Oliver Mtukudzi takes his responsibility seriously. “Tuku,” as he is often called, has emerged as the most prominent musical spokesman for Zimbabwe, the southern African nation plagued with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, chronic shortages of basic commodities, an HIV/AIDS epidemic striking one out of every four people and a life expectancy of less than 38 years. With his original songs, sung in his native Shona language or English, set to a blend of Southern African mbira, mbaqanga and jit, and the traditional drumming styles of the Korekore, Mtukudzi uses music as a vehicle for expressing his urgent message.
“Music is not only for entertainment,” Mtukudzi said from his home in the Zimbabwean capital city of Harare, “but to defuse tension. It’s played at a funeral, played at a wedding. You sing when you’re working. There is always music around us. It’s a survival tool.”
While he occasionally sings of love, Mtukudzi speaks more of unity and the inter-relatedness between people. “We don’t talk about intimate love,” he said. “We talk about the love between a father and daughter or a mother and son, the love between neighbors. We sing about social issues, everyday experiences.”
Born in the small Harare section of Highfield, in 1952, Mtukudzi hails from a musical family. His parents both sing and met at a competition of Church choirs. “They kept competing at home,” Mtukudzi remembered. “The kids were the judges.”
With music a constant presence in his life, Mtukudzi was increasingly drawn to songwriting. “I used to hum songs that I don’t remember now,” he recalled. “My mother saw that I didn’t sing what everyone knew and reckoned that I was creating something of my own.”
While he had some early success as a songwriter, penning a couple of hymns that continue to be sung in Zimbabwean churches, Mtukudzi’s deep, gutsy, voice and mbira (thumb piano)-like guitar picking were too distinctive for him to remain in the background forever. When a local disc jockey, visiting a friend next door, heard him singing, he was invited to perform over the airwaves. Soon afterwards, he found himself at the radio station recording a couple of songs for broadcast. One of the tunes, “Stop After Orange,” was chosen as Mtukudzi’s first single in 1975. “The record company looked for me,” he said, “until they found me.”
Although his music is comprised of a variety of South African traditions, Mtukudzi heard very little non-Zimbabwean music as a youngster. “We didn’t have any radios,” he remembered, “so we didn’t know what was happening elsewhere. It wasn’t until the late-’50s, when we had our first radio station, that we started to<