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Song of Zimbabwe

Interview with Oliver Mtukudzi

Oliver Mtukudzi

Oliver Mtukudzi’s career as a musician kicked off in the late 1970s, when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia, Ian Smith was in power, and the country was united under Robert Mugabe in a fight for independence. At that time, Mtukudzi earned his popularity by performing political songs that spoke of resistance and national pride; later, with his album Africa (1980) he became the voice of the newly independent Zimbabwe. Two decades and 44 albums later, when Zimbabwe is once again being ravaged by horrendous political violence, economic disaster, famine, and AIDS, Mtukudzi’s musical mix of groove and message is there to guide its fans through bad times.

Mtukudzi’s style, known as Tuku music, is a unique combination of several elements: South Africa’s hard-driving mbaqanga rhythm, jit—a fast percussive Zimbabwean dance beat—and the gentler, repetitive mbira rhythms of Zimbabwe's Shona people. In addition to creating a unique musical sound, he has won praise for his power as a lyricist. His precisely worded narratives, with their sense of humor about daily life, stand as metaphors for the social and economic ills that bedevil his country. 

Since 2000, when President Robert Mugabe's party was returned to power in a controversial election, Zimbabwe has been in the grip of a national crisis. The government’s controversial land reform program has effectively seen the country's white farmers dispossessed, while members of the political opposition have been targeted for violent persecution. With a food emergency that has more than 7 million people reliant on foreign aid and an estimated one in four people suffering from AIDS, conditions could hardly be worse.

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Mtukudzi never openly refers to politics in his work, nor does he overtly criticize Zimbabwe's leadership. But his message is clear nevertheless, say his fans, who refer to him as “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” In his 44th album, Vhunze Moto (Burning Embers)—its cover shows a map of Zimbabwe on fire—the track “Moto Moto” (Fire Is Fire) goes, “Even embers are fire, why wait until it's a huge flame to accept that it's fire?…You have made the fire, making it on your own, to prove that it is a fire.” The song was widely interpreted as a warning to Mugabe of looming catastrophe.

In another track, “Tapera” (We Have Been Decimated) Mtukudzi addresses the AIDS pandemic by advising men to adopt responsible sexual behavior. “A mature man, why behave like a child?” he sings. “Don’t get carried away…” But by far Mtukudzi’s most controversial recent track is “Wasakara” (You Are Worn Out), from his 2000 album Bvuma (Tolerance). “Wasakara” says that old men should know when to step down and rest: “You are old, you are spent, it is time to accept you are old.” Zimbabweans say this is a reference to the 79-year-old Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980 and shows no sign of stepping down. The opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, now uses “Wasakara” as its unofficial anthem.

A producer, arranger, and songwriter, Mtukudzi (known as “Tuku” to his fans) seems to have unflagging energy, releasing on average two albums a year for the last two decades. Recently World Press Review’s Meron Tesfa Michael interviewed him about his career and his hopes for Zimbabwe.

What makes Tuku music different from other musical styles? How did you end up creating it?
My fans were the first to describe my music as Tuku music but it was only around the mid-'90s that I began to develop it as a brand name. My music doesn’t really qualify as one of the more classified styles of Zimbabwean music, like jit, sungura, chimurenga, or even traditional, so I suppose it has come about through having so many albums of music composed by me….44 albums to be precise.

Many influences have crept into my music over the years. For instance, I only introduced a full-time percussionist, female vocalists, and acoustic guitar into my live shows during the '90s….but I think even I can recognize a definitive style that has become my own!

Your albums are known for your lyrics that deal with social and economic issues in Zimbabwe. What are the problems that preoccupy you most, and your suggested remedies?
I was asked once why African composers don't write more love songs...that made me think, but I guess it’s because so many African countries are still immersed in wars and struggles against disease, poverty, and famine, that love songs seem almost trivial.

My lyrics have always been drawn from people and their day-to-day issues—not just their difficulties but also their humor, happiness, irony. I may reflect more on those issues that touch me in some way, but my lyrics tend to highlight people’s values and I guess I reinforce the more positive ones. I also like to challenge customs and behavior that encourage greed and selfishness, and I am very conscious of the disparities in our society, especially where women’s rights are concerned. As far as Zimbabwe is concerned, we are living in a very divisive society right now, so these days I sing about the need for peace, unity and tolerance.

If you had to distill all your work into just one song about Zimbabwe, to convey a message to the world, what would the message be?
For several years now, Zimbabwe has been a major focal point for the regional and international press. The message I would most like to convey to my listeners is that there are so many major catastrophes facing the African continent right now (like the AIDS pandemic, famine, etc.) that it is frustrating to witness governments that have been voted into power by the people spending so much time, energy, and often scarce resources on issues of conflict and power.

As a person who is recognized within my community, I feel a really strong sense of responsibility to be the kind of role model who promotes the right things. Peace and democracy are such critical factors in building a healthy society and yet our politicians seem obsessed with party politics, and corruption is eroding every sector of society.

What drives you?
That’s a difficult question, I’m not sure I know the answer but I love being on stage and writing songs; it’s one of my real pleasures in life. I also think I am very lucky to have been able to develop my hobby into my career. My personal mission is to achieve recognition for my work and enjoy the process —I’m slowly getting there but it has been a long and winding road.

Are you disappointed at the way things have turned out in Zimbabwe?
Of course I am—the dreams and the struggle for independence were shared by all. I still don’t understand why our government has chosen to sacrifice so much to retain the reins of power. The lack of tolerance toward dissenting voices is a great disappointment to me. Party politics will be the ruin of Africa especially when there are so many serious issues facing the country right now, like famine and AIDS. Why we can’t just combine all our energies to deal with these real-life issues is a mystery to me.

Your career launched in 1970s, at the time of the independence movement in Zimbabwe. What was Zimbabweans’ spirit like then compared to now?
The spirit of the Zimbabwean people felt indomitable when we were unified leading up to independence in 1980, despite the many personal tragedies that so many people experienced. Fragmented as we are now, and with so many forces waging a different kind of war against us, it is critical that we put our differences behind us and find that kind of human spirit again.

Recently Time magazine named you and [veteran Zimbabwean protest musician] Thomas Mapfumo as "heroic artists.” The magazine claimed that your music is “powerful as it rebukes and encourages the people of a broken nation to take up arms.” Is that your goal for your songs?
I don’t believe either of us is literally urging the people to take up arms. The minute you engage in violence to win any struggle, you lose so much. For many, the wounds from the war for independence can never heal—I have watched that period of our history and can only urge the people to have the courage to speak from their hearts and let their voices be heard….might is not right! The government has a responsibility to create the conditions that facilitate that kind of forum for the good of the whole.

Dialogue and instilling a discipline of nonviolence are the only way to remain victorious over the many challenges that are currently facing us as a nation. That is a message I would like to convey to all those who are perpetrating senseless acts of violence on fellow Zimbabweans, as they can never wash the blood off their hands.

What is the most consistent theme of your music?
Probably my most consistent theme is the strength of unity. Divided we fall.

 
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