the song Dzoka Uyamwe in salutation of the political achievement by a woman he referred to as the girl from Dande, his home area as well.

After that performance to celebrate Mujuru’s elevation, some said Tuku was Zanu PF.

Tuku then performed at former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s wedding in Harare in 2012. In February 2018, he was in Buhera when we buried Zimbabwe’s doyen of democracy at his rural home at Humanikwa village.

After his appearance at these two epic events to do with Morgan Tsvangirai, the naysayers changed script and said Tuku was MDC!

In this politically divided nation, it was only Tuku who could afford to criss-cross this great divide and leave the nation baffled and confused as to where he stood politically. Tuku lived his life and his art well beyond the political party card; far beyond the constricting precinct of partisan regalia and party slogans.

Indeed, partisan politics and a partisan deportment were too petty for Tuku’s vast character; for his ubiquitous art that touched every soul regardless of race, tribe, creed or political affiliation.

Tuku, the legend buried in Madziwa on Sunday, 27 January 2019, was simply far much bigger than our fractured and divisive politics.

Even in the soft requiem of death, Tuku 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 and the ubiquity of his art 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. In his death, Tuku brought Nelson Chamisa and Emmerson Mnangagwa together, a feat which SADC, the AU and even the United Nations have all failed to achieve.

Tuku died as he lived — simply as an artiste.

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 then situated 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 .

Yes, Mtukudzi abruptly stopped performing, albeit for a brief hiatus, after his fans literally plucked the controversial 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. Yet Oliver was simply a master of perfect musical 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 that Friday night of wild music fans infusing their own lyrics in mockery of Mugabe’s old age:

“ Nyika yese yati wakwegura
Hauchaigona wachembera ,
Wakuraka usazoramba Bhobho Chinja iwe ”

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.

The story of that event was part of my several arts stories that won me the 2002 Delta prize for the Arts journalist of the year at the annual National Journalism And Media Awards ceremony some 20 years ago.

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When I sought Tuku’s comment during the crowd-induced hiatus, a visibly shaken Samanyanga, 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 song 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 of Makumbe village in Domboshava, is a Tuku fan. But my paternal uncle, my father’s young brother Thomas Gombera, now a pastor, was a staunch fanatic, nay a fundamentalist when it came to Tuku’s music. Through his influence, the entire family ended up warming up 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 December 20 1990, I remember the whole family singing along to Tuku’s lyrics at a colourful family 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 charm families and communities. His art cut across generations, nations, tribes and political parties. Such was the greatness of Tuku Music.

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, November 4 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 musical friends.

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

I remained trapped in the car. I had lost consciousness, which later graduated into a deep coma that was to last some 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 became the theme song at his death:

” Pangu pese ndasakura _ndazunza ,
Ndima yese mdasakura ndapedza ..”

(I have fought my good fight).

Indeed, Tuku, you played your part. True, rufu ndimadzongonyedze .

It is sad that the signature cough that accompanied your lyrics shall be heard no more!

We shall always remember you, Tuku. But we are comforted by the fact 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 up 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 of the Elephant totem; the elephant and its calf charming God and the angels in the ultimate kraal of heaven ( nzou nemhuru mudanga ).

Tuku’s former publicist, Shepherd Mutamba, has written a damning book which details some of Tuku’s blemishes, including adulterous relationships. What this may only show is that Tuku was no saint. He was a mere mortal like the rest of us.

Tuku’s blemishes will neither subtract from the lofty standard of his art nor blight the overwhelming reverence that this nation rightfully accorded him.

Politicians by the nature of their trade always want to claim credit. But let it be said now that it was not the Zanu PF politburo that conferred Tuku with national hero status.

They may have done so to provide a distraction to the unfolding national crisis in which State security agents continue to terrorize innocent citizens, but Zimbabweans in their diversity had already duly accorded Tuku the iconic status he duly deserved, even if the regime was not going to do so.

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 achieved and 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 their talent and the sweat of their unique endeavours.

One could surmise that even Mnangagwa, who presumes himself to be our President when we all know he pick-pocketed victory, may not have the legitimacy to purport to have conferred hero status 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 lies in that each one of us will have their turn.

“ Vanga ramatipa rorwadza ,

Misodzi mokoto

Haiwaka rwendo rwacho mazoro …..”

May his dear soul continue to rest in eternal peace, this iconic lyrical master of our time!

Tuku died and we shall always remember him. But the good news as we remember our late music icons is that something new; something exciting, is about to be born.

Behold the New!

Luke Tamborinyoka is the Deputy Secretary for Presidential Affairs in the peoples party led by Advocate Nelson Chamisa . He is a multiple award-winning journalist. Among his many awards was the Delta prize for the arts journalist of the year that he won at the National Journalistic And Media Awards in 2002. His passion during his journalism days was politics and the arts. You can interact with him on facebook or on twitter @ luke_tambo