Oliver Mtukudzi shares his art from Zimbabwe to Toronto

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OLIVER Mtukudzi has, over the past 40 years, crafted a contemporary and very successful mélange of Southern African music traditions. He tours widely, played two dates in Canada in February, and returned for a show at Toronto’s Koerner Hall recently. He spoke with The Globe by phone from Britain about his music, his unusual school of the arts and his latest album, Mukombe We Mvura (Live at Pakare Paye).
What are you singing about on the new record?
There’s one song that talks about how to admire a person; you have to be able to distinguish the good from the bad. Another is about what makes you respected, and why you also respect other people. It’s not what you try to achieve but what you’ve already done that makes you respected.
You’re well-known for mixing modern instruments like electric guitars with traditional African instruments such as mbira. Is that a feature of the new record and your current tour?
Congas and bongos are the only traditional instruments. I wanted this record to sound different from the previous album. We’re touring with three voices and a five-piece band, but we’re not playing things like mbira. We have guitars and shakers.
Are you tired of performing on traditional instruments?
Traditional instruments are who we are. We grew up listening to them. The first instrument I heard was the voices of people singing, and of course when they clap their hands, that was another instrument. From there, we went into the mbiras, marimbas, congas and bongos, and so on. They make our identity. I never get tired of traditional instruments.
The new album was recorded at the Pakare Paye Arts Centre, which you built 10 years ago in Norton. Why did you feel the need to start your own teaching facility?
Other institutions, like the college of music, they say to students, “Come, let’s teach you. You don’t know, so come and we’ll teach you.” At Pakare Paye we say, “No, we can only learn from you.” All of us learn from other artists. As you showcase your talent, you learn from others, because they have what you don’t have. It’s not just music, we have poetry and drama, script-writing and plays.
What do you do at the school?Advertisement

When I’m in Zimbabwe, I play there on Saturday afternoons. I play with everyone. A lot of people come and play with me, and there are a lot of collaborations. There’s no boss. In art, you have what you have and nobody else has that. You can only show what you do and people learn from you. Playing together and sharing things is the best way to learn and the best way to teach.
How old are the students?
They are all ages. The youngest is about 7 years, and I’m 63, so I am the oldest. [Laughs]
What if someone arrives and they don’t have an instrument?
I’ve acquired some instruments that people can use. I know that when they come in, they often don’t have what they need. So they can learn to play a particular instrument at the school.
Are there other Zimbabwean musicians who have been at the centre and now have careers?
Oh yes, a lot. Ever since we started 10 years ago, we have about six different groups that are independent that formed at the school from scratch.
How is the school supported?
We have a restaurant and a small bar. We raise money and accept donations.
You launched a line of footwear in February. Is that a fundraising project?
It’s not related to the school in particular, it’s related to my music. I had a dance called hai-kobo, and the Hai-Kobo shoe is really designed as a dance shoe. It’s very comfortable and you can dance in it. We have a whole line of different shoes, different styles.
We’ve all heard about the political unrest and extreme economic hardship in Zimbabwe today. Are you ever tempted to leave?
I’m one of the lucky artists who is able to go abroad and play, but home is the best. I go to visit other places and come back home to Norton. Things there have changed for better and for worse, but whatever the difficulties, life goes on. Music is something that keeps some people surviving. They find themselves through music.
Last year, a paper in Zimbabwe began serializing what was billed as a tell-all biography by a journalist who had been your publicist. You said then that you felt “great dismay” at seeing those excerpts. Are you disappointed that the book has now been published?
I’m not disappointed because I never read it. I didn’t read it or approve so I don’t really know about it.
Is it true you considered suing the author?
No. I would get nothing from that. I know that the author has got nothing, so even if he goes to jail, what would I get out of it? It’s not worth it at all.