Born on September 22, 1952, in Zimbabwe. Addresses: Record company--Heads Up, 23309 Commerce Park Rd., Cleveland, OH 44122, website: http://www.headsup.com, phone: (216) 765-7381. Publicist--Mike Wilpizeski, phone: (718) 459-2117, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zimbabwe artist Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi infuses his very danceable music with socially conscious lyrics that promote individual responsibility, humility and sensitivity to the environment, in addition to documenting his personal experiences with the African AIDS epidemic. Musically, Mtukudzi blends such African musical forms as chimurenga, jit, and mbira styles. The resulting mélange has been dubbed Tuku music, which Mtukudzi performs with a deep, guttural vocal style.
Mtukudzi grew up the eldest of seven children in a musical family. His parents met at a choir competition, and, according to a Contemporary Musician interview with Mtukudzi, "never stopped competing. They used to perform and make us kids decide who was the winner." Although there was no radio in their home, he claims an early familiarity with the music of such acts as Otis Redding (with whom he is frequently compared), Wilson Pickett, the Who, and Deep Purple. His father's friends stopped by frequently, increasing the impressionable Mtukudzi's exposure to mbira and jit music. When his father died, Mtukudzi took over the role of family provider.
Mtukudzi has been a mainstay on his native country's pop scene since the mid-1970s. After releasing his first single, "Stop before Go" (also translated as "Stop after Orange"), in 1975, he joined the Wagon Wheels, a group that also featured Zimbabwe superstar Thomas Mapfumo. From Mapfumo, he borrowed chimurenga, which translates roughly as "liberation struggle," a term that describes the music's subject matter rather than a musical style. Chimurenga was played by musicians during all-night meetings of Zimbabwe's liberation fighters, in the Shona and Ndeble languages that were rarely understood by white listeners. Both Tuku and Mapfumo build their music around the complex rhythmic sound patterns named after the mbira, a native Zimbabwe instrument that is played with the thumbs. Tuku's music also incorporates elements of Zimbabwe jit, a rhythmic, guitar-driven pop sound. Two electric guitars blend sinewy leads around the acoustic guitar and vocals of Tuku, and the crystalline female vocals of Black Spirits female singers Mary Bell and Namatayi Mubariki.
After leaving the Wagon Wheels, Mtukudzi formed the Black Spirits and began writing songs. Many of these compositions expressed the "problems we faced as youngsters like not getting jobs because of our color," he said in an interview with Contemporary Musicians. The Black Spirits' first single, 1979's "Dzandimomotera," went gold. The following year, Zimbabwe declared its independence, and Mtukudzi commemorated the event with the solo album Africa, which contained the hit singles "Zimbabwe" and "Mazongonyedze." He went on to release two albums a year for the next 17 years.
Mtukudzi has written socially relevant songs, because he believes "songs must talk about something. You have to have an expression of a feeling." Blending traditional and modern musical styles with meaningful lyrics, Mtukudzi became the highest-selling act in Zimbabwe, and a musical force to be reckoned with throughout the African continent, Europe and now the United States.
Increasing Western interest in World Music led Mtukudzi to tour extensively outside of Zimbabwe during the late 1990s and early part of the 2000s. One such tour teamed him with African-American musicologist Taj Mahal, along with Baaba Maal and Toumani Diabate. The tour introduced a whole new audience of U.S. and Canadian listeners to Tuku music. In 1998 he released the album Tuku Music, which included liner notes written by Bonnie Raitt. "Nhava," his debut recording on the American label Heads Up, was released in 2005. The album title roughly translates as "carrying bag." While the music on Nhava remains upbeat and danceable, it also documents the strife wrought by the AIDS epidemic on the African continent. The epidemic had a profound effect on Mtukudzi's songwriting, as he personally witnessed three members of the Black Spirits succumb to the disease, including his younger brother. "Every song on this album has something to teach about life, something to remind you and encourage you about what is important in life," Mtukudzi said in a Heads Up press release. "All of these ideas are universal. They are the same for every human being, regardless of their culture or their environment." The album's opening song, "Ninipa," is a plea for humility; "Pindirai" is a call for the older generation to instruct younger people on the importance of environmental preservation; "Hope" conveys the dangers of the self-destructive and counter-productive lifestyles of laziness and procrastination; and "Dzidziso" closes the album as a prayer of thanksgiving. The death of his keyboard player in 2004 inspired the ballad "Tiri Mubindu." The title is Shona for "flowers in a garden," a metaphor for lives cut down in full bloom.
Mtukudzi also has been able to translate his musical success into a film career, co-starring in such Zimbabwe film productions as Jit. The romantic comedy is renowned as the first commercial film produced entirely with a Zimbabwean cast. The film also featured a soundtrack by Mtukudzi that included the song "What's Going On?." The song's infectious groove caught the ear of Bonnie Raitt, who used the composition as the basis for her 1998 collaboration with Mtukudzi, "One Belief Away." "We'd already written the verse and lyrics, but somehow the chorus wasn't working," Raitt wrote in the liner notes for Tuku Music. "I tried weaving some elements of the bass and keyboard line from 'What's Going On?' into the chorus and the song just slipped into place. We sent the tape to Oliver, who was enthusiastic about the long-distance 'co-write' and our newfound collaboration was born." He followed his role in Jit by composing and arranging the music for Neria, a film that examines women's rights in Zimbabwe. In the mid-1990s he wrote and directed the musical Was My Child (Plight of the Street Children). In addition to his work as an actor, Mtukudzi has appeared in several music documentaries, including the BBC films Under African Skies and The Soul of Mbira. He has also contributed music to more than 20 AIDS documentaries.
Western audiences attending a Mtukudzi and Black Spirits concert should anticipate immersion in Zimbabwean music. "If you've never been in Zimbabwe, here's a chance to visit my country," he told Contemporary Musicians. "People should come to listen, but they should also bring their dancing shoes."
by Bruce Walker
Oliver Mtukudzi's Career
Released first single, "Stop before Go" (also translated as "Stop after Orange"), 1975; joined Zimbabwe group the Wagon Wheels, 1977; formed the Black Spirits, 1979; toured with Baaba Maal, Taj Mahal, and Toumani Diabate in United States and Canada, 1998; released Paipevo, 1999; released Nhava, 2005.
- Selected discography
- Africa 1980.
- Shoko Piranha, 1994.
- Ziwere Mukobenhavn Shava, 1995.
- Tuku Music Putumayo, 1999.
- Paivepo Putumayo, 2000.
- Neria Sheer Sound, 2001.
- Vhunze Moto Putumayo, 2002.
- Shanda Sheer Sound, 2002.
- The Oliver Mtukudzi Collection Putumayo, 2003.
- Tsivo Sheer Sound, 2004.
- Other Side Shava Musik, 2004.
- Nhava Heads Up, 2005.
- World Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
- "Oliver Mtukudzi," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 21, 2005).
- Additional information was obtained from an interview with Oliver Mtukudzi, a Heads Up press release, and the liner notes for Tuku Music, from which quotations in this entry were drawn.