The Chris Kabwato Column | The enduring legacy of Oliver Mtukudzi

Tuku’s birthday is in September and that is too far for me. This personal tribute to the master of the Korekore idiom cannot wait. I would be stretching it if I were to claim that Tuku was a friend. What I can confidently state is that we were always cordial, and he would have time for us to chat whenever we met in person from the mid-1990s until his untimely departure.

My first experience of Tuku was through his music in the late 1970s through the radio hit parade and the record bar. It could have been around 1980 or 81 that I first saw him on stage at the Dangamvura Beit Hall. Here he was a tall, lanky fellow wearing an impossible three-piece brown corduroy suit and platform shoes (get-down-the-mango-tree or the higher-you-go-the-cooler-it-becomes). Back then he had a characteristic cough he made at the beginning of his songs.

My cousin Lomas Gangata once said to me: “There is no voice like Tuku’s.” After that I could not unhear that voice. My children paid the price for that, especially during road trips, until all could sing along to the whole Vhunze Moto album.

Tuku the Versatile

What could Tuku not do with music? He could experiment with reggae and come up with Ghetto Boy – a massive hit in my youth when everyone seemed to own a Pioneer or WRS hi-fi stereo and the door and windows of the house were kept wide open. Music was a shared experience. He could rap too – our Tuku. Just listen to him on Chikonzi (Messenger) and tell me he would not have given Grandmaster Mel Mel and the Furious Five a run for their money.

There was one year, probably 1995, when Tuku would join Steve Makoni at Harare’s Terreskane Hotel (TK to regulars) on Sunday afternoons, and they would strum their acoustic guitars, sing, and take jabs at each other. As far as I know, no one recorded those moments. Cameras were expensive and we had no cellphones. For us, this was just some normal social Sunday where we nursed our hangovers and pondered on the cruelty of Monday mornings.

Tuku had his die-hard fans, and we would convene at the Sand Rock Café at the corner of Julius Nyerere Street and Kwame Nkrumah Avenue to hear the man and the Black Spirits band live. I would usually be with a great buddy of mine, graphics designer Chaz Maviyane, galloping on the dancefloor like horses at the Borrowdale Racecourse.

Tuku across the borders

In 2007 Tuku played at the World Social Forum in Nairobi Kenya. When the man hit the stage, you knew what was coming and the electric showman did not disappoint. The large audience of activists from Kenya and across the globe had a wonderful time just confirming again that music is its own language. Our sizeable contingent of Zimbos hung out with Tuku after his performance. The man was an innate stand-up comedian; fans laughed their hearts out and jostled for a photo opportunity with their icon.

Two years later, Tuku and I would cross paths again in a little South African town called Grahamstown (now Makhanda) where he had come to play two shows at the National Arts Festival. Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic amateur photographer living by a motto from one of my mentors – “just take the photo, it is not the quality but the uniqueness that matters.” I took a series of photos of Tuku and his son Sam seated outside a hall where they had just completed their sound check. Those pictures are the highlight of my short-lived photography career. They reveal a father and son who related more like close friends. No awkwardness. No embarrassed silence. An eagle and its eaglet. It was beautiful to watch.

Tuku the Humble

When Tuku came to play the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, the organisers had booked all artists into Rhodes University residences. Tuku’s team felt it was necessary to find other accommodation options. I accompanied his manager around the town and found an apartment in an upmarket section. Coming back to Tuku with the good news, the superstar calmly said something to the effect of: “I have already settled in, and it is only for two nights. There is no need to move.” It was a learning moment for me.

The ultimate honour was when Tuku came to our house together with his son Sam and the management team to have the obligatory sadza. It was an unforgettable afternoon. That night, Tuku also allowed my brother and I to record a video of his concert. After the show we sat with him in his dressing room where he autographed our CDs. The photos and footage of our encounters here and elsewhere are of huge sentimental value to me.

Tuku had many endearing qualities – he was a good listener, he spoke to you as if you mattered, he laughed a lot, and he was humility personified. His songs reflected a deep concern for society. If he could not change the world, he could sing its issues.

Thank you, Samanyanga.

Images by Chris Kabwato