Musical and cultural icon the late Dr Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi’s songs reflected the daily life and struggles of his homeland by blending together several South African music traditions including mbira, mbaqanga, jit, and the traditional drumming styles of the Korekore to create a distinctive style. An inventive guitarist and passionate singer, he was also an astonishingly prolific recording artist, releasing 67 albums during his four-decade career.
Having established himself in the late ‘70s, his popularity soared after Zimbabwe won its independence in 1980 and in the years that followed, he released a string of successful albums and branched out into acting as well, starring in his country’s first two nationally made films, Jit (1990) and Neria (1992).
While his musical style borrows a lot of what many has termed afro-jazz fusion, his unprecedented, experimental sound earned him his own style of music that his fans affectionately dubbed ‘Tuku Music.” When asked about the origins of Tuku music in various interviews, he claims that he never came up with the Tuku label himself and instead gives the credit to his fans. His followers likely heard and identified several familiar Zimbabwean music styles in his songs, along with some unique qualities, and that became his signature style.
The traditional sound of Mtukudzi’s music features his own smooth vocals. Instruments like mbira and marimba are mixed with his trademark acoustic guitar, making his sound markedly unique. As well, Mtukudzi didn’t only use his guitar in traditional means but mastered it as a rhythmic percussion instrument.
Though well-known at home and throughout Southern Africa, it wasn’t until the release of 1999’s Tuku Music that the international music community took notice. During the 2000s and 2010s, he became a regular on the world music circuit, touring Europe and North America frequently while become increasingly involved as a philanthropist and human rights advocate in Zimbabwe, to an extent that in 2012 he was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
In his later years, he continued to sing from his conscience, expressing his fears and hopes for the people of Zimbabwe on his 2018 swan song, Hany’ga (Concern), which was released one year before his death from complications related to diabetes.
A legend that has become an influential and internationally celebrated artist, both by the Zimbabwe people and beyond, Mtukudzi had a long and rich history of reflecting hopes, dreams, sorrows, concerns, and romance through his music. One particular song that lyrically burst with romance is “Mbabvu Yangu”, a slow-paced and almost reflective record where he talks about his wife Daisy and describes how she has filled his life and is the only one he sees – his mbabvu or ‘rib’.
By all measures, it is a classic afro-soul Jazz ballad and is a timeless wedding favourite.
Reckon jazz is just for connoisseurs and is merely a niche genre these days? Then think again, for if it wasn’t for jazz, we wouldn’t have the blues or the myriad of different styles of music that have rocked our world ever since. Zimbabwe’s interest in and bond with jazz music is significant, and it has resulted in numerous outstanding works through collaborations between jazz and traditional musicians at national, continental and international level. All April long, #enthuse through our 30 Days of Iconic Zimbabwean Jazz series celebrates the heritage and history of jazz music and curates thirty songs by jazz pioneers and contemporary musicians who have successfully taken on the genre and defined a sound for the rest of the world to follow.