A musical ambassador for his people

Oliver Mtukudzi sings in English as well as Nbedele and Shona, his native country’s most widely spoken languages

slinn@thetribunenews.comAugust 1, 2013 

Oliver Mtukudzi began writing his own songs around the age of 7.


Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi takes on a special responsibility every time he steps onstage.

“When I perform, I also present my culture,” said Mtukudzi, who appears Saturday with his band, the Black Spirits, at Castoro Cellars in Templeton. “You don’t become an artist for yourself. You become an artist to represent your people.”

Mtukudzi, or “Tuku” as he’s known to fans, is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most prolific and successful recording artists. Over the decades, he has sought to record his home country’s struggles and successes in song — documenting everything from Zimbabwe’s bid to win independence in 1980 to the political, social and economic turmoil that has enveloped the nation since then.

“Every problem Zimbabweans face, I’m also part of,” the 60-year-old said.

A member of Zimbabwe’s Kore Kore tribe, Mtukudzi sings in English as well as Nbedele and Shona, his native country’s most widely spoken languages. His unique sound incorporates elements of South African mbaqanga, Zimbabwean pop-style jit and traditional kateke drumming.

“I share a lot of different musical styles in each song. I’m very experimental,” said Mtukudzi, adding that those diverse influences stem from “where I grew up, the way I was brought up. Because I’m Zimbabwean, it comes from that.”

Mtukudzi discovered his passion for music growing up in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare.

“Around the age of 7, I was already creating my own songs and singing for my parents,” Mtukudzi said. “I really wanted to perform songs I didn’t already know.”

After releasing his first successful single in 1975, the performer teamed up with another Zimbabwean musical standout, Thomas Mapfumo, as part of the legendary Wagon Wheels. Simultaneously, he launched his solo career with the 1978 album “Ndipeiwo Zano.”

Over the years, Mtukudzi has released more than 60 albums to acclaim in Africa, Europe and North America. He’s also produced and starred in a handful of feature films.

Mtukudzi’s latest album, “Sarawoga,” deals with the death of his 21-year-old son, Sam Mtukudzi, himself a successful musician, in a car crash in 2010. The title means “to be left alone” in Shona.

“I’m saying that I was left on my own to finish this album,” Oliver Mtukudzi said, explaining that “Sarawoga,” which was released in May, began as a collaboration between father and son. “I had to record it.”

When writing songs, Mtukudzi said, he never shies away from personal or painful subjects.

“Pain, frustration, joy, education, misery — songs come out of all situations,” he said. “I only take the experiences I feel that my listener will also take personally.”

“That’s the purpose of a song,” he added. “A song must give hope, give life, heal the broken heart. It should touch the heart of the listener.”

Mtukudzi takes the same direct approach to his activism, speaking out about patriarchy, polygamy and the HIV/AIDS epidemic that claimed the lives of his brother Robert and several band members.

“I was one of the very lucky Zimbabwean artists to know about that disease before (anybody else) knew about it,” said Mtukudzi, who was approached by the World Health Organization in 1987 to write a song about HIV/AIDS, “Stay With One Woman.”

“That song took me to Switzerland, where for the first time I saw people affected and infected by (HIV/AIDS),” he said. “From then on, I understood how dangerous that disease would be.”

Mtukudzi has since written a number of songs about the subject, including “Tapera” and “Todii.” In 2012, he became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for eastern and southern Africa focusing on HIV/AIDS and youth development.

Mtukudzi intends to continue spreading his message as long as he can.

“You only run out of anything to talk about when you’re dead,” he said.


Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits
7 p.m. Saturday
Castoro Cellars, 1315 N. Bethel Road, Templeton
238-0725, www.castoro cellars.com or www.slofolks.org

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.

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