Oliver Mtukudzi, who with a husky, syrupy and soulful voice entertained us for the last four decades, died on Wednesday, January 23, exactly a year since Hugh Masekela, another iconic African jazz maestro, died.
The two, perhaps, were the biggest musical exports of the last half of the 20th century from the Southern tip of Africa.
I am saddened that I never attended any of the numerous live shows that Mtukudzi did in the country, always thinking there is a next one. His death, at 66, came as a surprise, rousing me out of my despondent evening.
The guitar in Todii has a way of getting to me in my more maudlin moments. We all experience music differently. And for me, I feel music at a soulful level. And Mtukukudzi was the few musicians to evoke a certain feeling in me that few musicians are capable of. And there is a reason.
When I was dating the girl I would later marry, she would play Mtukudzi, and Wasakara was her favourite. It was always on replay mode. The arrangement of the song, the introductory guitar is bewitching and the bass in a good speaker is like a drug. And the vocals are like balm to a blister in a hot afternoon. I would permanently associate the song with her. In the unlikely event she left, the song will always remind me of her. She once told me the reason it is difficult to get over exes is that,
“Our exes always have that one favourite song, movie, perfume, that will always haunt you any time it hits your eyes, ears, or nose...you will remember them, and you can be overcome by emotions.”
And we are wont to remember a song our ex used to rub her ass on our groins on everytime it played in a club that is perforce defunct.
Oliver Mtukudzi achieved that rare feat of gaining continental acceptance. His music will be at home in Harare, as it would be in Nairobi, or Yaounde, or Monrovia. Few musicians achieve this feat. Hardly any Kenya from that generation achieved continental fame that lasted.
Mtukudzi was also a consummate performer. It comes naturally to this breed and generation of musicians. Their bands were not playbacks that we are used. They did not abuse the autotune. Thus, when performing you always got value for your money.
When Papa Wemba came to Kenya for the last time, I told my cousin who was visiting me that afternoon, that I should not have missed on this particular one.
“Why?” he asked.
“It is always the last time they are performing…” I said and left that hanging… and my clever cousin finished for me…
“Because after this, they just die, nothing like a next time..."
And I wish I would have heeded his counsel.
Every other time, there are these African greats performing in the country and I am either too broke or indifferent. I am not a fan of live performances because often they can be underwhelming.
It could be Manu Dibango for the Safaricom Jazz. Salif Keita at the Coke Studio. Or Koffi Olomide for Koroga. Koffi goes ahead and kicks a female dancer when he jets in for a concert, so disgusting. And he is forever banned from the country. Manu is pushing 85, and Salif announces retirement from music.
And like that, I grow old without ever experiencing a live performance worthy of note.
I remember the Sawa Sawa Festival in 2007 at the Arboretum. Eric Wanaina delivered an eclectic performance. Hugh Masekela blew the horn so good, women went berserk, never witnessed something so organic, so sexy, in that hot Nairobi afternoon. Masekela sensing the excitement, blew it harder some more and girls were crying. It was genuine.
Mtukudzi, by the way, did a charming collabo with Eric Wainaina, Twende Twende, that is now forgotten, but was popular as a commercial for Orange Telephone Network in the late 2000s.
Oliver is gone. And he has left a huge oeuvre that we can always derive from. In the oeuvre, you can tune in for his voice and the choir, who give such melodious vibe, try his collabo with Ringo Madilingozi’s Into Yami.
His music was conscious, tackling the pressing societal issues that have buffeted his country and Africa. Todii was about the Aids scourge, so prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s. Nerea was about a widow who is dispossessed after her husband dies, a very disgusting vestige of patriarchy so pervasive in Africa.
He was apolitical save for Bvuma wasakara, his aforementioned 2001 song than indirectly criticized Mugabe, telling him that he was getting too old. Mugabe will not leave power until he was kicked out in 2017. Otherwise, he avoided, some say that being a Shona, and the “ruling class” he could not criticize the government. It is something that Kikuyu artists and creatives such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and other radical politicians have been accused off: That they were vocal during Moi’s dictatorship but as soon as Kibaki came to power and succeeded by Uhuru, they went mute.
Maybe, it is something we should interrogate, from a scholarly perspective about the apparent silence of injustices when they are seen to committed by one of our own.
It was best witnessed recently when New York Times published photos of dead people following the Dusit terrorist attack and Kenyans attacked New York Times, but they have never demonstrated such anger when the government kills young people or politically motivated, state-sponsored genocide against the Luo community as we witnessed last year.
It is a complex thing. But a man can’t be all things. He chose music, dedicated his life to it and chose the ‘better’ sort of activism being a UNICEF ambassador. In the end, he left 67 albums, one that will be released posthumously, and in the albums, gems to last us a lifetime.
Ivy Aseka, the perambulating peripatetic Nairobi Cool correspondent-at-large attended the 2017 Kampala Lockdown Festival where Mtukudzi was the main act, and she filed this report. She was full of praise, “There is something about the man and his deep voice that tells you that you are in the presence of a legend, a demi-god," she wrote. And with no sense of hyperbole, she said, "If I ever could choose an ideal moment to die, that would have been it. Oliver is truly a force. A force that everyone should reckon with, even for a second."
Too bad, some of us, will never, ever have a chance.