It’s Living Legend Day at Sheer Sound. Zimbabwean chimurenga master Thomas Mapfumo arrives in a funky pinstriped business suit to discuss his deal, while his countryman and fellow national treasure Oliver Mtukudzi holds a series of media interviews.
There’s a bizarre moment in the corridors of the record company as a label staffer asks Oliver, “Would you like to say hi to Thomas?” and Tuku is ushered towards a back office where the Lion Of Zimbabwe is no doubt cloistered with his accountants haggling over royalties.
So do the paths of Zim’s musical superstars cross sometimes these strange days, at a converted home-office in suburban Randburg.
Their first musical meeting came in 1977, when the 25-year-old Mtukudzi joined Mapfumo, seven years his senior, in the Wagon Wheels band, which released the gold-selling Dzandimomotera single. Their paths soon diverged, and what was in retrospect a Zimbabwean supergroup broke up, with Mapfumo going on to form Blacks Unlimited, and Tuku launching The Black Spirits.
Today’s encounter is like Lennon and McCartney bumping into each other in the Apple Records corridors, or Marley and Tosh giving each other a low five by the Island Records water cooler.
Despite their achievements, though, Zimbabwe’s greatest living musicians each cut a slightly weary figure. Mapfumo, in his incongruous grey zoot suit, here to make sure he gets what he is due after near forty years as a prolific recording artist, and Tuku enduring the merry-go-round of press interviews to promote his latest album, Sarawoga.
It’s a merry-go-round Mtukudzi has ridden before. At least 60 times, if his catalogue of album releases is anything to go by. That’s 61 albums in a 35-year recording career, plus several theatrical movies and music DVDs.
Does it ever become a bit of a chore, this marketing aspect of his career, with the schmoozing, the meeting with execs, the interviewers asking the same questions, the posing for photographs? Surely Mtukudzi would rather be writing songs, recording or even better, performing on stage, where the energy of this whole industry really resides?
“It’s all part of what we need to do as musicians,” he considers, engaging despite his obvious fatigue. “Our job is to touch people’s hearts with our music, and all of this,” he gestures around the record-company boardroom, “All of this helps us to do that.”
How does he feel about the business side of music?
“As musicians we are already business people. And the key to having a good business is to have a good product – something that touches people. But despite that, I don’t believe that musicians are about getting paid. We get appreciated.”
And he smiles that broad, infectious, Tuku smile.
He is tall, his whip-thin body toned by swimming lengths in his guitar-shaped swimming pool back home. Even at ease, Tuku is a powerful, intense presence. He wears a miniature homburg hat, and a powder-blue T-shirt advertising Rume Rimwe, an album by his late son, Sam Mtukudzi, killed in a road accident two years ago, aged just 21.
Sam was already an established musician at the time of his death. He began accompanying his father on world tours as a teenager. At a show in Birmingham, where Sam’s ability, stage presence and youthful good looks had the crowd in raptures, Oliver introduced him as “the future”.
Now that future is lost, replaced by a gaping void in his father’s life. But – and this is the measure of the man – Oliver Mtukudzi has returned to his calling as musician, and channeled his grief into another magnificent album.
The title, Sarawoga, means “left alone” and it opens with a haunting lament, Tuku’s agonised voice conveying every grain of his heartbreak.
“These were songs we played when we were touring before he died,” says Tuku. “This is the first recording after the loss,” he says in the liner notes. “God made it possible for me to have the time, talent and chance to offer you Sarawoga.”
It is music of sorrow, and of gratitude, from a man whose relationship with music runs so deep and long that it became his shoulder to cry on during these two years of grief.
It’s hard to reconcile the humility of the man with his status as one of Africa’s musical greats, but you soon get the picture when Tuku begins sharing his personal philosophy.
This isn’t a man with a complex series of insights on each of life’s mysteries. He has boiled his learnings on his role in society down to a handful of aphorisms, all eloquent in their all-encompassing simplicity.
Ask questions as deep and circuitous as you like, the elegant explanations remain the same. Like an African Zen master, Oliver Mtukudzi has meditated on the nature of music, but at the same time he refuses to do so. He knows music. He is music. The roles of music and the musician are what they are, and it’s pointless probing any deeper than their essential nature.
“Music is a feeling. Our purpose as musicians is to give life and help people heal. To touch their hearts. That is why we were given talent.”
How does he approach his compositions? Does a song like Todii start with the words or the music?
“Always the words first. That is the most important. Then we find a tune for the song so people can hear we mean what we are saying. That way we can touch their hearts.”
This “touching of hearts” is intrinsic to Tuku music, that genre of African music that he has created basically single-handedly. It’s as powerful, but subtler than the music of Thomas Mapfumo, with whom he is often compared.
Where the outspoken Mapfumo has had to go into exile in the USA for spelling out too clearly his concerns about his country and its government, Tuku still lives in the small town of Norton 40km west of Harare that he moved to 1996.
Indeed, Tuku has committed his personal fortune to developing the Pakare Paye Arts Centre in the town. The centre boasts music, dance, drama, poetry and martial arts facilities, shops, editing suites, stages, a restaurant and the Sam Mtukudzi conference centre.
But does Oliver ever feel he should have been more militant? Doesn’t he see a responsibility to call out the Zimbabwean government on their shortcomings?
“No. As artists, we are above the politicians. When you make political statements, you become a politician. And whenever you say something political, you alienate people who disagree with you. A political message will divide people. We speak to every person. We try to heal their hearts.”
Of those healing songs, which does he feel was his best? What is his favourite song of all his 61 albums?
“Well, that would be for the people to say. We make music for the people. I believe it is a mistake to write a song in order to create a good composition. If a song is a good composition, but it fails to give life, that is not a good song.”
It’s all about touching their hearts, right?
“Exactly! It’s for the people to judge. And they always surprise you. Neria, for instance,” he says of the 1991 film he acted in and composed for. “It took a year before they came to like those songs.”
Mtukudzi agrees that the true essence, the spirit of song lives in sharing them, live, with an audience. The songs on Sarawoga, for instance, had been played live for years already before being committed to record.
Not for Tuku the western pop model of an artist unveiling their latest album of fresh material and then embarking on a tour to familiarise audiences with the new songs. “These songs have been road tested,” he says, tapping the CD on the boardroom table, “and only the songs that the people enjoy go on the album.”
But what about when the shoe’s on the other foot? When he is listening to music, who does Oliver Mtukudzi listen to, for inspiration and for pleasure?
“There is no competition in art,” he says, and you can almost sense the conversation returning to the same set of Zen principles that have served him so well. “If a song touches my heart, I enjoy it. It need not be a song by a famous artist. In fact, sometimes a well-known musician will produce a good composition, but the simple song by an amateur musician will touch me more.”
Was he always destined to be a musician? Can he remember a time before music?
“Well, my mother would tell me that me first cry as a newborn was very melodic, so perhaps it was meant. I am self-taught. As a youngster I bought myself a ‘teach-yourself-guitar’ book for 90c. It showed you how to tune a guitar, and how to play three chords. That book has served me very well.”
And his influences?
“Well, I grew up in the city, but my family is from the rural areas, so I came to know both styles, both cultures. Some say that I play the guitar in the mbira style.”
So Tuku music is a kind of fusion of the contemporary and the traditional? Modern and ancient?
“You could say it’s a kind of fusion. We just try to write songs that touch people’s universal humanness.”
And with that, Oliver Mtukudzi politely takes his leave. After a quick cellphone photo or two, with the receptionist playing photographer. We couldn’t resist. The man touches people’s hearts.
It’s living legend day at the record company.
This piece first appeared in Afropolitan magazine.