When he first began recording songs as a young man in the ‘70s, Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi still lived in what was then known as Rhodesia. But shortly after the nation of Zimbabwe emerged as a presence on the international scene, Mtukudzi established himself as one of the country’s most distinctive and prolific musical voices. Along with his deep, soulful vocals, talent for songwriting and acoustic guitar skills, Mtukudzi demonstrated a keen aptitude for collaborating with musicians across Zimbabwe to smoothly blend the traditional with the modern.
Now at 60, with dozens of studio albums and awards won—plus a handful of Zimbabwean movie soundtracks under his belt— Mtukudzi and his band, the Black Spirits, bring their unique sound to the Painted Bride Center this Saturday. There, they will perform their Afropop hits in Shona, Ndebele and English for a whole new generation of Tuku fans.
Over the years, your style has been affectionately termed “Tuku music,” by your fans, in honor of your last name. Describe Tuku music.
For me, it is simply African music born out of Zimbabwe. What makes it distinctive is the different sounds of Zimbabwe—the mbira, mbaqanga, jit and the drumming style traditional to our people.
You’ve released albums every year since 1975. How do you keep your music fresh?
I keep my music original by coming up with new messages that one can use in one’s life. For a song to be a song, it needs to have a message—my songs offer advice to my fans. Instrumentation is just the flavor of the music. The message is what’s most important.
Tell us about your 57th album, Sarawoga, which means “left alone” in English and was released this past fall.
This is my first offering after the passing of my son, Sam, in March 2010. Some of the songs on Sarawoga were meant to be collaborations with him—he was also a musician. He played the acoustic guitar and saxophone. But after his passing, I was left to record on my own. Hence the name Sarawoga. It wasn’t originally the title, but it just didn’t feel like the full CD without the presence of Sam.
If you had to pick one of your songs to play to someone who had never heard your music, which would it be, and why?
Any song would qualify for anyone to sample because it is all Tuku music. If a song is my favorite, then I find a reason to record it. So if it doesn’t convince me, the musician, how can I record it? Thus all of the songs I record are my favorites, and I’m glad to share them with the world.
You were one of the first musicians to publicly speak about the HIV/AIDS epidemics in Zimbabwe, and you continue to do so today. Who or what moved you to take on this issue?
The WHO [World Health Organization] approached me in 1987 to come up with an awareness song about HIV/AIDS. So I went out and got a lot of literature about HIV/AIDS and wrote a song called “Stay With One Woman,” which took me to Switzerland. It was there that I first saw people infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS. It was then that I started speaking publicly about it. I was also affected personally after I lost four members of my own band to AIDS, including my younger brother, Robert.
When you first started singing, your songs were clearly sympathetic to the revolutionary movement that founded Zimbabwe. Now, you say you “stand for all Zimbabweans” and will not get involved in partisan politics through your music. Elaborate.
It’s not a decision; it’s the purpose of all art. Artists are here to give life hope and heal broken hearts. An artist is way above politics. Politics is when a handful of people stand for everyone. But artists represent everyone, including politicians. So an artist is always above politics.
Have you ever felt pressure to perform certain types of music specifically for Western audiences?
Well, I can’t call it pressure. But I do sometimes choose different types of my music that I believe Western audiences will enjoy—sometimes I choose more ballads and other times more dance music. Zimbabwe had our revolution in the late ‘60s. All we listened to before the revolution was American music and so I’m very familiar with earlier American musicians. But either way, I always play our music—Tuku music.
Was there anything I missed?
[Laughs.] Tell everyone it’s going to be a dance party Saturday night. If people come for this show, they should be prepared to bring their dance shoes. Don’t come prepared to sit down. Come prepared to dance.
Sat., Jan. 12, 8pm. $20-$30. With DJs Lil’ Dave, Junior + and Brotha Onaci. The Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St. 215.925.9914. paintedbride.org
The Pack A.D. are built for the road
PW's Music Issue 2014