Music maestro Oliver Mtukudzi continues to fly Zimbabwean flag high
Legendary troubadour Oliver Mtukudzi says Rhodesia’s Ian Smith era from 1965 to 1979 was an ominous period of protest for artists. Like in apartheid SA, musicians in pre-independence Zimbabwe often wrote and recorded in code.
"In Smith’s regime artists were at risk because you wouldn’t talk [about] anything freely," he says. "But we were lucky that we have our mother languages that are so sweet and beautiful and, at times, one word has got five meanings.
"So you could use one word to relay a sensible message. Back then, we went about our day in urban areas and we delivered messages to the boys in the bush [guerillas] in song.
"In Shona you could use different words and the regime wouldn’t pick it up. They couldn’t decipher messages."
Mtukudzi lives in Zimbabwe, but has a house in SA to save on hotel costs. His latest trip is partly a press junket for his new album, Hany’Ga (Concern). Spotlighting his trusted band, the Black Spirits, the artist’s 67th album is steeped in profound social commentary.
It is also arguably the most improvised album he has produced. Although Mtukudzi came up with most of the ideas for the songs, the album took shape in the studio when he threw caution to the wind and allowed the band carte blanche in arranging and tweaking the sonic direction.
"The new album was quite interesting for me because I focused on people’s concerns," he says. "And I came to realise that what concerns most of us right now is that we are not complementing each other; we are competing. I felt this is a topic to talk about.
"We are all created not to compete but to complement each other. But because we are competing with each other, social ills like xenophobia come up. So the album is called Concerns," he says.
"I don’t mention xenophobia in the album, but I talk about where xenophobia comes from. It comes from us wanting to feel better than the next person. So I denounce competition."
Mtukudzi’s career spans more than four decades. In 1977 he joined Wagon Wheels, playing alongside Thomas Mapfumo. He then performed with Mahube, a group renowned in southern Africa. South African saxophonist Steve Dyer was also a member.
"It was good working with Mapfumo. We were young boys then. He [Mapfumo] started it all, we were doing cover versions together," he says.
Mapfumo then wrote an original song, recorded it with a different group, and it was well received. "It was a hit because it was in mother language, it was who we are, it was our music. That’s when I joined in and I came up with my own songs," says Mtukudzi.
Mapfumo also inspired him with his "incredible work ethic" and by popularising Chimurenga music. During the interview at Gallo’s offices, Mtukudzi is laid-back. He is wearing a golf shirt and baseball cap branded with the words "Tuku Music". Tuku is an abbreviation of his surname and has become the way his fans refer to him. Who came up with that name?
"What a good question! I don’t really know who came up with it," he chuckles. "But I discovered in the early 1980s that my fans said they were coming to my shows for ‘Tuku music’.
"They feel there’s mbira [thumb piano] and tsava-tsava [a type of indigenous music], what you call mbaqanga in SA. They couldn’t place the music in a particular genre. So they said let’s just call it Tuku music. That’s how it came to be."
Over the past four decades, Mtukudzi has lived his life almost oblivious to the arrogance displayed by Zimbabwe’s politicians. The Mugabe era was almost synonymous with the rise of his solo career.
He says he is generally happy about Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration so far although, at his age, he does not necessarily get worked up about the shift in political power.
"I’m an artist and I’m here in SA to perform and conduct interviews. I’m lifting my Zimbabwean flag. And my Zimbabwean flag represents all Zimbabweans — including the politicians and Joe Public," he says.
And if Mnangagwa came to SA, Mtukudzi would lift his Zimbabwean flag for all of his country’s people. "My flag represents everyone. When you are an artist, you represent a people. So whatever they do there, I will watch and comment if need be.
"And because they are politicians, they also want to rule me. There’s no way they can accept me as above them.
"They’ll also want to rule me because whatever … they do will affect me…. The change [the new president] was welcome. We needed the change very much. Now we are waiting to see what direction we take: are we going to have a new direction? Are we going to duplicate the same direction?
"This is what we are waiting for now. It’s too early to tell."
Mtukudzi plays at the Beam the Light Concert at the Lyric Theatre in Johannesburg on May 25.