Woken by the smell of bacon and burnt toast, the sound of music and muffled laughter, I rush downstairs to see what all the noise is about. My grandmother is shaking her hips freely to the sounds of Oliver Mtukudzi’s Wasakara. She’s making breakfast. I giggle at her awkward dance moves but I have no choice. I join in, mimicking her every hip thrust. That’s how she remembers it anyway. “You used to love Tuku, and it was because of me.”
Later, my seven-year-old self would dominate the dance floor at weddings and family braais (barbeques). I’d sway my hips, perhaps too much, to the sound of Mtukudzi’s African drums.
Fast-forward: “Tuku is dead. I can’t believe it, he was our Michael Jackson.” My gran’s voice saddens me. She hasn’t been back to Zimbabwe in almost 20 years, fearing for her safety and Tuku’s passing prompts her to reminisce about “the better days”. She remembers seeing him sing the national anthem, Ishe Komborera Africa (God Bless Africa), on Zimbabwe’s independence day in 1980. That day a new country was born to the triumphant sounds that filled the Rufaro stadium.
Oliver Mtukudzi died on Wednesday evening, aged 66, and it’s taking a while to sink in. Zimbabwe has lost a cultural ambassador. It’s used to loss, of course, and disappointment. There was supposed to be new hope after Robert Mugabe, but beatings and tear gas are back under Emerson Mnangagwa. And now a country braced in self-defence is mourning Tuku. He was a self-taught guitarist and singer whose husky voice complemented traditional Shona instruments like the mbira, a hand-held metal thumb piano. Together they produced a unique sound that epitomised Zimbabwean music. His blend of Zimbabwe’s traditional sounds and South African township music and soul became “Tuku Music”.
But Tuku was more than a musician. He connected with the struggles of Zimbabweans. His first song about HIV/Aids, Stay with One Woman, written during a World Health Organisation campaign in 1986, described how the epidemic was tearing the country apart.
In Todii (What Shall We Do?), released in the late 1990s, Tuku zeroed in on how people in authority violate their responsibilities when they neglect communities in need. The song ends with an appeal for help and a challenge to the system.
Tuku claimed to be apolitical but his songs were brave. Wasakara (You Are Old) was seen by many as the anti-Robert Mugabe song of 2000, and with good reason. It begs an old man to accept that age has caught up with him, as it had caught up with a president who seemed deaf to criticism and cries of his people.
From Harare to Nando’s in London, where his songs could often be heard, Tuku’s music made its way around the globe, a gift to – and from – Zimbabwe; an affirmation that decades of political oppression can’t stamp out joy.
He leaves us with his latest album, Hanya’Ga (Concern) which came out last February, three months after Mugabe finally stepped down. In it he talks about child marriage, Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown and his concern for human life. Thanks, Tuku. We’ll keep listening, and dancing.