State of the Art: Admire KUDITA
YOU do not get Billboard magazine, the music bible, recognising your life’s work for nothing in a world cluttered by wannabes and poseurs.
Sixty-six albums are a mind-boggling feat.
The man was 66 years old! How did this happen? Thus, almost everybody fell over themselves to say something about Oliver Mtukudzi’s music legacy.
He was even declared a national hero.
That is all well; for as some measure of the man’s reach, I have colleagues from across Africa in the profession who have done their own tributes.
Tuku is a certified African giant in the league of Youssou Ndou, Salif Keita and his contemporary Thomas Mapfumo.
I do know that even the Beatles and Michael Jackson, who are considered the greatest musical acts of the past century, achieved those numbers in terms of albums.
So just going by the numbers alone, Tuku was a phenomenon.
But there is more to musical greatness than mere numbers and, of course, more to the Tuku story than just numbers.
His was a corpus of music compositions that spanned a plethora of social issues.
The gruff Wilson Pickett-like voice remained raw and strong throughout his music journey which in financial reward terms had a slow start.
The watershed year
2004 would have been the year of his serious international breakthrough. Under Debbie Metcalfe’s management, Tuku released the Tuku Music album.
This album in my view marks the blossoming of Tuku’s musical career.
My focus on the Tuku Music album serves only as a basis for explaining the broad appeal of Tuku’s music within the region and globally.
Yes I am not enamoured with the albums in which he collaborated with the likes of Zig Zag Band and the heavy doses of synthesisers in those albums. He seemed adrift and searching for a sound that could match his visceral and organic performances.
I believe the matching of Steve Dyer as producer with Tuku was a stroke of genius however it came about.
Why? Well, Dyer was the former frontman of Southern Freeway, an exiled South African band which had been based in Bulawayo in the 1980s. One of the lead singers was Pindi Mtya and the group Southern Freeway are best known for the gem Thabiso which showcased Pindi’s sultry contralto voice and Dyer’s tenor saxophone.
With Dyer as producer, Tuku had found a collaborator worth of his music genius because to this date, it is in my estimation Tuku’s magnum opus. Songs such as Dande and Todii are favourites of mine. I have never even been to Dande, which is in the northern part of Zimbabwe, but when Tuku sang about the place one could not help feeling nostalgic about the place and, of course, one’s own roots.
But that is the transcendent quality of music when it is sublime and unaffected. So the album was Tuku’s coming-out party and it can be argued that with Debbie’s deft management, the man travelled and conquered the world with some of this country’s crème de la crème of musicians.
Putumayo, a world music imprint, distributed Tuku’s music to an eager global market. He had the likes of Enock Piroro on bass, Clive Mutyasira on drums and Mono Mukundu on guitars. His line-up would change but he always attracted the finest musicians.
Elements of a groove
Katekwe, jit, mbira, soul, blues, reggae and mbaqanga influences pepper the catalogue of Tuku’s music.
In 2013, I had the privilege of interviewing the late South African icon Ray Phiri who is world famous as leader of South African band Stimela. I was fascinated to learn that Phiri had played on Tuku’s early albums courtesy of his then music producer West Nkosi in the 1970s!
Sitting by Sis Bee’s Place in Bulawayo, Phiri narrated how he would come and do session work on the projects, a point which Tuku was never to publicly acknowledge. Bra Ray appeared hurt by that “omission” in narratives about Tuku’s musical journey.
Now for me, the 2004 partnership with Steve Dyer was just a full circle moment for Tuku.
One can hear the exultation in Tuku’s music and the joyous celebration of an artiste in his musical prime. Many South Africans may not have really realised why Tuku’s music resonated so much with them. But there it is, he was a Southern son, a man whose music was brewed in a Southern African musical pot ultimately.
Moving away from the music, the hero status and Tuku’s death were fortuitous. The powers that be in Zimbabwe needed good PR and were able to embrace the moment to declare Tuku a national hero. Comrade Chinx, who also had a peace message and revolutionary credentials could only be accorded provincial hero status.
But the practice of a group of “comrades” deciding who is a hero and who is not, is idiosyncratic at best because people know their heroes anyway.
But for me, Tuku was not a hero in the sense in which he needed to be declared as such.
He was an icon.
He epitomises musical greatness and the uncanny ability to transcend politics and race. He remains an enigma for many and that is why it easy to claim him as being this or that.
He did not pay any political price for ruffling feathers. He was Zimbabwean music’s own Houdini.