Artistry for amity – that was Tuku

ThIS is, by no means, supposed to be a full account of the life and times of Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, the Zimbabwean music giant who passed away this week, but personal glimpses from the time when I interacted with him and gleanings from what I read about him from various sources.

echoes: CONWAY TUTANI

I first knew Mtukudzi in the early to mid-1970s through a common friend, the late Mike Muromo, who stayed with Tuku in the same Old Highfield neighbourhood in Salisbury (now Harare). Over weekends, I would board a Salisbury United (now Zupco) bus for the short distance across town to visit Mike in Old Fio (as Old Highfield was called in township slang), where he stayed with his maternal grandparents and his maternal uncle, Moses Kabubi, a keyboardist who is still playing music up to now. Tuku was still living under the roof of his parents’ house. I suppose we were all not old and independent enough to live on our own.

Mike told me, like in passing, that Tuku wanted to become a full-time musician, but he was having a hard time convincing his parents about taking that direction. Mike told me that he had also questioned Tuku about the wisdom of being a musician instead of having a secure nine to five job. I kept my counsel to myself as I didn’t want to appear to be too forward over an issue between these two long-standing friends who, from what I observed, shared intimate secrets. But inside I was saying: “This guy must be crazy!”

But in a few months, Tuku was up and running in his true element, finding his feet on the stage, and by the time he died this week, he had scaled unimaginable heights, leaving his mark not only in Zimbabwe, but also beyond the borders as he had become a truly international superstar such that in 2003 he made it to the cover of the prestigious Time magazine and getting awards became routine to him.

I am sure Tuku, with his trademark twinkle and chuckle, has already reminded Mike in heaven: “Didn’t I tell you so when you doubted me nearly half a century ago?”

Tuku lived a full and fulfilling life because he followed his dream when almost everybody doubted him. Achievers break out of their comfort zones. It’s also a lesson to parents that they should not excessively control their children because overprotected children are slated for failure in life. More and more studies have confirmed that children of overprotective parents are risk-averse, have difficulty making decisions, and lack the toughness to become successful in life.

Furthermore, children of overprotective parents cannot deal adequately with hardships and other frustrations of life. In other words, they have a very low tolerance for frustration and crumble at the first sign of it.

Tuku faced many hardships, but remained focused and persevered. He took a gamble and won. That is the inner strength and steely resolve I saw in Tuku as he rose from an unknown ghetto lad to international superstardom.

That is one of the levels at which we should view Tuku’s journey. That is what gave him that longevity in a career where many rise, but rapidly fall.

To illustrate that, there was a long period when Tuku suffered artiste’s block or musician’s block – that dry spell in creativity – in the early 1980s.
All artistes – whether it be painters, dancers, actors, or musicians – are prone to slumps in inspiration. Musician’s block can be caused by stress, fatigue, low self-esteem and other general energy-sapping issues.

Maybe Tuku was putting too much pressure on himself or, conversely, others were placing too much pressure on him like recording companies demanding him to record a large amount of songs in a short space of time as per contractual obligations.

A number of events in one’s life – such as the painful divorce Tuku went through around that time – can also trigger declines in creativity.

But Tuku persevered and kept on reinventing himself until he found his proper niche. Yes, he finally got his bearings right and died very much at the top of his game.

Of course, Tuku was a fallible human being like all of us. But that is not what defined him as his former publicist Shepherd Mutamba tried – and failed – to have people believe in his supposed “tell-all” book about Tuku, which did not impress many people because betrayal of trust, especially when it is dripping with vengefulness, is frowned upon in any society,

In the eyes of many people, the contents of the book revealed more about the bitterness of the writer than Tuku’s transgressions. The writer forgot the operative rule that when you throw mud at someone, some of the mud sticks or remains on your hand. In other words, you will also be besmirching and exposing yourself as a scoundrel, a dishonest and unscrupulous good-for-nothing person. So, the book monumentally backfired. The writer could now be regretting forever his impetuous move, more so because Tuku, despite being scandalised, remained largely unfazed and unflappable.

Mutamba claimed that from 2010, Tuku started receiving gifts from former First Lady Grace Mugabe and also hosted several aides of ex-President Robert Mugabe, including Cabinet ministers and security chiefs, at his Norton arts centre. By doing that, Mutamba wrote, Tuku “betrayed all victims of Mugabe’s misrule”.

Again, this mischaracterisation of Mtukudzi did not sway people against him. The facts are there on the ground that politicians across the divide are in business or have been in business with Mugabe and with each other.

And when you are a musician, you unavoidably become a social commentator, but Tuku’s criticism of the status quo was not over the top; it was measured, making it constructive. He did not wear criticism of the establishment as a badge of honour.

That he pointed out ills as and when made people listen because they knew he was not doing a hatchet job. Because of his restraint, Tuku was not a polarising figure. If you were after divisiveness, Tuku might as well have told you to look elsewhere. Tuku maintained his artistic freedom.

From his actions, Tuku did not want to be typecast as pro this or anti that. That is why he moved seamslessly across the political divide. That is why he interacted with people of all political hues.

But this did not make his lyrics any less deep and profound. His 2002 album Bvuma/Tolerance was a tour de force, it was a masterpiece tackling political and socio-economic issues of the day with great musicality. That he could send a strong message with such mildness of voice and sweetness of music showed his artistic genius.

All in all, Tuku used his creative skill and ability to promote friendly relations between people and countries. Artistry for amity – that was Tuku.
Rest in peace, Samanyanga.

(Oliver Mtukudzi: September 22, 1952 — January 23, 2019)

Conway Nkumbuzo Tutani is a Harare-based columnist. Email: nkumbuzo@gmail.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *