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Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye: Ode to the great Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi (Republished)

Today, 23 January 2023, marks exactly four 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 January 2019, leaving a teary nation in a massive sense of loss and bemusement.

And only some 72 hours or so ago, we lost mbira queen gogo Stella Chiweshe. They are dying in droves, these iconic musicians who oozed brilliance in the class of their art.

In the wake of Winky D’s popular Eureka music album which has resonated with ordinary citizens but has riled the ruling elite for its politically tinged lyrics, we continue to be reminded of art’s capacity to grip an entire nation and to spawn debate and animated conversations across the country. It is against this background that we today remember the great Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, the boy from Dande whose music charmed and wowed this nation for decades.

It is now four years to the day since the great music icon passed on. And as he lies still and motionless in the soft requirem of death, we remember this national hero who artistically told the story of ordinary citizens; the man whose acoustic guitar and the famous trademark cough will forever remain firmly etched in our music memories

Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi in January last year in front of a picture of his late son Sam (Getty Images )
Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi in front of a picture of his late son Sam (Getty Images )

Around this time last year and as if by coincidence, Tuku’s in-law and fellow music legend Zexie Manatsa passed away. It is only fair and in the spirit of rememberance that we spare a thought and pay tribute to those whose industry has over the years lyrically accosted our collective daily trials and tribulations.

And today its Stella Chiweshe, our talented girl child who exported Zimbabwe’s unique mbira sound to Berlin, Madrid, New York, London, Paris and other famous world capitals. May her mbira soul rest in eternal peace.

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 internet. They were real artistes who literally created their sound..

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 a year ago around this time.

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 message it carries reflective of the people’s tenuous 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, even in the context of Jaison Muvhevhi’s litany of corpses, Tuku’s message about the futility of blood and violence remains lyrically relevant. It all reflects the timelessness of Tuku’s art.

Today, all we can do is remember this icon and the footprints that the man and his art left on the sands of history. Yes, the footprint on the sand— 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 his performance to celebrate Mujuru’s elevation, some said Tuku was Zanu PF.

Tuku then performed at then 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 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 as he lay in the dark rictus 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 undisputed 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 hit 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 old 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 playing field 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.

My 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 award at the annual National Journalism And Media Awards ceremony some 21 years ago.

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 .”

But the following day, Tuku was not reachable.

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 demise 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 ndasakura ndapedza ..”

(I have fought my good fight).

Indeed, Tuku, you played your part. And true, rufu ndimadzongonyedze Oh yes, death muddies the waters in a big way!

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 had 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 icon is that something new; something exciting, is about to be born around July/August this year.

Behold the New!

Luke Tamborinyoka, a citizen from Domboshava, is a journalist and an ardent political scientisr by profession . He is a change champion in the Citizens Coalition for Change ( CCC ). You can interact with him on his facebook page or via his twitter handle @ luke_tambo.

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