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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.