Thursday 30 August 2012

Part 1 - Oliver Mtukudzi: Journey through Time

Oliver Mtukudzi
Oliver Mtukudzi turns 60 this September and this blog will from today run selected interviews the musician had with various journalists worldwide.
The first interview was done by Kenyan journalist, Mufu Luvai,  on June 13 2011

We are Africans and there are no better Africans than Africans. And what makes an African? It’s our language. We have beautiful languages and those languages make us African. If you go out there and perform in your mother language you’ll definitely be different from anybody else. Try it in English, you’re like them. If you notice, I use some English because in Zimbabwe we have three main languages: English, Shona and Ndebele - Tuku

Oliver Mtukudzi: Journey through Time

With close to 50 albums in his name, Oliver Mtukudzi or simply Tuku continues to be one of the most prolific artists in Zimbabwe and indeed the entire continent. He has just added another feather- a DVD and CD called Wonai (please watch)- to his cap and there is no doubt that this is going to raise his profile across the continent.

Wonai is an enchanting audio-visual journey through time and it is a must have for any African music lover. Initiated into the world of professional music in 1977 when he joined the now legendary Wagon Wheels which also featured Thomas Mapfumo another popular Zimbabwean crooner, Mtukudzi has grown gradually into one of the continent’s music icons and like good wine, he is getting better with time.

However, the musical bug had bitten him earlier than 1977. Born and raised in Harare’s Highfield section, in 1952, Mtukudzi grew up in a musical family. His parents both sang and actually met at a competition of church choirs. They continued to sing and compete amongst themselves (parents) and drew in the children as the judges.

Mtukudzi was, however, drawn to more than just judging. He was increasingly drawn to songwriting and had some early successes as a songwriter by penning some hymns that continue to be used in Zimbabwe churches to-date.

This musical environment sharpened his musical mind and he brought all these qualities- zeal, desire to excel- in his professional life. It also instilled in him the keenness to pick out the goings-on, subtle issues and nuances in the community that formed the storylines in his songs.

However, it is not just the parental competition drew him to music. His father’s premature death propelled him (the eldest of seven children) to the fore as the family bread winner. From this experience, Mtukudzi developed a sense of social and economic responsibility early in life and this has informed his artistic ventures as a musician, film star or theatre.

“My lyrics have always been drawn from the people and day to day issues not just the difficulties but the humor, the happiness, the irony,” Mtukudzi said in an interview with Meron Tesfa Michael in New York in 2003.

He added: “I may reflect more on those issues that touch me in some way but my lyrics tend to highlight people’s values and I guess I reinforce the more positive ones. I also like to challenge customs and behaviour that encourage greed and selfishness and I am conscious of the disparities in our society especially where women’s rights are concerned. As far as Zimbabwe is concerned, we are living in a very divisive society right now so these days I sing about the need for peace, unity and tolerance.”

This explains why his first single- Dzandimomotera, which he did immediately he turned professional, was such a hit that rapidly went gold. This was followed by Mtukudzi’s first album Ndipeiwo Zano, which was also a smash hit. Some of the musicians from the Wagon Wheels line-up teamed up with Mtukudzi to form the Black Spirits, the name of the band that has performed with him throughout most of his career save for a two year period towards the end of the eighties, when he performed with the Zig Zag Band.

When Zimbabwe got her independence in 1980, Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits released their fourth album Africa that was regarded as one of the most important albums of its time. Two tracks Zimbabwe and Madzongonyedze were outstanding and with it the fledgling country founded one of its first great voices. From Independence to 1997, Mtukudzi released two albums every year, establishing himself as a producer, an arranger, a prolific song-writer and a formidable lead singer.

His prolificacy gave him an opportunity to experiment with their traditional forms of the mbira, the popular Zimbabwean music style called jiti, the traditional drumming patterns of his clan called katekwe, the South African mbaqanga style, and he gradually absorbed them into an art form which is now distinctly his own dubbed Tuku Music and with it, an enviable niche in the industry.

“My fans were the first to describe my music as Tuku Music but it was only around the mid-1990s that I began to develop it as a brand name,” Mtukudzi noted in an interview. My music doesn’t really qualify as one of the more classified styles of Zimbabwean music like jiti, sungura, chimurenga or even traditional.”

He has not only tried his hand in music, he was the lead character in the movies Jit and Neria that were major hits in Zimbabwe and the rest of the continent. In Neria, serious drama dealing with the thorny issue of women’s rights in a chauvinist world, Mtukudzi also wrote and arranged the soundtrack that earned him the coveted M-Net Best Soundtrack Award in 1992 against stiff competition that included that year’s other hit Sarafina by Mbongeni Ngema.

From film, Tuku turned his attention to drama by writing and directing the live musical production Was My Child, a project highlighting the plight of Zimbabwe’s street children. For this accomplishment, he was honoured by the Zimbabwe Writers’ Union.

This aside, he continued to concentrate on his core business- music that took him beyond Zimbabwe. In October 1993, Mtukudzi and group were invited to perform at the Natal Performing Arts Festival; in February 1994 they conducted a six-week tour of Austria and Switzerland; and in December 1994 performed ‘live’ on a double-bill with Lucky Dube in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, which they followed up with a number of concerts in and around Cape Town the same year. He performed at the MASA Festival in Abidjan in 1997.

It is around this time that he decided to take control of every aspect of his career. He hired a consultant who helped him with his contract, revamp his business strategies and firmly established the Tuku Music brand. He invited his longtime friend and fellow artist Steve Dyer to help produce his first album under this brand and it was aptly titled thus, Tuku Music. It was a success that sort of re-launched him again to the world and he has not looked back since then. He has continued to release one album after the other and promoting around his brand around the world.

In 2000, he released Bvuma (Tolerance) his 39th album that created more than a few waves in the media when one of the tracks- Wasakara, was adopted by the opposition parties in Zimbabwe in the same way Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s Unbwogable was picked by the then opposition in Kenya.

This was followed by other releases like Vunze Moto (Burning Ember), Shanda, a feature film documentary built around key songs that Oliver selected as being turning points in his career, Tsivo (Revenge), Bira Rekunze (The Other Side), Mtukudzi Collection 1985-1991, Mtukudzi Collection 1991- 1997, Nhava among others. He has released several others albums like Mahube- music from Southern Africa, Qubeka (Moving forward), with Steve Dyer under their regional outfit called Mahube.

The journey has been long and tortuous but very fulfilling and he has gone to almost every corner of the globe to take this message that has endeared him to Zimbabwean and the African continent. The journey is well captured in Wonai that will thrill. The 15 songs contained in the compilation that was released by Sheer Music, has some rare footage that presents Mtukudzi in different light.

For over 30 years he has touched our lives through 60 albums produced; that is well over 600 songs telling tales of Africa’s trials and triumphs. From the heart of Zimbabwe, Oliver Mtukudzi is indeed one of Africa’s greatest musicians. His unique sound, popularly known as Tuku music, is a blend of simple yet elaborate guitar melodies with contemporary Shona and Ndebele rhythms – cultural yet modern.

Mufu Luvai caught up with the legend for an exclusive interview for Crave (music).


Karibu Kenya na karibu Nairobi.

Asante sana.

I heard of Tongai Moyo’s death. Sorry for the loss. He was someone you mentored; you produced some music with him.

Thank you. Yeah, he was somebody I discovered and helped him find his way. I recorded his first album. I didn’t have money to do it, but I fought hard to try, at least, to record because I believed in him.

For how long did you work with him?

I think it was about a year or so.

Is that a common tradition, are you mentoring any other artists in Zimbabwe?

A lot. I’ve been doing it from way back.

Tuku music is something you created and is now what is recognized as Zimbabwean music.

Yes, in fact I was the last person to know that the music is Tuku music.

You’ve done 60 albums that is well over 600 songs. Are you always composing?

I wouldn’t call it composing really; I am telling stories.

Your songs are mainly in Shona and some in Ndebele. That’s a lesson that cultural music actually puts you on the world map.

It does. We are Africans and there are no better Africans than Africans. And what makes an African? It’s our language. We have beautiful languages and those languages make us African. If you go out there and perform in your mother language you’ll definitely be different from anybody else. Try it in English, you’re like them. If you notice, I use some English because in Zimbabwe we have three main languages: English, Shona and Ndebele. The English used to complain, “How come you don’t do it in our language? We’re also Zimbabweans!” I said ok, I’ll give it a line, because it broadens who we are in Zimbabwe. But for identity, it’s my mother language.

What about the young artists in Zimbabwe, do they emulate that? Or is it like here? We’ve got a number of Kenyan Americans.

That’s an African problem. It’s not only Kenya; Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Malawi and so on. Malawi is better off because they are more into reggae than American stuff. It’s just sad that our youngsters feel inferior. They feel, if they sing in their mother language, it’s not there…

It’s not cool…

it’s not cool, yes, that’s the right word. But for my understanding, there’s nothing superior about that. There’s no culture inferior to the other. We are just unique, we’re different. A lot of people out there are looking for Kenyan music. Now, if Kenyans don’t play Kenyan music, where would we get it from?

In terms of logistics, how does the music environment compare to 30 years ago?

My first recording was done in a talk studio. It was a four-channel; we’d record the whole set of drums in one channel; bass guitar in another; all guitars – or if keyboard was there – in another and all voices in the fourth. That’s how we started. From there we had eight-channel. That was an improvement. As you know, development is very good, but the problem in developing is that we always lose a certain quality. Those are the changes I noticed in my music as I went on. Right now most sound is digital. We call it development, but if you listen to analogue, what we used, and compare to digital, there’s a lot that we’ve lost. With digital it’s easy to transfer and give it to the next person, but analogue was tough. We used vinyl. Now there are machines that can transfer vinyl to CD – but the moment it’s on CD, it is digital and the quality won’t be the same.

Observing the North African revolution, it’s so violent. We sub-Saharan Africans have been lucky to have musicians who sing and reflect what the people feel. Fela was all about that, remember the Zombie album. Hugh Masekela did “Everything Must Change” for African leaders. I think, Tuku has done Wasakara. Or what was Wasakara about?

Let me elaborate on what covers whatever I sing about in all my music. My music is about self-discipline, because self-discipline is the real life, it is common sense. Every song I’ve written is to install common sense into every one of us because we ignore common sense. With self-discipline we can achieve a lot. We can avoid wars, we can avoid disputes because we are self-disciplined and my translation of self-discipline is respect for the next person. In all forms of art, it is our responsibility to heal and touch the next heart. It’s not about how much we get from it.

Some of your music is about Aids. Kenyans love Todii. Were you affected by the scourge at the time, perhaps a friend, an uncle or a relative?

I don’t think there is anybody who is not affected by the deadly disease. We are all affected somehow. I wrote that song when I had lost four members of my band in a space of two months, to the deadly disease, including my own young brother. So during the time, we were fighting the stigma attached to the disease, that’s when I wrote this song. It’s a song full of questions, but no solutions. But it was designed to trigger discussions amongst people so that people can talk about it and hopefully the stigma will fall off. And I’m glad the song has served its purpose; in the whole of Africa people want to know what I’m talking about. That makes it serve its purpose. I’ve had the song being quoted by politicians and in churches.

Poverty in Africa is like a disease. Of course, it can be helped. How do you do it in Zimbabwe?

The cause of poverty in most cases is attitude. It’s an attitude problem that builds to that situation. I did a play about street kids. I said, “Hey, how can there be street kids? Streets don’t develop children!” The parents are there somewhere somehow. There’s lack of self-discipline somewhere that’s causing these kids to stray. And when I did my survey I found that, yes there are orphaned kids, but there are also street kids by design; parents send their children to the street to beg. There’s no real street kid. There are a lot of organizations trying to deal with that, trying to take them off the streets. I’m happy some of them have now grown up. I’ve even played at a wedding of a guy who was a street kid and for me it’s a good example.

What other community projects are you involved in?

A lot. I deal with Aids, Cancer, Malaria, Arts, and so on. I believe that some of these kids are in the streets because they have nothing to do. I do have Pakare Paye Arts Centre, which is a place I built to facilitate for people of all ages to do something creative. We even have people in their 50’s. I did this after realizing that the problems I faced when I started were still there today; problems of attitude from parents who don’t respect who their children are. They impose their failures, what they couldn’t afford or what they couldn’t do, on their children. They can go to work and work hard to push their children into what they’re not.

Your latest album is about your collaborations.


There’s Eric Wainaina. You also support Suzanna Owiyo a lot with her music, have you done anything with her?

MO: I do. Yes, I have done something; it’s coming on the next album. -

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