The enigma of Oliver Mtukudzi, mere entertainer or conscientious activist?

29 Jan 2019

Before Oliver Mtukudzi  assumed household  status in this country  there was   music from  Zimbabwe. Lots of it  for that matter.  Radio Botswana  always  has a star  deejay  who   achieves  fame  locally   and  in the  areas  bordering  the two countries  for churning out  scorching   hits  from  the archives of   Zim music.  Nowadays    holding the   mantle is one Goitseone  Moathodi who   clearly has been immersed in  the  sounds from  an early age.  Preceding  her  by many  years  was the  legendary Philip Moshotle,  remembered by common   folk as Mokgankgara.    Before  his Gumba Fire show was  abruptly  shut down  recently, the  urbane  commercial station  Gabz FM gave  Big Fish  a slot    on which he  primarily  played  the same  genre of music  to  much acclaim  and  sizeable  audience  figures. Folks who had  never before  listened  to Gabz Fm  before got to enjoy  a treat  of  old school  Zim  music  for three  hours  every Friday night.   They have  now voted with their ears and returned   to RB 1  where the  hits keep on coming.  Many  are those who retain memories  from that   golden era of  music and it keeps humming  in our  heads.  In  my   collection I  still have   bands   like The Green Arrows,  Devera Ngwena, The Four Brothers, John  Chibadura and  a   host  of  one hit  wonders like Khiama Bots, most  of  whom fell   victim to the  grim reaper   bearing an  illness  that cut a swathe  through  the ranks  during those  worst  of times.  For those of us  tracing our  origins  to   the north eastern  part of the  country,   back  in the day  the  music  was   simply  known  as  mezambique. 

In  our  child  hood  years  it  came as a  new sound to  the  ear different from the   Gallo/Mavuthela Studios mosakaso sounds from down south  to which we were accustomed.  My recollection   of the  Zim  45 rpm  vinyl records with an underside, rotating on the gramophone player is that next  to  the  name  of the  song  and the artist  the credits would  inform  us  the  music  came courtesy of  either Shed Studios or Gramma Records.  This was  communal  happiness  music and locals  took   to it like  the proverbial  fish to water. At  its peak  the  new  music  from  Zimbabwe  took on  and defeated  established  sounds. As  my world  opened  up  and I started reading more,  I was able to make a   connection  between  the  music  and the  liberation war for the  territory  formerly  known as Rhodesia. Raised in Selibe Phikwe we were  familiar  with  the   war  next door pitting  black nationalists  against  the minority  white settler regime of Ian Smith, who to  many  of us  kids was  the bogeyman of our  nightmares.  Never having  seen  pictures  of him, we could  only draw him in our minds  from  stories  told   by adults. 

He was  a bad piece of  news  this Ian Smith, or Iyene  Simiti as  his  name   was vernacularized.  Said to be one eyed and very cruel  he was responsible  for  the  refugees  from  that  country  who if not in  camps   worked  at  the cattle posts,  having fled  the war  back  home. In our  tales of  childhood  we were told   the only  person  who could stand up to Iyene Simiti was another Ian,  but  this one  carrying the   surname Khama, then serving in the Botswana Defencce Force. On many an occasion,  a rumour would sweep through Phikwe  that  Rhodesian forces  had planted a bomb   in town, and   the  townsfolk  would scatter into  the  surrounding  bushes.  Every rumour  turned out to be a hoax  because  not  a single  bomb ever went  off   in town  and we were told that,  in fact,  those white Rhodesian soldiers  were   suffering  battle field defeat  after   another at the   hands of  our gallant forces. That was the time every  boy  dreamt  of  joining  the army   to protect  the  country  and  I even enlisted in   our local chapter of the  boy scouts  in preparation. It was  said if one went through the  boy scouts,  then  they were   soldiers in the  making. The folk guitarist Dikgang Malete playing his  four string guitar on state radio  was also  on a recruitment campaign with  his patriotic song…a re yeng bosoleng, bosoleng ja Botswana.

Simiti o thasetse..mahatse a mangwe a jalasetsa Botswana ka gore re na le dipula le dithebe   One  morning in 1978,  in standard one   we were  turned back from school. The radio   announced that  soldiers belonging  to that  evil man Iyene Simiti had  killed fifteen  of  our troops  in a cowardly  ambush in Lesoma village around the Kasane area. For the first time, like a proper country we  also  had dead  war heroes mourned  by the entire nation  as the white man  with  one  eye  kept  us  awake in our  nightmares. It was a rough time in the neighbourhood with wars of liberation being fought in Rhodesia, South Africa and  South West Africa  with Botswana caught up in the vortex as both a sanctuary and launching pad  for  nationalists  seeking to free  their countries from white minority rule. Then one day  a  military  plane  flew low over Phikwe and  on cue  the citizens took off into the bush or hid  in their houses. It was  pandemonium all over and even prisoners from the local jail were let out to  return to their home villages.   

The Rhodesia airforce plane  scared the wits out of us but  it did not drop any  bombs, only  pamphlets inviting  refugees  to  return home  because  the  war was  over. I was with my granny at the ploughing lands  in the outskirts of town and we had a  refugee called Khumalo tending the cattle who picked up one of the pamphlets and  promptly  broke out in celebration. This I  was  later to learn  was the  Lancaster House  Agreement ceasefire   of 1979   to prepare   for the  first one man one   vote  election  that  would in 1980 replace  Rhodesia  with the new Republic of  Zimbabwe.  And it was  around this  time that  the  music  arrived  our parts.  Apparently  the  name mezambique derived  from the fact  that it was  music popularized  by  Robert Mugabe’s  ZANLA  guerillas  using  Mozambique   as  a  base  from which to  launch  attacks. In  north eastern villages on a second war front, guerillas of Joshua Nkomo’s  ZIPRA   were also  crossing   over from Zambia  via Botswana  as  the final onslaught  on Iyene Simiti gathered pace.  So   for some of us  who  first  heard  the  music against  the  backdrop  of   the  geopolitics of  the time,  we always associated it  with   war for the liberation of Zimbabwe. And  why not because  the  biggest  hit  of that period was   the  track Take Cover by Jairos Jiri Sunrise Kwela Band.

Those who claimed to  know the  sound  of guns  fired in  war told us  a gimmick   which  made the track popular  was   exactly  how an AK 47 assault rifle   sounded as it mowed down the notorious Selous Scouts brigade of that  one eyed bogey man. It was a heroic   song of  men  in battle  with  the  commander instructing  his   men to take cover  in  a fire fight with  Rhodesian  forces.  Zimbabwe  finally  gained liberation, and the  music  gradually faded out as the years went   by and  new styles made their  entry on  the  charts.  Only  Radio Botswana    kept  the music  alive  for its  aficionados.  It was years later, now a grown up when  I first  heard  the song Neria, and I thought this Oliver Mtukudzi, or Tuku to his followers,   sounded    much different  from the  mezambique sounds of   years gone  by. I still prefered my Devera Ngwena or the  mischievous Paul Matavire  for my fix of  Zim sounds. Singing  mostly  in vernacular but  also   some English  Tuku’s stuff  was more  sophisticated, well  produced  and light   years  ahead of  Take Cover or Makorokoto, another smash hit of the day. But it  took some time for  his music to    worm  its way into my  consciousness.  By then   he had  broken  out and was an international artist, staging  gigs locally, in England  and down south where  I  got the  opportunity  to  watch  him  on numerous occasions.  I took a liking  to the music  and  bought the  cds. 

I  kicked  my  foot   why I hadn’t   discovered him earlier  when   one afternoon  I  played  an  old  version  of Ziwere Mukobenhavn  on heavy  rotation  as I drove   to  see  Tuku live in Mafikeng. With his band The Black Spirits  they  were certainly  a  formidable outfit  and well  worth the ticket  price.  As  Tuku  fired up the charts in  Botswana,  trouble was brewing  in  Zimbabwe as  a native  called  Morgan Tsvangirai stirred  trouble  by  challenging   Uncle  Bob  for  power and things  careered  out of control. Farm invasions  came and  Uncle Bob, bombastic and  articulate  to  boot,  set the  country  on a  new trajectory  of ruin and  collapse.  During the war the only refugee I had known was Khumalo who tended the cattle  but now  after years of liberation they  flooded in   bigger numbers and this  was a new  breed fleeing  a humanitarian crises  induced by  bad politics. Once here  and  wherever  they could find sanctuary  they took  up all  manner  of  jobs. We found ourselves employing educated  people in menial work who  spoke  the queen’s  lingo  just  like   their  liberator  turned tormentor,  but minus his  dulcet  tones.  

A  question  that is as  old  as  the  craft  is  what is the role  of the artist  in society?  And particularly in  troubled  societies? Some say  the artist    chronicles  society’s  goings on  both good and bad. Others  see the artist  as an embodiment of  conscience  who   in troubled  times  must  act  as a lodestar  and  mobilize  the masses  to achieve  emancipation. A counter  view  suggests even in  societies  going through turmoil and upheaval   the masses need some respite from daily  ordeals so that they  too can let their hair down and  have some fun. When the struggle  in South Africa was  at its most  critical stage, Yvonne Chaka Chaka  pined  for her husky voiced  deejay  heart throb as  on the other  hand Stimela sang  truth to power in soaring  anthems  for  freedom.   This  brings to mind a certain anti apartheid  activist who  loudly complained  that some of them were in exile  to  conscientise  the rest  of the  world on conditions  in South Africa  whilst others were  simply overseas  to enjoy  life and play  meaningless  music. In  the wake of  his  passing,  a debate on  Tuku’s   artistic  legacy viewed against  the governance travails of  his motherland has  ensued, and rightly so.  For  those of us who  ascribe the problems of Zimbabwe to  mis-governance, we  wonder aloud  if  this singer  should have  adopted  a  more activist  posture by speaking out  against  the  ruling establishment which after all  is the  cause  of every  problem  in  that country. 

I am confronted  by  the sight  of   Zimbabwe’s  collapse  every day  in the form  of  the    gentleman and lady  who  help out  in my household    who  only get to go home  once a  year  to see their  children. They  agonize  everyday  about rising prices  and  shortages   of consumer goods  but they  have to  be here  to eke  out  living. Within my  circle of  associates  everyone employs someone  who given  their  levels of education  should not  be here  if  their  country  as not a failed state. I fret over  my seven year old  who barely speaks  vernacular because   most times at  school and at home he  is  in the care  of  admittedly   good people whose communication  with them   is in  Zimbo  English, which thus has become his  language as well. It cannot be proper that since my grandmother’s  generation my family has always employed refugees from Rhodesia, and now  Zimbabwe.  In the  week  of Tuku’s   death,  the rulers  next door  reverted to type  and launched a  brutal  onslaught   on their  own people following the  fuel protests and I wondered how Tuku would have  reacted. Some years  ago,  the equally  renowned  artist Thomas Mapfumo   who  decided to  help carry  the cross  of  liberating the  populace from their   original  liberators  accused Tuku  of  being  bribed and unwilling to stand up to  the government  of President Mugabe in preference for  a life of  comfort.

It was a withering indictment  which again begs the question;  must  all artists  prosecute  struggle  via their craft  or  others  should be allowed  to  remain mere entertainers without any pretensions to serious national issues. Is it an abdication of duty for  the artist to remain ambiguous in society’s  hour of need? Some fans  of Tuku in  the hour of  his death sought  to clothe  him  in the robes of an activist by  pointing out  to his song Bvuma  Wasakara  as  demonstration of the singer taking up the cudgels on  behalf of a people subjected to indignity  by  their erstwhile liberators. However closer scrutiny of the  song does  not bear out this viewpoint.  Released  in 2000  it was indeed a smash  but  Tuku  in his own words denied  the song  had anything  to  do with Uncle Bob  and his misrule. Rather  it was  an allusion to old  people including the singer  himself  who said he was getting on in age.  When  he should  have embraced his  long overdue enthronement  as  an activist on account of  the song,  Tuku  refused to  take up the mantle and in a  number of interviews  on record, disavowed  any   political  inclination.  In any case for  a  composer reputed to have produced upwards of  sixty  albums, a single song  even if  it  took  a subtle  dig at Uncle Bob does not  by any mile qualify  him as an activist of any note. 

Tuku  was  even feted by the regime  and  capped  twice  by  Robert Mugabe  for two  honorary degrees  after  the song was released. In  many  tributes since his death,  there is  almost a  painful  yearning from  some  activist quarters  to portray the man as  someone  other than  what  he  himself  said  he  was not. If anything he was a Zanu PF sympathizer  having performed  at the infamous one million men march a few years  ago  in support of Mugabe and the party that destroyed a country  of immense potential.  Tuku’s more progressive apologists  wish he could  have used his international recognition  to greater political  effect  for positive change  in Zimbabwe but  self evidently  during his  life and career he balked at this role being foisted on him. Some wise person once said…  the role an artist plays in society  is largely dependent on the personality of the artist and on that  artist’s chosen subject matter. An artist can lead, follow, uplift or provoke with their work... In the  immediate aftermath  of his passing, the jury is still out  on the legacy  of  Oliver Mtukudzi  and  the  purpose of his life’s work. Ironically  his death is uniting polarized Zimbabweans across  the divide and  he has been  awarded national  hero status which is the exclusive  preserve of Zanu PF  cadres.

A people  in conflict are united  in grief not because of any  spellbinding  message Tuku bequeathed  to them in his  body  of work.  They converge over him simply because  his folksy disposition and innocuous  lyrics set to fantastic music  caused neither offence nor constituted a call to arms for any of the belligerents in  the endless tragedies  now emblematic of Zimbabwe. All  said,  I guess we should concur that irrespective  of whether  he was a mere entertainer  or  conscientious  activist,    with his passing  the music and  the memories of Tuku  will  live on.