It’s a crisp morning in Harare and Oliver Mtukudzi’s having breakfast in one of the city’s trendier spots, the ironically named Pariah State. Dressed in a tweed jacket, his trademark cap and man-bag, one of Southern Africa’s biggest stars and largest music exports could have been anyone sitting having breakfast with the regulars, had it not been for the other patrons stealing looks, pointing and sharing whispers about Zimbabwe’s legendary performer. Oliver Mtukudzi’s four decade plus career has, after all, turned him into a superstar.
How he did it?
Quiet and unassuming, Nzou, as he is affectionately known after his totem which means elephant, says that he has managed to sustain his career through a simple rule of thumb, taking his music to the people. “Nobody would hear my music if I simply relied on releasing albums and hoping for radio play,” he says. “Since the beginning of my career I have taken my music to my audience, relentlessly performing and touring as much as I can, building an audience wherever I go.” He adds that it is also when he is on the road, in communion with people, where he finds much of his inspiration to write. “Engaging with people I am fortunate to meet, listening to their stories, being inspired by every day’s trials.” This is where he finds his mojo.
Gifted with a gutsy deep voice Oliver’s style is described as Tuku Music, taken from his last name, pointing to the unique style he has developed by blending several southern African styles that include mbaqanga, mbira and traditional Korekore drumming styles. During his career Oliver has performed across the world, sharing stages with the likes of Lucky Dube and working alongside Peter Gabriel during his hugely successful WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) World Music Festivals that toured the globe.
Bonnie Raitt, a huge fan, has recorded several of his songs and likened Oliver’s talent to that of Otis Redding. It all started in 1975 when he released his first single ‘Stop After Orange’ followed by a two year stint in a band dubbed the Wagon Wheels. By 1979 however, Oliver was back on a solo path and formed the Black Spirits, whose debut track ‘Dzandimomotera’ ascended to Gold status.
But wait, he's more than a musician
Between recording albums and performing, Oliver also has a passion for film and acted in the first feature comprising an all Zimbabwean cast, Jit. He also penned the soundtrack for its follow-up, Neria, earing him an M-net award in 1992 for Best Soundtrack. His groundbreaking album Tuku Music spent 11 weeks at number one on the CMJ World Music Charts and this was followed by several more chart-topping releases toward the end of the millennium.
Despite being a superstar, now 64, Oliver is a reluctant hero. “I don’t know what it means to be a celebrity, or famous, if you will. To me, success is taking my message to the people, and the mutual appreciation we have for one another. When I become a successful celebrity, I will tell you what it feels like,” he laughs. He is a man of the people, his music the reflection of everyday challenges, love lost and found and the struggle to survive. His lyrics inspiring, the melodies infectious.
Where is legacy began
In a small town, 40 km or so outside of Zimbabwe on the main artery linking the capital with Bulawayo, Oliver has built his legacy. The Pakare Paye Arts Centre in Norton is his legacy. What started, as a small project to celebrate Zimbabwean music and culture has become a mammoth development that includes an art gallery, recording studio, auditorium, bar, restaurant and 26 luxury chalets. The Sam Mtukudzi Conference Centre is named after his late son. “It is the culmination of my life’s work,” says Oliver who, according to reports, spent most of his accumulated wealth on the project. His vision, to create an oasis for artists while making access thereof easier for everyone. “It started out really small but,” he says, “we get new ideas every day and develop them as we go along.”
Oliver Mtukudzi is a gentle man, weathered by his own narrative, motivated by a relentless passion and a depth of character that translates easily into every chord and rhyme. After breakfast, looking out onto the car park, Oliver poses pensively for a few snaps. You can see that in his mind’s eye, he is taking in every moment, constantly breathing in the fabric of a continent that has provided him with the treasure of his craft.