Thursday, January 24, 2019

Tribute | Oliver Mtukudzi: The Odyssey of a Legend

Singer. Songwriter. Actor. Writer. Film director. Philanthropist. Human rights activist. Entrepreneur. What would be the best description of the colossus that was Oliver Mtukudzi? One could rightly make a strong case for music, for it was the trade that sprang the rest them to the fore.

Mention the name Oliver and music in the same sentence, and two names will immediately spring to my mind. The first would be Oliver N’goma, the Gabonese Afro-zouk legend, while the second would undoubtedly be the Zimbabwean legend Oliver Mtukudzi; both now of blessed memory.

The latter only signed out yesterday, eventually succumbing to a month-long undisclosed cocktail of ailments. For a while, Oliver Mtukudzi had been battling intestinal ulcers, diabetes and hypertension. Tuku, as he was affectionately referred to by his fans, never fully got back on his feet after surviving a heart attack in 2018.

Born into a musical family on September 22, 1952, Tuku would go on to create a music style of his own, blending South African pop (Mbaqanga), Mbira, Jit, and the traditional drumming styles of the Korekore to make a unique Afro-Jazz sound that he simply called "Tuku music".

The Music

My most memorable song of his remains Todii, Shona for "Why", largely because it was released at the peak of the FM revolution in Uganda. My initial attraction was Shona, the language in which it had been written. 

It was one I could relate to, having been sung in a bantu dialect whose message I believed I had deciphered. When I heard the line: "Zvinorwadza sei kurera rufu mumaoko (Oh, how painful it is; looking after someone you are sure they are going to die!)", I had no clue what "Zvinorwadza sei" meant. 

But kurera means "take care (of someone)", and rufu means death in my native Rukiga. Maoko, Shona for "hands", sounds similar to its Kinyarwanda and Lingala equivalents – amaboko and maboko respectively. 

When this was followed by the rhetorical question: "What shall we do?", I imagined he was singing about death. The cruel hand of death, perhaps. Todii sounded very emotional with an ominous ring to it. I did not get to watch its video until about 10 years later. I chose to just sit back and enjoy the sound until google was kind enough to get me the full lyrics and translations to the song.  

Little did I know the song carried more personal sentiments than a generic message to an imagined target audience. Tuku had lost his only brother, Robert, and four band members to the AIDS pandemic in a four-week period in the 1980s.

This and other efforts would cement Mtukudzi’s place in the sphere of public awareness and philanthropy. He had been involved in public awareness campaigns before and would go on to play ambassadorial roles in various capacities. 

His last album, the 66th of his career, was an emotional composition called Hanya'Ga, Shona for "Concern". It was released three months after Robert Mugabe’s ouster, and was believed to have been directed the country’s political situation.

Varied Themes

AIDS wasn’t the only theme Tuku sang about. From politics to child marriage and fidelity, his scope was as varied as they came. In 2001, he released Wasakara, Shona for "You are too old". The song was subsequently banned because it was believed to have been a subtle diss at the then 77-year old Robert Mugabe. 

Tuku’s Big Break

Although he had become a big hit in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Tuku’s music transcended Zimbabwe’s borders as he started performing at various music festivals across the world.

He had hired Debbie Metcalfe, a firebrand music manager to help him grow his profile. Debbie went on to revamp Tuku’s business strategy, helping him to realize his full potential and subsequently turning Tuku Music into an international brand.

He may not have had the guitar-strumming dexterity of Diblo Dibala, nor the vocal finesse of Youssou N'dour, but Tuku's allround ability to excel at all fronts saw him stand tall amongst the continent's musical greats.

Debbie and Tuku would go on to weave their magic until their acrimonious split in 2008. By the time parted ways, the Tuku’s transformation had taken full effect. He was now a continental brand, gracing as many tours across the African continent and beyond.

One of these was in our beloved Uganda, on July 30, 2017. He had been hired as the headline act at Mavuno Church’s sold out concert dubbed: "The Lock Down". The hall at Imperial Royale was filled to capacity. 

The Controversies

Following Debbie’s departure, the stage was set for the eventual rouble-rouser that was Shepherd Mutamba, a journalist who turned out more prominent for his role as Tuku's public relations manager than anything else.

Shepherd would go on to light a bonfire in the Mtukudzi household when he wrote: "Tuku Backstage", an infamous 2012 Biography in which Selmor Mtukudzi, Tuku’s daughter from his first marriage, appeared to portray him as "an irresponsible father", blaming him for her then stunted music career.  

The book was an act of revenge after Shepherd alleged that Tuku owed he and other employees salary arrears while he continued to live in the lap of luxury.

Sections of Tuku’s fans began to view him as a two-faced father who did not apply the same family virtues that he espoused in his music.

Tuku was crushed. 

He slipped into depression and began to miss some of his bookings. The eating disorder went on to affect his health, worsening his intestinal ulcers and a long-standing diabetic condition.  

The depression would reach its nadir when he publicly disowned Selmor. He still could not believe his own child could say the things that Selmor had said in that infamous chat. Tuku had seen her through school and allowed her to play in his band. This was not the reward he had bargained for.

The feud would go on until 2018, when Selmor eventually swallowed her pride and apologized to her father. She blamed the fallout on a moment of naivety and betrayal. A private conversation she had with someone had found its way into the grubby paws of a fame-hungry journalist, she said. Tuku welcomed her back with open hands, like a long-lost prodigal daughter. Father and daughter had finally reunited.

Tuku appeared overjoyed by the development. He would go on to post a picture on the social media website Facebook, where he was flanked by his daughters Selmor and Sandra. "Children are a gift from God. Proud of my beautiful daughters", read the caption. It would spell the end of the speculation about Tuku and the relationship with his daughters.

His first official marriage had been to Melody Murape in 1979. The couple was eventually blessed with two daughters, Selmor and Sandra. But the marriage would later collapse after allegations of extra-marital affairs refused to go away.

Before then, Melody had been living like a diva, having been the first of Tuku’s true loves. At the height of their bliss, she went shopping every weekend, and wore a new dress to church every Sunday.

With a new flame in the picture, Melody’s program had to be revised, and she was livid. It would spark the onset of a protracted seven-year divorce process that was eventually finalized in 1993. The new flame in question was Daisy Mashonga, mother to two of Tuku’s children, and his eventual numero uno.

Daisy would go on to inherit the same demons Melody had fled. Allegations of infidelity continued to loom, and there was always the occasional rumor of a stray love child here and there. Daisy chose to stick by Zimbabwe’s musical biggest export.

Officially, Tuku was a father of five – Selmor, Sam, Samantha, Sandra and Sybil. Unofficially, two more products of his amorous activity would come up, in Memory and Selby Mtukudzi. 

A Flawed Genius?

Tuku’s transgressions, or whatever the judging public will call them, only showed that he was human after all. Behind the cloak of a larger-than-life persona lay the fallibilities of mankind and the default reaction to life’s turbulent tides.

On January 23, 2019, the curtains came down on the life of an artiste who grew up in Highfield, the ghetto neighbourhood of Harare. The man who gave us 66 albums of musical bliss was no more. But Oliver Mtukudzi had left us with enough memories to outlast the pain of losing his immense talent. He was 66.

Sing with the angels, Tuku.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Perspective | Of Witchcraft, Religion & Regulation

"UCC switches off 23 radio stations for promoting witchcraft", screamed a headline on the front page of The Observer edition of March 27, 2018.

There was mild – if not muted – response from the public, perhaps because the purported witches did not have an official spokesperson in their ideological dispensation, .

But having no public voice did not mean they were going to sit back and let regulatory laws make non-consensual love to their hustle.

If UCC had started firing without missing, the witch doctors were going to fly without perching. They chose to evolve.

We soon woke up to a new form of them, having "ditched" their traditional ways and gone religious. They were now Muslims. Respected Muslims. Guys who went to Mecca and became Hajjis and Hajjatis.

Today, we have each of them still gracing their old FM radio shows in a seemingly more dignified way, more than three hours earlier.

The drift? Catch them on their show and get their telephone contacts. Reach out to them during daytime and they’ll say a dua to cast out all your troubles.

Any evil spirits malingering around your life will be sent packing faster than the imps that Jesus hounded in Mark 5:11.

I had no clue of their reinvention until I tuned into one of my local sport trivia sources, expecting to hear the voices of the good folks I’ll only call “Tata Bad Man” and "Mama Sky".

Instead, I chanced onto one those schemers, a certain Hajjati Mayanja, promising unsuspecting listeners financial Jannah.

It would be a one-off, and my favorite presenters were going to be on time the following day, I hoped.

I was wrong.

The next day, it was a Hajji Bashiiri of Nansana, a Sheikh Ayubu of Kawanda and many others for each weekday. Each of them sounded like the guys who recycle Mobile Money messages and forward them to unsuspecting victims.

Alas, my show had had its schedule effectively shifted by at least an hour!

Will UCC now pounce on this, or they’ll now turn to the same "invisible force" behind the proposed regulation of Pentecostal pastors' wealth?

On the face of it, the sorcerers' newfound identity looks innocuous until one scratches beyond the surface. They did not stop at becoming Muslim.

They now hire sales agents disguised as witnesses whose fortunes have experienced a fundamental change after fruitful sessions with them.

The other day, someone was advertising Hajji Bashiiri’s services on radio. "He is bad news," she says. "When he says a dua for you, you instantly experience magic. I was broke, widowed and depressed. I now have my kids strewn across the world. UK, Norway, Australia and Sweden".

Every night, an unsuspecting Ugandan is going to save these witch doctors’ contacts. They’ll proceed to contact them the following day, hoping to instantly be catapulted into middle-income status.

By the time they eventually realize they’ve been conned, they will have parted with the last of their savings. The witch-doctor will now demand a pair of python eggs and a three-week old crocodile before their problems can be attended to.