It is a windy day in Johannesburg, South Africa. Thick dark clouds assemble in the sky; the wind is as swift as rush hour. As we meet, Oliver Mtukudzi carries a brown bag, full of his life, on his shoulder. He carries the bag everywhere, just as he wears his trademark poor boy cap. Dressed in a black jacket and grey pants, he stands high up on the stairs to welcome us. He is in South Africa to promote his 65th album, Eheka! Nhai Yahwe, which features South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela. It’s a remarkable career stretching back some 41 years with songs that have enlivened parties all over the world with hits like Neria, Todii and Wasakara.
“I never decided to be in the music industry. It was in me. My mother said ‘you are a good singer but you will never surpass your birth cry. Your birth cry was so beautiful’. So I believe that’s when I started singing, from my first breath,” says Mtukudzi.
Born in 1952 in Highfield, a suburb in Harare, Zimbabwe, on September 22 at 3AM; music runs in his blood. Both his parents were musicians. They met at a choir competition and the competition never ended. They competed at home and the children were the judges.
“If we needed a favor from dad, then dad won and if we needed a favor from mum, mum won.”
It wasn’t long before he followed.
“I made a three-string guitar for myself from a tin around 1969 or early 1970s with the help of a [relative]. I was always playing it. My father didn’t like it and he broke the guitar,” he recalls.
It wasn’t going to stop him. He made up songs as a child and sang everywhere.
“One day, I decided to perform for my parents standing on the table and they enjoyed it so much I didn’t get smacked for standing on the table. I remember my mother noticed I had been standing on the table, two or three days later. That’s how good it was,” he chuckles.
Mtukudzi followed his passion. In the 1970s, he joined Wagon Wheels, a band which included yet another Zimbabwean star, Thomas Mapfumo, the man who wrote Nyoka Musango and is known as the king of Chimurenga music.
“I love what I do. If I was doing a career, I would be worried about how much money I can make. I am yet to decide on a career to take on. This is not a career for me. I am just doing me. This is about understanding the purpose of a song, to bring life and hope to the people and to heal broken hearts. If you do it right, there is more in appreciation than getting paid.”
His skill is appreciated from Angola to Zimbabwe. He has won many awards; among them, the National Arts Merit Awards, Zimbabwe Music Awards, KORA Awards and South African Music Awards.
“All my songs are my favorites. If it’s not one of my favorites, I will just throw it away. You won’t get to hear it. It won’t make it to my album. Awards are an appreciation. They shouldn’t put any pressure on me, otherwise I will lose the purpose of the song,” he says.
The deep voice of Mtukudzi has brought music to the next generation. Taught by their father, his children Selmor and Sam Mtukudzi became music stars in their own right.
“One day, in March 2010, I was in Johannesburg and my son, Sam, was supposed to pick me up in Harare at the airport.”
Mtukudzi sent Sam a message telling him he was no longer coming. Unfortunately, the text didn’t go through. Sam drove to the airport to pick him up. And tragedy struck.
“I got a call that evening and they said he had been in an accident on his way home from the airport. They were taking him to the hospital and I was to come as soon as possible. They wouldn’t give me the details,” says Mtukudzi.
When he arrived at the airport all his close friends and family were there.
“I realized something was really wrong. They were all crying and I knew my son had passed on. I couldn’t believe it. My last words with him, we joked and now he was gone. I am still learning to live with it.”
This is a big loss for Mtukudzi. Sam performed and toured with his father.
“He was always on my left side when he was on stage with me. That alone, when I’m on stage, it makes me remember he is not there. Every time I am on stage, I feel the emptiness but it is also therapeutic because I feel him the most when I’m on stage.”
After Sam’s death, it was hard to sing again. In 2012, after two long years of grief, Mtukudzi released Sarawoga – in his mother tongue, it means “left alone”.
“Some of the songs in the album were meant to be in collaboration with my son so this was some kind of therapy for me. I didn’t want to throw away the work we had sweated on. I had to finish it off,” he says.
One of the songs in the album is Shamiso, named after Mtukudzi’s daughter.
“Sam was more of a friend than a son. One of the songs we were working on was Shamiso. She was getting married and we were going to sing the song at her wedding.”
It hasn’t been an easy journey. According to Mtukudzi, for as long as there are people, there is something to talk about and if there is something to talk about, then there is something to sing about.
“My music comes from the people, the environment and some of it from personal experiences. Things come up when I’m driving and I park on the side and write it down, you don’t budget time for a song. This is a tough industry. There are a lot of obstacles but you have to be strong. There is no shortcut, you just have to go all the way and remain true to yourself,” he says.
As Mtukudzi learns to live with the loss of his son, he is trying to break barriers. He is adapting a famous 1961 Zimbabwean book, Pfumo Reropa, spear of blood in chiShona, by Patrick Chakaipa.
“I’m not going to retire. I can’t run away from myself. I noticed that some of our literature is being thrown away. It is being ignored probably because there are no visuals to them, so I felt I should take one of the popular books at home and script it into motion picture to encourage our youngsters to be more interested in African literature.”
Through the loss and the pain, Mtukudzi is trying to build something of substance for Africa out of the ruins. Surely, that is a tribute to the loss of a loved son.