January 23 2019 Zimbabwe lost its biggest musical legend, Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi!
First seeing the news on one of my many what’s app groups, I rushed to the internet to verify the news and indeed it was true. I proceeded to switch on my “Tuku special” playlist on my phone and blasted my favorite song, “ Kusekana kwanakamba,” on my way to the gym.
Not that January has not been hard on us already as Zimbabweans. With the country literally on fire, this was yet another knife in an already open wound and the nightmare that we call our existence :(. It would be nice if we can start 2019 over again!
Popularly and affectionately known as Tuku, Oliver Mtukudzi was a household name not only in Zimbabwe, but across Africa and the world. According to Al Jazeera, He was rated by Forbes magazine as one of Africa’s 10 most bankable artists and some experts ranked him alongside Senegal’s Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour for his innovation and influence. He rose to prominence in the 1970s and he used his voice to make social and political commentary on the state of the country and the lives of everyday Zimbabwe, At his death the was on the verge of releasing his 67th studio album, which no doubt would have been a banger as usual!
Tuku’s music have been described as Afro Jazz, but as Zimbabweans we know it just as Tuku music. It has its own distinctive sound and flavor that was uniquely Zimbabwean. His artistry transcended generations and he was a storyteller of unprecedented proportions. His music was inspirational, instructional and represented the voice of the common people in Zimbabwe, and across his 66 albums he had a song for literally every single moment of our lives. One of his most famous songs, ‘Wasakara,” which translates to “ You are washed up” was banned at some point by the government as it was interpreted as to be targeting our then dictator president, Mugabe who had been in power for over 30 years at the time.
Especially for those of us so far away from home,Tuku’s music was always the escape we all needed to remind ourselves of home at times when you needed it the most. His album “Nhava” , which means “bag” in our language has songs that are an ode to the phenomenon of migration out of Zimbabwe that has plagued our generation in search of greener pastures in other countries. The song “Izere mhepo,” directly translates to “full of air” and pictures all of us out here in the diaspora as hunters, whose families are looking at the road anticipating our glorious finds, but instead the grass is not as green as we think it is out here, hence our bags being ” full of air” . That song clearly said, the struggle is real being in other people’s lands! I felt that in the core of my bones :(!
As I headed to class in the cold Chicago winter, I would play “Totutuma, ” a song that speaks of making your tribe and parents proud to remind me of what I was fighting for. I also enjoy private moments all the time of nodding to Zimbabwean music in my headphones when in the whitest and most foreign of situations, like airport lines, lying on the beach in Goa, India, or at my desk in my office to ground myself in who I am, and Tuku is always a worthy companion. I since discovered a secret where music in my language actually makes me very focused, as it does not interfere with the English material I always have in front of me!
I would be amiss if I do not speak of an iconic moment in Tuku’s career when he was the soundtrack to the highest grossing film in Zimbabwean history, Neria. Written by one of Zimbabwe’s most prolific novelists in 1993, Tsitsi Dangarembgwa, the film chronicles the perils of a woman post her husband’s death as she fought his family for control of his estate. I look back at that film and realize just how Ann important a moment it was in our history, to critique our cultural practice of commoditizing women in marriage, and them not having property rights as well as agency to support themselves in these situation. Neria will forever be one of my favorite films and songs from Tuku. I found out that you can actually check it out on youtube here.
I am lucky enough to have actually met the legend at a concert in Chicago many years back. As soon as we entered the venue my friend and I decided this sit down venue ain’t it for us, maybe for the majority white audience, but not for us! We proceeded to secure some real estate in the middle of the aisle towards the front and I will never forget how much I danced at that concert. You cannot hear Tuku music and not want to move your body, that is physiologically impossible in my books!
I remember just how good that concert it! In the era of music streaming and autotuning, Tuku is a musician who came of age in a time where artists made their money through live performances. His band, the Black spirits, was as impressive as ever and most of all, hearing him on stage was just like hearing him on the radio! A true spiritual experience and i have picture evidence to prove it!
Trying to describe his significance to my various international friends, I told them Tuku is what Fela is to Nigerians and what Prince is to Americans. Throughout his over 4 decade career, he has inspired many a musician but none have come close to his genius. We will forever cherish him and his music will continue to echo the voice of Zimbabweans everywhere as long as we live!
Samanyanga varwadzisa shuwa! Rest in Power Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi.