A strong driving rhythm, big vocals, conscious lyrics and a delicate rhythm – Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi is one of Southern Africa’s greatest stars.
Oliver Mtukudzi’s career has spanned twenty years and 38 original albums (nearly all of them best-sellers), but it is his dedication to the live music scene in Zimbabwe – playing to enthusiastic audiences in even the remotest parts of the country – that has earned him the place in people’s hearts that he holds today.
Mtukudzi was initiated into the world of professional music in 1977 when he joined the legendary Wagon Wheels which also featured Thomas Mapfumo. Quite a leap from performing in the churches in Highfield. Success came early to them – the first single they recorded, Dzandimomotera, rapidly went gold, and this was followed by Mtukudzi’s first album on four track which was also a smash hit. It was with a number of the musicians in the Wagon Wheels line-up that Mtukudzi formed Black Spirits, the band who have backed him throughout his career.
With Zimbabwean independence in 1980, Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits produced Africa, one of the most important albums of its time, and with the two hits it spawned (Zimbabwe & Mazongonyedze) the fledgling country found one of its first great voices. Since independence, Oliver has released two albums every year, establishing himself as a producer, an arranger, a prolific song-writer and, with his famous big voice, a formidable lead singer. He speaks both Shona and Ndebele, and often writes songs in English and would play ‘a reasonable number’ of them to an English speaking audience because ‘the issues are not only happening in Zimbabwe’.
That strong driving rhythm, big deep vocals and conscious lyrics in a foreign language (Shona) is what makes Oliver Mtukudzi a fine African musician. But what makes him a great African musician is that he has assembled these attributes into a style that is wholly unique and what has been called ‘Tuku’ music. The repetitive cyclical advances of the mbira rhythms combine clinically with the strong South African mbaqanga style whilst dipping occasionally into soulful traditional Shona trance rhythms.
Yet apart from the individuality of his music Mtukudzi’s enduring popularity has largely resulted from his powers as a lyricist. Most of his songs focus on the social and economic issues that govern people’s lives and, with an infectious sense of humour and optimism that prevails through all his music, his appeal extends to young and old alike.
As the oldest of six children, Oliver developed a sense of social and economic responsibility early in life due to the premature death of his father. It was thanks to this, and to a desire to bring his message to a large audience, that Mtukudzi ventured into the world of film and Drama. Although he participated in several documentaries on Zimbabwean music in the 80’s, it was not until 1990 that he found film success playing the lead role in the Zimbabwean film JIT, which was also released in Denmark, France, and the UK.
Mtukudzi followed the success of JIT with the role of Neria’s brother in Zimbabwe’s second feature film, Neria, for which he also wrote and arranged the soundtrack. This project addressed the issue of women’s rights in a chauvinist world. From film, Mtukudzi turned his attention to drama, writing and directing the live musical production ‘Was my Child’. A project highlighting the plight of Zimbabwe’s street children. For this he was honoured by the Zimbabwe writers union.
Oliver has continued to perform regularly in Zimbabwe, but has, however, never confined himself to his home country and has performed at various international events. Appearing, in October 1993, at the Natal Performing Arts Festival ; in February 1994 on a six week tour of Austria and Switzerland ; and in December 1994. In October 1995, Mtukudzi was selected to represent Zimbabwe at the SADC Music Festival staged in Harare. MASA Festival in Abidjan, a performance for the World Health Organisation as a result of his AIDS awareness song ‘Stay with one Woman’ , Berlin, Holland, all over the UK, the Images of Africa’ festival in Denmark and the Out of Afrika Festival in Munich in November 1997 with a collaboration of Southern African Musicians called MAHUBE. One of the classic South African albums. He is also the only local Zimbabwean musician to have recorded a live album.
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