Dubbed Zimbabwe’s superstar with 63 albums under his belt, Oliver Mtukudzi’s career, spanning over four decades, has been eventful with his music taking precedence over the occasional drama in his personal life. Products range from protest songs during the colonial era to social commentaries in the post-Independence period and include a specific foray into the gospel industry.
It is unfortunate that as a country our statistics are sketchy at best and it is almost impossible to find empirical evidence to accurately track the music scene over the past 50 years.
Therefore some would question Tuku’s talent supremacy over other local contenders, but there is general consensus that he is truly a living legend.
He has won many awards including recognition from world bodies, collaborated with musicians within and outside Zimbabwe and made a mark on the movie industry. He has also established a centre that caters for artists across genres.
The sheer volume of work released puts him in a class of his own. A snap glance at the careers of other prolific Zimbabwean musicians and the number of albums illustrates this.
The closest competitor is “rival” Thomas Mapfumo who also started his career pre-Independence years back and has 52 albums.
The Chimurenga king has his own dedicated army of followers who declare that he is the best that the country has produced.
Another veteran Nicholas Zakaria who is regarded as the sungura professor has 27 albums.
Mutare-based Hosiah Chipanga to date has 25 albums while Somandla Ndebele and the late Simon Chimbetu both have 22 albums to their names.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learnt from Tuku’s journey to the stars is that to be the best does not come easily but through perseverance and the refusal to give up.
His walk into the hall of fame has not been a smooth one as he forged a path across impediments that may have deterred a less determined soul.
Mtukudzi’s music journey can be best described by assessing the reception of his albums by the ultimate jury; the fans who put their hands in their pockets and purchase music, be it in the form of packaged content or by attending live shows.
Tuku’s very first single “Stop After Orange” failed to make an impact and very few people even recognise the name today. But some may remember later renditions like “Rova Ngoma Mutavara” which is a love song with oblique references to the liberation war.
The singer asks Mutavara to beat the drum implying that this is his final dance as he bids farewell to (lover?) Marunjeya before he departs for the wilderness where he expects to die.
The Rhodesian government strictly censored black musicians and writers to stop them from spreading ideas of liberation and the armed struggle among the masses thus necessitating allegorical protest literature.
Tuku would later come out more in the open with the song “Pindirayi Mambo” in which he openly referred to the inequality prevailing as he sang of how some were sated while others went hungry.
According to his former publicist Shepard Mutamba in his unauthorised biography “Tuku Backstage” Tuku’s first hit was “Dzandimomotera”.
In 1992, the musician after seemingly hitting a dry patch, released a gospel album “Rumbidza Jehova” mainly made up of hymns like “Muzunde Renyu Baba”, “Munozovepiko”, “Ndiani Pane Zamba”, “Nhai Baba Muripi”, “Hakuna Zita”, “Ndiri Mwana Wenyu” and “Ishe Taungana” which got a lukewarm reception from the market.
The next few years did not yield much excitement until the album “Tuku Music” released 1999 which arguably marked the turning point of the musician’s career.
With songs “Dzoka Uyamwe”, “Tsika Dzedu”, “Mai Varamba”, “Ndima Ndapedza”, “Tapindwa Neyi”, “Todii” “Mabasa” “Riongere” and “Wake Up” the album sent Tuku’s name beyond Zimbabwe.
Following in the steps of Leonard Dembo’s “Chitekete”, which had arguably been one of Zimbabwe’s key artistic exports in its day, Tuku finally penetrated the lucrative market of Zimbabweans living abroad who could not get enough of the album. It was also reportedly pirated in countries in the region like Malawi.
Mutamba who worked with the musician for years in his book asserts that it was “Bvuma-Tolerance” which recorded the highest sales in Zimbabwe.
“. . . Bvuma-Tolerance was a commercial success, selling over 100 000 copies in Zimbabwe alone,” reads the book.
Oliver Mtukudzi’s manager Sam Mataure however, dismisses the figure as a figment of Mutamba’s imagination.
“By now Tuku would be a millionaire if the album pushed such volumes. That is not real, figures are exaggerated,” said Mataure. But he in turn could not give any other figure.
The song “Wasakara” became very popular with many people believing that it had political connotations a charge that Tuku has always denied.
According to Mataure about four albums released from “Tuku Music” did well on the local market in terms of sales as well as giving music lovers a taste of good music.
“I would say albums from ‘Tuku Music’ did well and judging from the response of the people they were having a good recipe of good music,” he said.
The four albums from Tuku music are “Paivepo”, “Bvuma-Tolerance”,”Vhunzemoto” and “Shanda” that were released from 2000 to 2002.
Mataure however, failed to produce statistics on sales figures but admitted that they did well on both the international and local market.
Music critic Professor Fred Zindi concurs with the assertion that “Tuku Music” was outstanding.
“Tuku Music to me was a good album that was favoured by many people and with so many albums as Tuku has you will see some average and some good,” he said.
Stories of Hollywood stars and supermodels being “discovered” make modern fairy tales. In a way Tuku’s career also had a boost from a fairy godmother in the form of Debbie Metcalf. She was his manager during the “Tuku Music” era and helped him break onto the international market in a big way.
Prof Zindi who is one of the respected music critics in the country said the superstar’s solo project “Sugar Pie” was one the musician’s biggest flops.
“I think that is one of his albums that failed to make an impact on the music scene,” he said.
The musician’s daughter and former backing vocalist Selmor said she would pick “Paivepo” as her best album.
“The album has a song ‘Mutserendende’ that is good and to me that is my favourite although it is difficult to choose because of the sheer number of albums he has,” she said.
“I have worked with him but on the most successful album I think that you would need to get that information from him,” she gracefully fended off the question.
Tuku’s greatest strength seems to come from his ability to empathise with different people. He sings about almost everything from the deep cuts made by prodigal children to the dysfunctional families where gender-based violence is the norm.
But it is not all gloom as he can also produce some uplifting music like “Wazvinzvaka” in which proud relatives call on the community to help them celebrate one of their own.
Tuku’s name and music have become known across Africa with his songs being enjoyed across language barriers. “Todini” which talks about the helplessness of women faced with HIV infection in the marital set up is still played as far afield as Nigeria, Mozambique and the Gambia.
This is not surprising as even in Zimbabwe, Tuku has to a certain extent also overcome language barriers as his Korekore dialect is not easily understood by many, yet his music is loved by most.
Born in Highfield, the super star stays in Norton and has Pakare Paye Arts Centre in the same town.
Part of Tuku’s discography
1978 Ndipeiwo Zano (re-released 2000),
1979 Chokwadi Chichabuda,
1979 Muroi Ndiani?’
1980 Africa (re-released 2000)
1981 Shanje, 1981 Pfambi
1982 Please Ndapota
1983 Oliver’s Greatest Hits
1984 Hwema Handirase
1986 Zvauya Sei?
1988 Strange, Isn’t It?’
1988 Sugar Pie
1989 Grandpa Story.
1990 Pss Pss Hallo!
1992 Rumbidzai Jehova
1992 Neria Soundtrack’
1993 Son of Africa
1995 Was My Child
1996 Svovi yangu
1995 The Other Side: Live in Switzerland
1995 Ivai Navo
1997 Ndega Zvangu (re-released 2001)
1998 Dzangu Dziye
1999 Tuku Music
2001 Bvuma (Tolerance)
2002 Shanda soundtrack
2002 Vhunze Moto
2003 Tsivo (Revenge)
2004 Greatest Hits Tuku Years
2004 Mtukudzi Collection 1991–1997
2004 Mtukudzi Collection 1984–1991
2007 Tsimba Itsoka
2008 Dairai (Believe)
2010 Kutsi Kwemoyo (compilation)
2011 “Abi’angu” (Duets of my time)
2014 “ Mukombe Wemvura “.