Tuesday 13 April 2021
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Oliver Mtukudzi: The Immutable Hero

Oliver Mtukudzi: The Immutable Hero


It was some time in 2012 when I was still with The Standard Newspaper in Harare, Zimbabwe and the editor decided we should lead the next edition of the weekly with an arts story.

It was two years after the tragic death of Tuku’s beloved son Sam and few people had gathered the courage to talk to Tuku about how he was managing.

At the time, a certain prophet had said the nation should pray for Mtukudzi’s “failing health” and we decided to travel to Pakare Paye Arts Centre in Norton to interview the superstar. Although the prophet was popular for some accurate predictions, it was in the same period that gave a rise to multitudes of charismatic preachers in Zimbabwe.

Securing the interview was laborious, as the then manager Sam Mataure also felt uneasy about the interview. Former publicist Shepherd Mutamba just directed us to Mataure whom I felt was too cautious at the time.

Finally, the interview was confirmed. It was on a Thursday afternoon when I travelled to Norton with my then news editor Patrice Makova.

When we arrived, there was a tangible tension at the centre.

It wasn’t my first time at the centre. Neither was it going to be my first time to interview Mtukudzi but it was the first time for me to engage him about his loss.

After a few minutes of waiting, he emerged from his office and ushered us to some couches in the lounge of the conference centre.

I must admit that this is the most difficult interview that I have ever had in my life.

The cordials disappeared just after one question which we thought was an icebreaker.

We asked how the superstar was coping after the loss of his son.

He looked to the floor for a few seconds; rage building inside him-then erupted.

“Why are you so heartless?” he asked much to our chagrin.

“What makes you think I would feel differently from the way any father feels after losing his son? You are so cruel. You only care about Tuku the superstar but do not realise that I am a father, a husband; a human being before being an artiste.”

This was to be followed by a torturous two hours of tongue lashing as the man vented. He was just short of shedding tears. The fury that was inside him had just found an opening.

We paid for every journalist whom he felt had unfairly treated him before.

After two solid hours of bashing where we hardly had any chance to respond, the usual coy and tender giant returned and started inviting questions which he satisfactorily responded to.

I was never the same after that interview. Even our interactions afterwards were more cordial and I realised that while we had been somewhat insensitive starting the interview with the question of his battle to come to terms with the loss of his son, he also found an opportunity to accept and come to terms.

Several people, especially the close family had tried with measurable but little success. Even the wrecked up vehicle in which Sam was travelling when he met his untimely death in 2010, had been kept at Pakare Paye Arts Centre for almost two years.

His reason, staff at the centre said, he thought it would help him heal but alas, it hurt him even more. They said sometimes he would just stare at it eyes floating in tears.

And that background was foreign to us when we walked into the jungle to taunt a wounded elephant with the interview. We paid dearly.

The story from the interview made it to the front page of the Standard newspaper, which was unusual and probably the only time that it has been done, at least as far as I can remember. It had been inspired by the fact that there was this political fatigue with politics and some readers reasoned that they were tired of the gloomy political stories.

Even though we did not become the best of friends, the man became dear to me for the lessons which I drew from that episode.

Mtukudzi remains the most consistent musician I have ever seen. Whether right or wrong, an opinion or even advice which he gave someone 20 years ago remained the same. I would laugh to myself sometimes, especially at press conferences, when I could actually predict what Tuku’s response would be to certain questions.

If you asked about upcoming artistes, often he would respond by correcting you to call them young talent or instead ask upcoming from where. He often sounded as if he had a template.

The same consistency was also exuded on the performance stage. He was indeed a master at the craft and a perfectionist.

Tuku was a hero whose music will live forever. His music would heal the sick and the downtrodden. His voice would sooth a battered soul and give life.

This is the legacy which he has left behind. You would need a serious effort to forget Neria which is sung with tears even by some who do not understand a single Shona word.

It will be impossible to forget the Katekwe sound and we anticipate drama as various musicians attempt to fill in his gigantic boots.

Tuku was a human being and had his flaws. But those faults would never surpass the good that he did and the greatness which he has left the world to cherish.

Mtukudzi succumbed to diabetes related complecations at the age of 66, ironically exactly a year after his close friend Hugh Masekela who died in 2018.

Arguably, the biggest artiste to have emerged from the Southern African country, Zimbabwe, Tuku started singing in the 1970s where he rocked townships with his jiti music along with several other musicians of pre-independence Zimbabwe.

However, his career only blossomed making him an international performer of repute when he engaged former manager Debbie Metcalfe and eventually joined Sheer Music Records in South Africa in 1997.

From then, Tuku become a permanent feature to hundreds of festivals across the globe.

With 66 albums, Tuku was also recognised by multiple pressure groups as well as the United Nations for his support for key populations like marginalised women and children, this lead to UNICEF appointing him their Goodwill Ambassador. He has also been honoured with an honorary PhD in Philosophy, Ethnomusicology and Chorography by the Great Zimbabwe University in 2014.

Tuku had a strong bond with other artistes from the region and the rest of Africa especially the late South African musician Hugh Masekela. As fate would have it, Masekela died on January 23 2018 after a cancer battle which had kept him from the performance stage since 2017 while Tuku died exactly a year later.

Tuku who was accorded a national hero status by the Emmerson Mnangagwa led government will be buried at his rural home in Mt Darwin, in the Mashonaland Central province of Zimbabwe.