In the last two decades of great challenges, there has only been a handful of things that have given us, Zimbabweans, reason to smile and crow about on the world stage. One of them was Oliver Mtukudzi – the man and his music. Arguably Zimbabwe’s finest ambassador, the musical icon was a source of national pride.
Tuku’s husky voice soared across lands and oceans and rose above the mountains, carrying a language that was a potpourri of peace and pain, love and suffering, joy and spirituality and a lot more. An unassuming man, he remained true to his roots, humble and forever engaging, despite the lofty heights to which his glorious career had taken him.
We claimed Tuku because he was one of us. But by the time he flew away for the last time last week, we knew he was no longer ours alone. Just as the Mtukudzi clan had lost exclusive rights towards the man, he had outgrown the boundaries of Zimbabwe. Tuku now belonged to the world, his rich legacy an indelible part of humankind’s heritage.
No wonder tributes flooded from around the world, from heads of state and influential political leaders to fellow musicians. But above all, it was the messages from ordinary people across Africa and elsewhere that shone a bright light into the man that Tuku had become.
His musical works had touched lives even in lands far away. A German friend once said to me “I have no idea what he is saying but it must be beautiful.” He became a big fan of Tuku after the first encounter with his music. He was and will forever be a man of the people.
I began to make sense of the world in the 1980s, an era of great promise so soon after our country got independence. Music was a great part of our life and my generation likes to think it was the glorious era of music. To be sure, we were privileged to bear witness to some great artistes of that era. Tuku was right up there among them. We lost the majority of these musical geniuses of that era in the 1990s. Tuku was one of the few who remained standing.
In fact, his musical prowess grew and flourished in the late nineties. It was a revival of sorts as he had had a lull in fortunes in the mid-nineties. I remember in 1997/8 when his new album which contained the chartbuster Todii delivered him to new heights and audiences.
Years later I would meet fellow Africans and upon announcing my Zimbabweanness, they would start singing “Todii? What shall we do?” They knew Tuku. They loved Tuku. They loved Neria. It made me feel very proud. It reminded me that music is an underrated export.
With the resurgence, new audiences arrived, even those who had previously kept clear of local music. Tuku broke those boundaries. His music appealed across class and cultural walls. The beer gardens he used to play in became too small and he moved to bigger spaces, attracting thousands. The trade was giving good returns.
There is far too much to like about Tuku’s music that it would require an entire thesis to do justice to it. Here, I merely summarise the major themes of what Tuku’s music meant to me and why it is right up there with the best artistic and intellectual contributions to the nation and indeed, to humankind.
First, Tuku was a lyrical genius. He had the gift of subtlety. Some people would have wanted him to be more direct in his songs, especially where political issues were concerned. But Tuku had his own, inimitable style. But Tuku was a poet and he delivered his greatest punches with admirable subtlety. It was an iron fist in a velvet glove. And he punched hard that way.
I love the music because it is truly a work of art, perfectly delivered. Chinua Achebe once said among his people, proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten. That is what Tuku did with his music. He took proverbs, metaphors and wise sayings and used them to deliver his messages in a beautiful way. His music challenges the mind. It is not obvious. I always want to find out what lies between the lines and behind the lyrics. It’s a beautiful exercise which brings the music alive.
So when he sang against “ngoromera” and “chibhakera”, Tuku was delivering a powerful message to politicians, but he was smart enough to keep it subtle because long after the political fights are done, the song would still be relevant and useful in other contexts. A compilation of the lyrics of his music would be a great anthology. I imagine students would study it just as they do some of the great works of literature.
Second, Tuku was a conscious musician in the class of the greatest over the course of history who have identified and stood for important causes. Jamaica delivered Bob Marley to the world. Tuku is Zimbabwe’s great contribution. He stood for causes, great causes, too. From the early days with the likes of Zimbabe and Rova Ngoma Mutavara, Tuku put in his shift for the liberation struggle. From the beginning, Tuku always understood the greater purpose of his work beyond entertainment.
He was a champion of human rights. He stood for dignity and equality of all persons. “Munhu munhu, asina kubarwa ndiyani?” He asks in one of his most soulful songs, reminding us that everyone matters and all human beings are equal. He always stood with the people. “Vane njere dzavaidzo, vapei mukana wekuronga nekurongonora” (The people know what they want, give them space to express themselves), he sang in Bumbiro, a song about the constitution-making process. It was a song that spoke directly to me at a time when we were at the table, writing the current constitution. It was a reminder of the responsibility I was carrying and that at the end of the day, it was important to respect the people.
Neria transported the man and his reputation across boundaries. The sound-track of a much loved film of the same title, Tuku sang to his widowed sister, comforting, consoling and encouraging her to stand strong in the face of a vicious inheritance system. In doing so, Tuku championed the rights of women who are often the victims of an unfair inheritance system. The song and the message resonated with many across the world.
Children also had a special place in Tuku’s music. He reminded us of the plight of children born and living in the streets. He untied our collective conscience when he sang against abuse of young girls. “Ndozviudza aniko? Ndotaurira aniko? Ndingazvitaure sei? Rega ndirambe ndinyerere … zveechisa …” (Who do I tell? How do I say it? It’s frightening), Tuku sings in one of his songs in which he laments the scourge of child rape and sexual abuse.
And in one of his most recent albums, he took up the subject of child marriage, reminding society to stop this practice “Hamungamuroodze … haasati akura … haasati abva zera …” (She’s still too young for marriage) says Tuku in a powerful song that touches the tender ends of the heart and mind.
In all these songs, Tuku pricks the conscience of society. If he was a carpenter using a hammer, the nail would not feel any pain and we would not hear any noise of him beating the nail. That’s how he had mastered the art. He had a way of communicating these sad and tragic stories. He too hard subjects and made them look easy. Many years ago, he paid tribute to his old friend Jack Sadza, after his premature death. The result was Jeri, a beautiful song of sadness, love and friendship. You could tell Tuku was hurt by the departure of his great friend.
But Rufu Ndimadzongonyedze is an all-time classic. Listening to it and his other songs about death, Tuku had a gift of communicating sadness and pain in a beautiful and enchanting way. It seems it was his way of taunting it, reminding death of its presence, that’s its always lurking out there but also that he was not afraid of it and would sing about it again and again in a beautiful way. And he did.
It nearly broke him though nearly a decade ago, when it robbed him of his talented son, Sam, just when he thought he was grooming a successor. “Ndaka ronga dondo …” (my plans were put in disarray) Tuku lamented in song a few years afterwards.
But instead of allowing the tragic loss of his son to defeat him, Tuku accepted the challenge. He was always a friend and mentor to other musicians, but he took it to fresh heights. Tuku the educator set up Pakare Paye, a learning centre in Norton where he lived. From there he mentored many young musicians, hand-holding and chaperoning them onto the national stage and beyond.
Many a time he lent his famous voice to the young ones as he accompanied them on their musical journeys. He shared the stage with them, never too big or too proud to be with the young and inexperienced ones. He had become the elder statesman of the music industry – respected and revered in equal measure.
Tuku learnt to negotiate the treacherous path of Zimbabwean politics. He remained faithful to music as an art, never making direct declarations but always letting his music do the talking. He called for society to respect the musical trade. “Kwenyu kumishando tinosvika hatiseki, tino remekedza wani?” he asked in one of his songs Shanda, requesting society to respect the dignity of the musician; reminding us that being a musician is also a trade.
In this, Tuku never forgot his humble origins. He knew where he had come from – a time when playing a guitar was seen as a waste of time. He knew that despite his success, these attitudes hadn’t changed much. In demanding respect for the dignity of the musician and his work through a much-loved song, Tuku was not doing it for himself because he had long since arrived and earned respect. He was opening up a path for the younger generation, telling them that it was okay to be a musician and advising society that it was perfectly fine for their children to pursue a musical career.
Tuku was the musician-philosopher who posed hard questions and asked us to reflect on the big questions that confront humankind. “Mukuru ndiyani, ane mari neane hutano,” he asked in one of his songs, a comparison between one who values good health and another who is pre-occupied with more wealth. In the nineties he expressed his displeasure at the generation that was flaunting what was probably ill-gotten wealth. “Zvikomana zvemazuva ano, kuwonererwa …” – it is a song that resonates with the current times. Underlying that message was a charge against corrupt and irresponsible behaviour.
Tuku asked deep philosophical questions. One song which epitomises this quality is “Seiko?” (Why?) A soft song with a heavy bassline, it touches the soul. A deeply spiritual man, a recurring feature in his music, Tuku poses serious questions to the Creator. It is the kind of song that transports you to lands far off as you listen to it. His questions are our questions, deep questions that have no easy answers, if at all.
If there was a king, Tuku would have had a seat at the king’s court, strumming his guitar and giving counsel to all. He would make people laugh with his wit and humour. He would draw from the rich wisdom of the ancestors to deliver nuggets of advice. “Usakange nzungu yembeu,” he warns in one of his songs, a reminder not to overspend, to live within your means and to save and invest for tomorrow. It’s a message that applies to the household, to a business and even to those who manage the national coffers.
He used song to remind us that the best solution to a problem is to identify the cause of the problem, not the symptom. “Wongorora chaita musoro uteme, ugogadzirisa chaita musana ubande” (Find out what has caused the headache, fix that caused the backache). The headache or the backache is not the problem, he says in Handiro Dambudziko, a powerful message which is applicable in all spheres of life but even more significant during these troubled times for our nation.
For all that he has done and for everything that he represented, Tuku was probably Zimbabwe’s finest ambassador. Those who saw him as a lanky young man in the seventies might never have imagined he would grow into the colossal figure he became. Those who thought his chosen career was a waste would not recognise the giant he became – a cultural icon, a poet, a human rights champion, a mentor, a philosopher and much more that cannot be captured in words.
The way his life has been celebrated reminds us that leadership comes in many forms and that one acquires moral authority through their deeds. Tuku was never elected to political office, but he is now one of the very few national heroes who are universally acknowledged and attract no controversy in their selection. It is perhaps ironic that the man who publicly challenged the national honours system through song has himself been a recipient of the highest national honour, albeit one that comes upon death.
In “Who is a Hero?” Tuku uses his trademark subtlety to challenge the process of selecting national heroes which he sees as narrow and exclusionary. “Do you have to die to be a hero?” he asks in the song, a reminder that it is better to honour people during their lifetime. “To me Safirio Madzikatire is a hero, a national hero, Mukadota,” sings Tuku. Here is paying homage to Zimbabwe’s greatest comedian, the inimitable Mukadota and at the same time challenging the criteria for choosing national heroes. Tuku is making a point that many Zimbabweans often express, namely that our honours system should be broader, objective and fair.
It would be a fitting response, in addition to the honour that he has been granted, for the government to now conduct a review of the national honours system and not only make it more objective and representative but also to confer the status on great icons in non-political fields who have previously been excluded. I bet Tuku would love it if his hero Mukadota was recognised, too.
For years, there was one song at his shows which was the last bell. “Pangu pese ndasakura ndazunza,” he would sing, a farming metaphor to say “I have done my job for the night”. “Zvasariremi kufuga nekuwarira” (It’s up to you now, I’m done). And that would be the end.
That was his way of saying goodbye to the audience. The audience would cry for one more and sometimes he would oblige and play just one more song.
This time though, it is the end. Wasakura wazunza, Samanyanga. There will be no encore. But we have so many albums, 67 of them, I suspect we will be playing the music for a very long time.
It is old wisdom that a good dancer knows when to leave the stage. And what a dancer Tuku was. His on-stage combination with his old friend Picky Kasamba is simply unforgettable. He never forgot that first and foremost he was an entertainer and he did a fine job. We have no way of knowing, but Tuku, the great dancer, probably knew it was time to leave the stage.
It was a beautiful life that enriched and brightened other lives.