“Music is life. Music gives hope to people. Without people there is no music”. Oliver Mtukudzi’s logic is clear and economical. They are the words of a musician whose career has been inexorably linked with Zimbabwe’s tumultuous history.
Yet from his 1975 debut single, Stop After Orange to today’s performances, he has tried to emphasize the intrinsic quality of music as its own entity, as something above politics. When I ask him about music’s function as a political tool, he replies,
“I wouldn’t understand the word ‘politics’ itself. In my culture music gives information, it gives hope, it gives life to the people. That is the reason for a song.”
In the context of Zimbabwe’s independence and postcolonial struggles, ‘information’ may inevitably be political, but Oliver’s message has always been rooted in social issues – the people come first. Dzandimonotera was Mtukudzi’s first big hit, produced in 1977 with Thomas Mapfumo and the Wagon Wheels Band. The song depicted the black population’s struggle under the oppressive white minority regime. It established Mtukudzi as a singer with substance.
In 1979 Mtukudzi went solo and formed his own band, The Black Spirits. A group of stylish, young ghetto boys, they fast became icons. And today, some 56 albums later, Mtukudzi remains a major figure in African music. Inspired by Zimbabwean traditional chimurenga, JIT music and South African mbaqanga, the Black Spirits produce liquid, guitar-based melodies that gravitate around Mtukudzi’s weighty voice and lyrics.
I ask him what makes him happy in life. The answers are as abrupt as my question.
“To be alive the next day” he states. I wait for him to continue. He does, after a long pause. “Just living”, he adds. “Having life”, he concludes. The simplicity of his response has the desired effect. I think of Zimbabwe, and its long troubles.
Right now Oliver Mtukudzi is touring the UK with fellow African Soul Rebels Senegalese legend Baaba Maal, and Obama favourites Extra Golden. “The idea of this tour is great. It shows how versatile African music is. We are traveling as three different groups, totally unique, but still as Africans.” Mtukudzi describes Baaba Maal as ‘a true African’, adding “there’s no doubt in his music.” Clearly, he relishes playing on a pan-African bill. “We click in our music. As Africans, we share the same sentiments. We are one and the same people.”
One thing is certain, listening to Mtukudzi is an educational experience. Throughout his career he has used the richness of the Shona language and his super-melodic music to carry metaphors and ideas that have provided Zimbabweans with a sense of identity and self-belief. Gracing the front cover of Time magazine a few years back, he was described as the ‘Voice of the Voiceless’.