BACK home, Oliver Mtukudzi is simply “Tuku”. One of the most important African performers, the guitarist’s blend of mbaqanga and jit, mbira orchestras and the traditional drumming styles of his KoreKore tribal group is frequently called Tuku Music.
His deep, gritty voice delivers lyrics about daily life and the struggles against the corruption and corrupt regimes without directly addressing specific politicians. It has made him something of a universal star in Southern Africa, singing in Shona, Ndebele and English.
Living in the Bay Area hasn’t dulled his sharp observations or musical chops as heard on his latest album soundtrack for the film Sarawoga. His first since the passing of his son, musician Sam Mtukudzi, in a car crash in 2010, the 12-track disc is largely dedicated to that loss.
Tuku continues to release albums which reach No. 1 in Zimbabwe as well as featuring in international world music charts. For that reason, it is a rare treat to see him perform locally.
His show with full band in Vancouver is presented by the African Canadian Arts Society with support from Slice International and Stamcam. Proceeds will go to assist Orphans in Africa.
“It’s great to be coming back to Vancouver as it has been awhile,” says Mtukudzi. “So far on the tour, we’ve been having a really great time performing with a six-piece band which is stripped down from the old 11-piece group. The set-list is different every night including songs from my whole career as well as Sarawoga.”
He says that one of the reasons for going with a smaller group is that improvements in equipment and sound systems has meant that fewer players can do more. In the past, some consideration had to be given to bigger rhythm sections to get the room bouncing. Ripping off one amazing guitar lick after another on his custom Godin instrument is a far cry from the improvised and homemade electric guitars of his first forays into performing.
At the core of everything is his marvellous adaptation of the thumb piano rhythms and tones onto the guitar that has become his signature. Tuku openly admits that he was a very poor mbira player and from the onset wanted to play guitar. He composes on it as well.
“On soundtracks, you write for the theme you are given and with an idea where the music will go in the movie. Sometimes these are much shorter songs than I would normally write, but you can add them all together for concert performance,” he said.Advertisement
As to why he’s chosen to write material that doesn’t directly challenge the ruling elites by name as compatriot Thomas Mapfumo has, Mtukudzi says it is more about what he sees as the core substance of his music rather than shying away from confrontation.
“I write about self-discipline, always,” he said.
“The lyrics come first and then the music follows. Rather than target a particular person, government or organisation, I am looking at the person himself and their need for better self-discipline.
“Because in the end, it always comes down to this as time passes and changes occur in governments and societies. Mine is a culture that uses music to give life and hope. It is not just about entertainment.”
Dealing with his own traumatic changing family structures has proven very difficult. His son was an accomplished musician and someone that he bounced ideas and feelings off of almost daily.
“Having to live with the loss of my son is very difficult. Every day I think of him, miss him and it won’t ever go away. He was as much of a friend as a son. I do have four more girls so that is a blessing.”
In closing, he adds that every evening the band goes onstage without a set-list and determines the pace and songs in the show based upon the mood and energy of the audience. He’ll judge what people are yelling out, how excited they are and his own state of mind and then launch into a tune with the band following. That’s how he has always done it and what happens is Tuku Music.