The Zimfest Association joins Zimbabweans everywhere in mourning the passing last week of musical and humanitarian giant Oliver Mtukudzi. The tribute below is published with the permission of author Jennifer Kyker, a former Zimfest Association board member. Nematambudziko.
Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi
Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi was singular in innumerable ways, from the resonant sound of his husky voice to his playful dance moves, with names like “donkey jump” and “railway line.” From his trademark cough inspired by Mpharanyana to his tall, lanky frame, his complexion dark like the rich soils of Dande, there was no one remotely like him, this towering figure known by his clan praise name of Nzou Samanyanga, the Elephant, Bearer of Tusks.
Mtukudzi’s songs were by turns mournful, funny, nostalgic, witty, heart-rending, energizing, and even sometimes mystifying. Almost unfailingly, they demonstrated his exceptional mastery of the Shona language, his tight-knit style of musical arrangement, and his fundamental belief that song is primarily intended to convey a message. As he saw it, music was simply the attraction, or hwezvo, drawing people to listen to the message of a song. “Kuridza kurunga,” he told me, “You’re just flavoring the song.”
Hundreds of well-flavored songs consistently served Mtukudzi’s purpose, delivering message after message to several generations of listeners. In them, Mtukudzi counseled us to respect our parents, to remain humble before our elders, and to acknowledge our limitations once we ourselves are elderly. He cautioned us against abusing alcohol, against mistreating our children and wives, and against stigmatizing people living with HIV/AIDS. He encouraged family planning and women’s rights. He asserted the value of kinship obligations, indigenous musical styles, traditional foods, and customary practices often targeted as obsolete.
At the same time, Mtukudzi saw one message as particularly central, a single umbrella covering all of his songs. He described it in many ways – as hunhu, as self-discipline, as respect, as moral personhood. Ultimately, Mtukudzi’s message was simply this – that our humanity is an expression of love shared with others. In his own words:
“…that is what is called a human being. That is the soul of a person. We don’t need qualifications to attain self-discipline. And self-discipline simply translates to respecting the next person. To love the next person. It all comes from self-discipline. It’s not something that we acquire academically; you are born with it. You know what’s good and what’s bad. And, the more you talk about that, the more you remind people how we should live. So it’s way above what we think. It’s what we’re supposed to be.”
Mtukudzi’s musical genius emerged in the way he brought this consistent emphasis on moral personhood together with infectious dance rhythms, irresistible guitar work, unforgettable lyrics, and perfectly crafted song forms. In the process, he touched countless numbers of listeners.
Preceded in death by his beloved son Sam, Tuku’s passing will be felt most keenly by his family, including his wife Daisy, and his daughters Sandra, Selmor, and Samantha. Outside the durawall of Mtukudzi’s home in Norton, an entire nation mourns with them, and beyond the nation’s borders, millions more.
Introducing himself during one performance, Mtukudzi told his audience, “When you say Mtukudzi, you mean ‘One who makes one rich.’ And I’m not on my own, I do have the Black Spirits with me. And we are here to make you rich.”
Truly, Samanyanga, you have made us rich. You have enriched us as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a nation. Thank you. You have shown us the gold of humanity in all the shades of black, in all the rich soils of Dande, and in all the strings of your Godin guitar. Tinotenda. You have shared with us a wealth that goes beyond bank accounts and bond notes, a wealth that does not wear out with age, that cannot be seized, that does not go up in flames, and that cannot be tracked or devoured by predatory animals. Mazvita enyu Samanyanga. You have reminded us of the soul of the Zimbabwean people. Ndima mapedza Nzou, masakura nekuzunza zvese. Zororai murugare Samanyanga, gamba renyika.
Jennifer W. Kyker, PhD
Author, Oliver Mtukudzi: Living Tuku Music in Zimbabwe (2016)