By David Tinashe Hofisi
IN this article, I look at the last two decades of Dr. Oliver Mtukudzi’s (Tuku) music, from the 1998 scorcher Tuku Music to his final offering, Hany’ga/Concern. This period is crucially important to Tuku’s legacy as it firmly established him as one of, if not the, greatest Zimbabwean musicians of all time.
It should be noted that 1998 was not the year that Tuku became a hit maker. He had already won the prominent M-Net award for best movie soundtrack, staged the first live concert album recording and recorded numerous hit songs. It was only a watershed year because that is when he started to be thought of as the one of the very best.
Leonard Dembo, Leonard Zhakata and Simon Chimbetu had dominated the music scene in the 90’s, whilst Thomas Mapfumo maintained a towering presence with his evergreen Chimurenga music. With the release of Tuku Music, Tuku claimed his spot at the very top and would lay legitimate claim to the mantle of greatest of all time.
Tuku is one of the last in a group of musicians belonging to the second wave of recorded music in Zimbabwe. The first wave consisted of acapella, jazz and other predominantly cosmopolitan genres steeped in western style traditions.
The second wave was the hugely popular reversion to indigenous rhythms and spawned luminaries including Thomas Mapfumo, the Bhundu Boys, Zexie Manatsa, and James Chimombe. Hailing from this era, Tuku established himself on the basis of his husky voice and adaptation of traditional rhythms onto acoustic guitar.
The partnership with Steve Dyer in 1998 resulted in his first all hit album in the modern era. The Tuku Music album combined Tuku’s lyrical perspicacity with Philani Dube and Louis Mhlanga’s exceptional mbira guitar. The almost haunting backing vocals of Mwendi Chibindi and Mary Bell would serve to buttress a truly groundbreaking record.
From Dzoka Uyamwe to Ndima Ndapedza to Todiii, the album sounds like a veritable collection of greatest hits. Tuku would scale the same dizzy heights with what proved to be yet another all-hit offering: Paivepo. It included such classics as Pindurai Mambo, Perekedza Mwana, Mutserendendeand Chiri Nani, the last two which would become permanent features of his live performance repertoire.
The 2000 production Bvuma/Tolerance produced runaway hits Wasakara, Rurimi, Raki and the deeply traditional Wenge Mambo. By this point, Tuku had proven himself to have the Midas touch, with each album equal to or better than the last.
Vhunze Moto would be the last collaboration with Steve Dyer. It scaled lofty heights through songs such as Wongororo, Gondo andNdakuvara which earned him a Kora All Africa Award for Best Arrangement. Tuku’s music was growing in stature at home and in the region.
With four stellar albums on the trot, Tuku made the radical switch to a more acoustic feel on the 2003 album on Tsivo/Revenge. It produced the hit songs Totutuma, Wagona Fani and Hariputirwe, but was markedly different from his all-hit albums. It seemed the decision to part ways with Steve Dyer had a direct effect on album production.
But these doubts would be laid to rest on his next album, Nhava. With the acoustic experiment shelved, Nhava was Tuku back to his very best: an all-hit album filled with booming bass lines and hypnotizing melodies; Handiro Dambudziko, Hazvireve, Menzva Kudzimba, Ninipa and Tozeza Babawere among the rich lexicon of hit songs.
This marked Tuku’s high point as a performing artist. He was solid gold in Harare, where shows were always over-subscribed and he rarely played more than once in a month, touring regionally and internationally in the intervening periods. Such was his popularity that when he was overlooked in favour of Tongai Moyo for the ZIMA Best Male Artist Award in 2005, the crowd openly chanted his name in rebuke.
Tuku would follow the Nhava album with Tsimba Itsoka, from which Hapana kuti Mbijana, Njuga, Ungade We and Masimba Mashoma were well received. It also included the soulful ballad Vachakunonokera. However, this album would not reach the lofty heights of Nhava, mostly due to yet another radical change.
In 2007, Tuku fired half of his entire band. Not only were the band members dismissed, but some of the musical concepts were abandoned. The lead guitar was replaced by mbira, the keyboards with marimba and Selmor Mtukudzi would not be replaced as a backing vocalist.
The abrupt switch to traditional instruments meant the sound enjoyed on most recorded albums could not be replicated at live shows. Tuku also replaced long-time manager Debbie Metcalfe with Sam Mataure and became more accessible, particularly in smaller towns and venues.
As part of his marketing strategy, Tuku always sampled music from upcoming albums during his performances. Following the release of the Tsimba Itsoka album, songs that were being sampled from the forthcoming album included Pasai Njere, Kurerutsa Ndima and Unaye, the last two proving to be very popular with audiences.
However, before this album could be released, its contents were leaked and shared widely. In a bold move, Tuku decided to shelve that project and release an entirely different album: the 2009 offering Dairai. This was his first album incorporating traditional instruments and produced hit songs Meso Piriviri, Manyemwe and Panyatso.
The previously shelved project was later released as Rudaviro, a great album which suffered from lack of promotion. It included great tracks such as Rangu Jana and Kure Kwazvo, but none of these songs formed part of Tuku’s repertoire by the time of the album’s release; only Mhodzi YeMbeu which would later become part of his live act. That is not to say it was not well received, as copies of the album were sold out at the live show to premier its release.
Then tragedy struck. Tuku lost his son Sam in 2010. The Sarawoga album was replete with this message of loss in the song Ronga Dondo, in the title track and a rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. It produced the massive hit Watitsvata (Pata Pata), a throwback to township jazz, but also had sing-along songs in Uneyerera and Chiringa.
This album also marked Tuku’s departure from the use of traditional instruments. He had, in 2011, revised his line up yet again, dismissing and replacing his entire band. However, this album did not have the same booming bass-lines of old, which he more than made up for in his 2014 offering; Mukombe weMvura.
Mukombe weMvura was a return to the quintessence of Tuku Music with such songs as Kudzinga Hwema and Hukoche koche. Recorded live at Pakare Paye, it is an awesome throwback to the core rhythms of Tuku music. This was followed by Ehe ka Nhai Yahweh, a more relaxed album featuring Hugh Masekela on such tracks as Bhiza ra Mambo and Kusateerera.
On the song Ndinecha, he gives a soulful dedication to his fans. From this album, Tuku recorded a video for the song Hunhapwa, his first video since Tozeza Baba in 2005.
His last album, Hany’Ga/Concern, produced the hit song Wanza Sori but also had great tracks inShiringinya, Mahara and Haasati Aziva for which he recorded a video. It is a fitting finale, offering from the towering musical giant who could make the acoustic guitar sound like an orchestra of traditional Zimbabwean rhythms.