Greatest Africans: Oliver Mtukudzi

By Joburg Post

"I have had my music quoted in churches, political arenas, sportsmen and women have quoted my music, families, people in general.” – Oliver Mtukudzi

Early Life and Music career

Oliver Mtukudzi, also known as "Tuku" (short for Mtukudzi) was a singer-songwriter, actor, writer, film director and entrepreneur. He was born on 22 September 1952 in Highfield, Harare in Zimbabwe. With over 60 albums to his name, he was one of Zimbabwe's top musicians and lead of the band The Black Spirits. His sang a music genre known as Afro-Jazz. Mtukudzi's career spans decades, having started in 1975 when he did his debut single. Mtukudzi’s music career started at the age of 23 with the 1975 release of his debut single, Stop After Orange. It has been stated widely, including on Mtukudzi's own website that in 1977 he teamed up with Zimbabwe top musician, Thomas Mapfumo, at a famous band called Wagon Wheels that being his official entry into the Zimbabwean music industry. Mapfumo has however denied this saying. With the Wagon Wheels, Mtukudzi recorded Dzandimomotera, a song inspired directly by the Second Chimurenga. Dzandimomotera depicted the black man’s life struggles under the white minority government. One account says Mtukudzi left the group in 1978 to form his own group The Black Spirits and released the album Ndipiweo Zano. The Album was a hit. Mtukudzi has said he intended to use the name Wagon Wheels with the new group but the Wagon Wheels managers found other musicians to continue with the band, which forced Mtukudzi to find a new name for his band.

Mtukudzi took several of the Wagon Wheels musicians with him to The Black Spirits. Another account however, taken from an interview Mapfumo had with New Zimbabwe says The Black Spirits was actually Mapfumo's group first. With the The Black Spirits, Mtukudzi recorded many albums including Africa, which was done at the country's Independence in 19880 and included two hit songs, Zimbabwe and Mazongonyedze. The album was regarded as one of the most important albums of its time. The Black Spirits were described as ‘a group of rag-tag young stylish ghetto boys who were to become a sure force on the music scene, progressing into a household name in the ensuing years’. Mtukudzi split with The Black Spirits in 1987 for two years, a period during which he sang with other backing groups like Kwekwe based Zig Zag Band.

Increasing Western interest in World Music led Mtukudzi to tour extensively outside of Zimbabwe during the late 1990s and early part of the 2000s. One such tour teamed him with African-American musicologist Taj Mahal, along with Baaba Maal and Toumani Diabate. The tour introduced a whole new audience of U.S. and Canadian listeners to Tuku music. In 1998 he released the album Tuku Music, which included liner notes written by Bonnie Raitt. "Nhava," his debut recording on the American label Heads Up, was released in 2005. The album title roughly translates as "carrying bag." While the music on Nhava remains upbeat and danceable, it also documents the strife wrought by the AIDS epidemic on the African continent. The epidemic had a profound effect on Mtukudzi's songwriting, as he personally witnessed three members of The Black Spirits succumb to the disease, including his younger brother. 
"Every song on this album has something to teach about life, something to remind you and encourage you about what is important in life," 
Mtukudzi said in a Heads Up press release. 

"All of these ideas are universal. They are the same for every human being, regardless of their culture or their environment." 

The death of his keyboard player in 2004 inspired the ballad "Tiri Mubindu." The title is Shona for "flowers in a garden," a metaphor for lives cut down in full bloom. In 2016, he released his 65th album titled Eheka! Nhai Yahwe, which is Shona for "Enjoy! My Dear Friend" where he also features South Africa’s own jazz great Hugh Masekela. “Tuku” is also featured by younger jazz musicians who have made names for themselves in the South African music scene such as The Muffinz and also his compatriot Berita. 


Mtukudzi also was able to translate his musical success into a film career, co-starring in such Zimbabwe film productions as Jit. The romantic comedy is renowned as the first commercial film produced entirely with a Zimbabwean cast. The film also featured a soundtrack by Mtukudzi that included the song "What's Going On?" The song's infectious groove caught the ear of Bonnie Raitt, who used the composition as the basis for her 1998 collaboration with Mtukudzi, "One Belief Away." "We'd already written the verse and lyrics, but somehow the chorus wasn't working," Raitt wrote in the liner notes for Tuku Music. "I tried weaving some elements of the bass and keyboard line from 'What's Going On?' into the chorus and the song just slipped into place. We sent the tape to Oliver, who was enthusiastic about the long-distance 'co-write' and our newfound collaboration was born." He followed his role in Jit by composing and arranging the music for Neria, a film that examines women's rights in Zimbabwe. In the mid-1990s he wrote and directed the musical Was My Child (Plight of the Street Children). 

In addition to his work as an actor, Mtukudzi has appeared in several music documentaries, including the BBC films Under African Skies and The Soul of Mbira. He has also contributed music to more than 20 AIDS documentaries. 

Oliver Mtukudzi's sound, a blend of traditional East African genres and modern subgenres of Afropop, including chimurenga and JIT, is known as "Tuku Music."

- JP

Mtukudzi, 66, died 23 January 2019. Rest in Peace Tuku.

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