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African Legends

Oliver Mtukudzi

By Craig Harris
Published November 9, 2006

Oliver Mtukudzi, or “Tuku,” uses music as a vehicle for expressing his message, singing in his native Shona language or English, setting it to a blend of Southern African mbira, mbaqanga, Korekore and jit.

Oliver Mtukudzi, or “Tuku,” as he is often called, has emerged as the most prominent musical spokesman for Zimbabwe. 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.

Born in the small Harare section of Highfield, in 1952, Mtukudzi had some early success as a songwriter, but his deep, gutsy, voice and mbira (thumb piano)-like guitar picking were too distinctive for him to remain in the background forever. He recorded his first single in 1975.

He was invited to join the Wagon Wheels, one of Zimbabwe’s top bands, which also featured chimurenga pioneer Thomas Mapfumo, whom Mtukudzi replaced as lead vocalist.

While he had enjoyed some success before Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Mtukudzi truly came into his own afterwards, on his debut solo album, Africa. Performing with the Black Spirits, or with a 12-piece supergroup, Mahube, Mtukudzi has increasingly reached out to audiences outside of the borders of his homeland.

Despite his acclaim, Mtukudzi continued to be haunted by the abuses of his own country. He recorded an album, Ndega Zvangu (All Alone), with only his acoustic guitar after the death of his keyboardist/brother Robert, guitarist Job Muteswa and drummer Sam Mutowa from HIV/AIDS.

Teaming with South African producer and Mahube saxophone player Steve Dyer in 1998, Mtukudzi launched his own studio. Although they attracted international attention with Tuku Music in early 1999, and Paivepo a few months later, their collaboration reached its peak with the release of Bvuma-Tolerance in 2001, and Vhunze Moto a year later. The Kora awards recognized Mtukudzi’s influence again in 2003, naming him “best male artist of southern Africa” and presenting him with a Lifetime Achievement award.

One of the most prolific recording artists in southern Africa, Mtukudzi has released four dozen albums, including his latest, Nhava.