Oliver ”Tutu” Mtukudzi’s death shakes Zimbabwe to its roots

The self-taught guitarist passed away at a hospital in Harare on January 23rd.
LOS ANGELES, CA – OCTOBER 21: Musician Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi performs onstage during the launch celebration of Geoffrey Kent’s new book, ‘Safari: A Memoir Of A Worldwide Travel Pioneer’ at Baltaire on October 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images for Geoffrey Kent/AFP

Afro-Jazz legend Oliver Tuku Mtukudzi passed away on Wednesday, January 23rd in a Harare hospital at the age of 66, after succumbing to complications relating to diabetes.

Self-taught with a total of 66 albums over a 45 year-long career, the Zimbabwean talent was a mover and shaker in his genre. 

“Today we said goodbye to a true patriot. Oliver Mtukudzi, your voice has given us comfort during difficult times, and will remain with us for posterity,” said President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Twitter. 

“We’ve lost an icon,” Zimbabwean lawmaker Temba Mliswa added, also on Twitter, leading the call for him to be declared “a national hero for his national contribution to the music, arts and culture industry”. 

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“Tuku music” as his work was dubbed, was a vibrant combination of multiple genres and ethnic styles, including the Zulu-rooted mbaqanga from South Africa, and drew on diverse instruments, including Zimbabwe’s mbira, a hand-held instrument consisting of a wooden board with attached staggered metal tines.

His lyrics, delivered through rasping vocals, often carried social messages about HIV/AIDS and alcohol abuse and encouraging self-respect, sometimes invoking proverbs and wisdom from his mother tongue, Shona.

His songs, sometimes invoking proverbs and wisdom from his native language Shona, addressed social issues relating to HIV/AIDS, alcohol abuse and the importance of self-respect. 

The self-taught guitarist passed away at a hospital in Harare on January 23rd
A handmade musical instrument with music icon Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi’s early album at his Pakare Paye Arts and Music Centre. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)

In 2017 he was ranked by Forbes magazine as one of Africa’s 10 most bankable artists, alongside David of Nigeria and Hugh Masekela of South Africa. 

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His philanthropic endeavours and his devotion to social justice and welfare were renowned particularly during his time as a Unicef goodwill ambassador.

In an interview in March 2018, Mtukudzi responded modestly to his critical acclaim, saying “I don’t even understand the word celebrity”.

He instead took the opportunity to set great store by the words of his mother, who declared he would never sing a note better than his first scream after his birth.

“It means when I was born I had already started singing. This is who I am.”

Opposition Movement for Democratic Change lawmaker and former education minister David Coltart also paid his respect.

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“If anyone ever made me proud to be #Zimbabwean, it was you. Thank you for making us happy for so long, especially during the darkest days,” he tweeted.

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