Man has always fought oppression in one way or the other. Be it via brute force, the power of words and of the pen, from Nelson Mandela to Nnamdi Azikiwe, from South Africa to Nigeria down to Zimbabwe, man has cried against the oppression of its rights by another man, state or government.
A freedom singer after the manner of the Fela’s and Bob Marley’s is Zimbabwean Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi. Born September 22, 1952 in Highfield, Salisbury, Oliver began singing at the age of 23 in 1975 with the release of his debut single, ‘Stop After Orange’. The eldest in a family of seven, Oliver was born in a musical family with parents who were notable singers. Following the death of his father, Oliver found himself thrust in a position of immense responsibility. He had to care for his siblings including Robert Mtukudzi who played keyboards in The Black Spirits.
Oliver went professional in 1977 teaming up with Thomas Mapfumo and the famous Wagon Wheels Band and recording Dzandimomotera which was inspired directly by Zimbabwe’s 1970s war of liberation. The song depicted the black man’s life struggles under the minority white settler regime. The single went gold and Oliver’s first album followed, which was also a major success.
In 1979 Oliver left Wagon Wheels to launch a solo career and formed his own band ‘The Black Spirits’. Together, in those pre-independence days, they made revolutionary music with undertones that targeted the repressive Rhodesian regime. Says he, “Before independence it was the fight against the Rhodesian regime. My music then spoke against oppression and the repressive regime and how we were suffering at the hands of the regime. I left school and for three years I couldn’t find a job yet I was one of the few guys among my peers with a fine secondary education. But I couldn’t get a job because I was black. My music then helped people identify themselves…who we were and what we wanted to be.”
Oliver, who sings in the nation’s dominant Shona language along with Ndebele and English, also incorporates elements of different musical traditions and instruments, giving his music a distinctive style, known to fans as “Tuku Music”. The turning point in Oliver’s recording career was in 1999 when he released Tuku Music under Putumayo World Music in the USA and several other regions including the Far East. He went on to release under labels such as Blu in Europe, Connoisseur Collection in the UK and Sheer Sound in South Africa including the Zimbabwe Music Corporation.
Oliver’s journey to success and stardom was fraught with disappointment and hardships. His band, ‘The Black Spirits’ split up severally due to internal squabbles although they eventually reunited.
Oliver’s discography includes, 1978 Ndipeiwo Zano (re-released 2000), 1979 Chokwadi Chichabuda, 1979 Muroi Ndiani?’, 1980 Africa (re-released 2000), 1981 Shanje, 1981 Pfambi, 1982 Maungira, 1982 Please Ndapota, 1983 Nzara, 1983 Oliver’s Greatest Hits, 1984 Hwema Handirase, 1985 Mhaka, 2007 Tsimba Itsoka, 2008 Dairai (Believe), 2010 Rudaviro, 2010 Kutsi Kwemoyo (compilation), 2011 Rudaviro, 2011 “Abi’angu” (Duets of my time),2012 “Sarawoga”.
With a passion for the silver screen Oliver has made short films including Ndichirimudiki (2008) which he directed and was shown at the Zimbabwe International Film Festival the same year. His success in film came in 1990 when he played the lead character in Jit, Zimbabwe’s first feature film. A year later in 1991 Oliver played another lead role in another feature film Neria one of the country’s best feature films to date. He also composed and directed the music in the film including the sound track Neria that won several awards. Other films are Shanda 2004, Sarawoga, 2009, and Nzou NeMhuru Mudanga 2012, which was the live recording of a show; a theatrical performance which Oliver had with his son Sam just weeks before his death in an automobile accident.
On the award front, Oliver’s prowess has been greatly appreciated by his national and international audience. Oliver was awarded the M-Net Best Soundtrack Award in 1992, for Neria; he received the KORA Award for Best African male artist and Lifetime Achievement Award in August 2003; he was the Reel Award Winner for Best African Language in 2003; he received a National Arts and Merit Award for 6 consecutive years- NAMA Award 2003: Best Group/Artist; NAMA Award 2004: Best Group/Artist; NAMA Award 2005: National Arts Personality of the Year; NAMA Award 2006: Outstanding Album; NAMA Award 2007: Best Musician/Group; he was also appointed a Cultural Ambassador by the Zimbabwe Tourism Association in 2007; NAMA Award 2008: Outstanding Musician. In 2011, Oliver was honoured by the Government of Italy with the prestigious Cavaliere of the Order of Merit Award in recognition of his work as an international musician. (The award is what the Knighthood is to England). Oliver graced the cover of the international Time Magazine in April 2003, not an easy feat for any artist. The Magazine described Oliver as the “Voice of the Voiceless”.
In the course of his long and laudable career, Oliver has had the opportunity to record duets with foreign music greats including Max Wild, Ringo Madlingozi, Steve Dyer and Yvonne Chaka Chaka. He has shared a stage with the likes of Ray Lema, Lucky Dube, Manu Dibango, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Maureen Lilanda, Taj Mahal, Toumani Diabate, Baana Maal and many others. Oliver is a founding member of Mahube; a regional band made up of artists from Southern Africa including artists among them Steve Dyer, Louis Mhlanga and Sam Mataure. Mahube has recorded albums and performed at regional and international festivals in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Germany, Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia.
Of his music, Oliver states “I have done my job well as an artist. I represent Zimbabweans regardless of their political inclinations, regardless of religion. I represent them all. People of divergent political beliefs come to my shows and they sing and dance together in harmony. I don’t have any special Zimbabwean that I stand for…I stand for all Zimbabweans. That is what I am, that is what my music is. I don’t dabble in partisan politics because I serve everyone and all Zimbabweans.” His music speaks about building bridges, about solidarity, hope and healing. That is not to say that Oliver has no views concerning the polity in Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole. In an interview with Mai Palmberg in the book Sound of Change – Social and Political Features of Music in Africa (2004) published by Sida, Oliver stated, “Zimbabweans and the people of Africa are facing a new war against their very own lives. The new war is called hopelessness and it is fueled by fear. There is fear of the unknown. Fear of other people. Fear of losing. Fear of someone else being better. Fear of ourselves becoming worse. So, we fight and see enemies when we should be seeing friends. There is violence to replace our voice. That should not be. We don’t have time, we must act now, life is at stake. Africa has fought so hard for our freedom, now must we fight ourselves in the streets and in the villages and create new wars?” Food for thought for every African.
When he is not strumming his guitar and dispensing love and good will with his husky voice, Oliver works with WHO to spread HIV/AIDS awareness and has done so since the 80’s. “I am one of the very first artists in Zimbabwe to be approached about HIV by the World Health Organisation, that was 1987,” he told CNN. “Nobody knew about the disease in Zimbabwe and I was lucky to get the material about the disease. I had to learn and come up with a song which made me go to Swaziland where I actually saw people infected and affected, so I had a better understanding of the disease than my fellow artists because they hadn’t seen it and I had seen that.” Oliver went on to write and sing several hit songs concerning the dreaded virus. He was also been appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador to raise HIV and AIDS awareness in Eastern and Southern Africa. In 2010, the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) and The International Council of Africana Womanism (ICAW) gave him an award in recognition of his luminary role in uplifting African women through his artistic work – music and a diversity of art forms – offered as community development at his Arts Academy at Pakare Paye in Norton. The Academy which is Oliver’s pet project provides young musicians with the resources to develop their talents under the tutelage of specialist artists including composers, sound and light engineers, producers, guitarists, drummers, stage and film actors. University students are attached to the centre for practical experience. The centre’s areas of specialization include storytelling, music, script-writing, dance, poetry and drama. Talk about giving something back!!!
Even when faced with personal tragedies like the death of his brother and more recently, the death of his son, Oliver manages to leave the pain behind and forge on with fervour.
A father of 5 and a grandfather, Oliver has no plans to retire. “Retire from what?” He asks. “This is my life.”
At 60, this philanthropic music maestro shines on, conquering stages and hearts from the US to the UK to South Africa and beyond. Sing on Tuku, sing on.