I find an obituary as one of the hardest assignments anyone can be tasked to do. It’s always an agonizing experience since no one wants to stay on such a dark patch. While one mourns, he is also trying to capture the career highlights of the departed gallant son of the soil for sharing with the world in the heat of the moment. This is the ordeal that I find myself in. I am trying to turn into two typed pages, a life of 66 music albums spanning five decades and a decent global influence. Where do I start from on the life of Oliver Tuku Mtukudzi? What can I say about him in two pages without short-changing his true account?
The best narrative I can say about Tuku’s history involves his alter-ego in the music industry, Thomas Mapfumo better known by his totem Mukanya. The two were undoubtedly the best super stars that Zimbabwe ever had. They would meet, part ways, perform together and rejoin again as they kept pumping great music to keep Zimbabwe running.
As an example of the way life was in Tuku and Mukanya’s world, it had been 14 long years of absence from Zimbabwe. Thomas Mapfumo missed home and the fans at home also missed him. He had to be home by Independence Day. The dates were set for his welcome back concert. While the supporting acts had not been finalized, discussions were underway. We made sure to pick only the best supporting acts for the welcome back gig.
We set up a meeting in Johannesburg. I stood in for Chimurenga Music Company (CMC) as I faced representatives of the promotion company namely Max Mugaba and Tendai Jones from Entertainment Republic.
When I arrived at the venue of the meeting, I was shocked to meet two young men named as the ones organizing Mukanya’s welcome back gig. Such a historic feat! For years, attempts were made by various music promoters to bring Mukanya to perform at home but to no avail. At one point, flamboyant businessman Phillip Chiyangwa was quoted by one newspaper declaring that he was bringing the legendary artiste back to Zimbabwe, but that went nowhere. The former Deputy Prime Minister, Professor Arthur Mutambara even tried to lure Mukanya to come back and again the wish came to expiration.
Many other promoters tried but in vain. So, as I sat there discussing about Mukanya’s historic return gig, Max then said, “Cde, we have Tuku as the main supporting act. We met him in person and are excited that he said yes!’’ This was the best news ever and I couldn’t wait to break it. For me, it had always been a dream to have Thomas and Oliver share the same stage and even put up a song together as the two remaining legends (still active musicians). These were two musicians that met four decades ago at Mr. Chogugudza’s studio in Mbare. From there they would both belong to the Wagon Wheels Band. Later each of them would embark on solo careers.
It was at Mr. Chogugudza’s studio that the friendship began and it blossomed forever. The years to follow were characterized by tension, with various imagined or manufactured theatrics and public opinions of fictitious alleged bad blood between the two. Some even tried comparing the two as they fought hard to pick the better one. Those days ‘social jokes’ were made about two of their songs Mukanya’s Shiri Yakanaka and Tuku’sChirimupoto. Before that Mukanya had sang Madhebhura while Tuku sang Vanobvongodza Muto. There were also narratives that Mukanya had mocked Tuku over his song Chirimupoto as having lacked substance and creativity. Mukanya denied ever having made such comments and insisted people had ulterior motives to divide him and his long time. Consequently, some music fans instead trashed Mukanya’s Shiri Yakanaka which they also regarded as his worst composition so divorced from his Chimurenga genre due to its lack of depth and desultoriness. However, there would never be any public response or comments attributed to Tuku regarding Mukanya’s alleged words. They let the fans go on in their bliss as the music kept pumping.
Despite all the gauzy accusations, Tuku continued reaching out to Mukanya whom he regarded as his real elder brother in trade. That was despite the random concern from Mukanya that Tuku had bowed to ZANU, for instance on his performance at the controversial Million march. Also, despite Mukanya’s several interviews expressing concerns on Tuku’s loyalty to ZANU, Tuku remained quiet but wished Mukanya was home for support. Surprisingly, Mukanya was never labelled MDC despite some open association with some MDC politicians. In 2015 one of the ZANU PF MPs attended Mukanya’s show as a patron of CMC show in South Africa. The patron was even accused by the first lady Grace Mugabe of being a traitor. But still Tuku had no time to make comments or judge his brother. Tuku opted to pretend to know no political party as he clearly understood the environment that he was working under. Any proven acts of disobedience to the government could have cost him and his career.
Many other stories of socially imagined bad blood between the two dominated the media. I do recall one journalist sending me questions for Mukanya to respond, asking him if indeed it was true that their relations were bad. Mukanya laughed it off and alluded in vernacular “vanhu ava vanoda kutirwisanisa, Oliver ihama yangu takabva kure’’ (people always want to create fights between us, Oliver is my friend and we came a long way). In many other interactions, Mukanya would always refer to the day he met Oliver at Sekuru Chogugudza’s recording studio, and how they joined hands as part of the Wagon Wheels.
So, as we planned for the Big Bira. I was excited that finally, the two legends were going to collaborate on the same stage. A trip to Zimbabwe was then planned for me, the following day, the 9th of February 2018. I was to convene a press conference announcing the dates and the program of action at the historic Big Bira. It was at this event that Walter Wanyanya, (Tuku’s manager) and I agreed to organize a visit for Mukanya and his family to Tuku’s Pakare Paye Arts Centre in Norton upon his arrival for the Big Bira. Walter also confided in me that Tuku had cancelled his scheduled tour outside Zimbabwe to be part of the Big Bira.
On the 24th of April mid-morning we landed at Oliver Mtukudzi’s Pakare Paye Arts centre. The trip was important in two aspects, firstly, after my discussion with the band manager Austin Sibanda and the Chimurenga Music Corporation lawyer Tapiwa Kapurura, we planned to have Mukanya add his voice on Sulu’s song “Dzokai Mukanya.’’ We also wanted to take the opportunity for Mukanya and Tuku to do a collaboration together. This was after Mr. Sibanda had already agreed with Walter Wanyanya. The said collaboration was reaffirmed by Mr. Sibanda and Mukanya himself, during a press conference held on the 23rd of April at Crowne Plaza Hotel.
We arrived at Pakare paye Arts centre slightly earlier than Sulu, who together with his entourage arrived 30 minutes later. We briefed Mukanya that all was set and the studio was ready for the much hyped and publicized collaboration. Sadly, that never materialized on last minute. Mukanya had suddenly been attacked by a terrible flu that affected his voice. He even feared for his upcoming performance and had to call a physician fast. Mukanya then assured Sulu that he could probably listen to the track afterwards before adding his voice. Sulu would then have to send the track to Mukanya’s producer in Oregon USA to facilitate the collaboration.
Besides the mishap, there was no love lost. We all left the studio to be hosted for lunch by Tuku at one of the restraunts at the centre in the company of Mukanya’s young brother William Mapfumo, the band manager, Mr. Austin Sibanda, Garry Tight, Sulu Chimbetu and the late Edmos Pazvakavambwa. There we were treated to first class four course meals as we talked and laughed like we were having a farewell party. I captured the moments as Tuku and Mukanya went back memory lane talking about their experiences at Sekuru Chogugudza’s studios in Mbare in the early seventies. I also got the opportunity to ask the two about the mystery behind the $7 story which Tuku was paid after some performance Tuku at one of the night clubs in the seventies. They both laughed it off, with Tuku saying, “Bhule chimbomira izvozvo, husiku ihwohwo takafara.’’ Mukanya was even surprised and asked me who had told me that story. I couldn’t get the answer on how they spent the $7 that night..
As Mukanya was in the studio with Sulu, Mr. Watson Chidzomba, the marketing manager at the centre invited both me and Austin to his offices. Chidzomba warmly welcomed us and told us that Tuku was excited ahead of the BIG BIRA, ‘’I will tell you, he has been rehearsing everyday and he can’t wait for the day,’’ Chidzomba chipped. His words were quite emotional, and it showed how Tuku valued his relationship with Mukanya. This was a man who had cancelled his tour for Mukanya. In February 2018 the band manager made a phone call to Walter and Tuku who were enroute to South Africa for more gigs. It was then that Tuku assured and confirmed that he was going to cancel his tour to participate at the big bira. According to Austin, Tuku said, “This is something that I have to do for my brother as a big welcome home.’’ In Harare at the Glamis Arena, Tuku would join hands with Mukanya on stage as an act of solidarity in music and justice causes with his brother. That night, Tuku poured out his soul and love as he danced in good cheer. Little did everyone know that it was a farewell dance driven by God to prove their life long camaraderie? Eight months later, when Mukanya returned to Zimbabwe in December for the Peace Tour, he instructed me to call Walter Wanyanya so that we can arrange a possible visit to Norton to see Tuku and possibly do a collaboration. On the 13th of December when I conveyed the message to Walter via WhatsApp and to my surprise Walter responded by saying, “tanga tichitotaura nezvazvo (we were talking about it), we are in SA, back Monday night, so anytime after that is bho, we will work it out.’’ But as they say,“Procrastination is the thief of time” we procrastinated and sadly Tuku passed on before we could visit again and do the historic collaboration.
In his career, Tuku played almost everything, cutting across from country, mbaqanga, reggae, sungura, rock n roll, gospel, pop, zimdancehall to urban grooves just to mention but a few. Tuku was a versatile all weather and all style musician, who would sing with everyone and sing everything and anything. This is what made Tuku to endear with everyone, every generation, class, religion, every tribe, every nationality and indeed he became a giant in Africa and the world over. Just like Mukanya, Tuku was accommodative and full of humor.
I recall during the tour at Pakare Paye whilst I was taking pictures, my phone had a funny cranky sound resembling ancient cameras when taking photos. Tuku dropped a funny line to me, “Bhule phone yako yakapenga mufana wangu, inoita kuti shwaa semunhu arohwa mbama,”.
Tuku had a love and hate relationship with ZANU PF, his compositions were subtle, it was not easy to understand his lyrics, songs like Bvuma (reference to Mugabe’s old age),Ngoromera (song against political violence), mhopo pamusana, Tozeza baba amongst other compositions where all punches directed to the ruling class but they never got to be understood. That was a true mark of an artiste, he left it to the listeners to analyze and interpret. Tuku was a powerful musician who sang consistent themes packed with lethal punches. His songs were subject to a thousand translations but in essence he was hitting hard on the regime. A classic example was Tozeza baba, which many would interpret as a mark of the effects of domestic violence, and yet it was a direct reference to Mugabe’s misrule. He acted like a drunken father who made life horrible for his Zimbabwean family. Such songs exonerated Tuku from the regime as they made him appear like just a social commentator, yet he attacked them in their midst.
Tuku had a gift of singing political comments laced with social commentary. He would at random cunningly pass adverse comments on the regime. Other songs like Nhava izere mhepo (the bag is full of air-empty) was sang in reference to ZANU PF’s empty promises and failure to tap foreign aid from supposed friends as people suffered. While people celebrated Tuku as a non-political commentator by singing Nhava Izere Mhepo, Mukanya opted to be militaristic with no-holds-barred songs like Mamvemve (country in tatters).
The story of the two simply reminds us of the various talents the two artistes carried. Each went the other way but would meet as Tuku sang “Pota neko tisangane tiwadzane sembariro”. He was a man of the people. He sang to entertain and inspire. Today, the world mourns. A son has been lost. We cry. Tears may dry but memories will remain fresh. You have left us with a solid history to be talked about for generations to come. You used your voice and guitar to change the world. Both enemy and friend now turn swords into ploughshares as they ponder on your cryptic lyrics. As you also sang with James Chimombe “Ini newe ngatiimbe”,you unified us all through your creativity and powerful use of words. Your music taught us love and laughter, care and concern. You were, you are and shall always be our hero and our Senior Superstar. Rest is peace son of the soil. Chizororai zvenyu mukorekore. Tasvitsa manja pachikorekore. Pangu pese ndasakura ndazunza! Fambai mushe Nzou.
Blessing Vava writes from Chipinge, He can be contacted on [email protected]