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Thrilling encounter with Afro-jazz legend Oliver Mtukudzi

Friday January 25 2019

Jazz legend Oliver Mtukudzi from Zimbabwe.

Jazz legend Oliver Mtukudzi from Zimbabwe. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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In June of 2015, I had the opportunity of seeing the late Oliver Mtukudzi live in concert at Koroga Festival.

This was an amazing moment in my life. I was finally going to see a performance by the man whose guitar strumming and raspy voice had made me tear up while watching the 1993 Zimbabwean film, Neria.

I had watched the film on KBC at the age of eight and the song, even though I didn’t understand the lyrics, seemed to be soothing Neria (Jesese Mungoshi) after going through turmoil following her husband’s demise. I wrote it then, and I still maintain, the concert felt more like being by your grandfather’s side as he imparts wisdom to you in that captivating way only grandfathers seem to do.

Don’t be mistaken, oh we danced! We had a grand time listening to his up-tempo songs. More importantly though, to me, was that we also had long moments of reflection as we listened to this lanky elder and his scratchy voice that sometimes had you straining to hold on to every gem he was dropping.

Oliver Mtukudzi.

Music icon Oliver Mtukudzi on stage in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2018. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Fast forward to last year and I got a call on Thursday, January 18, from someone in Suzanna Owiyo’s camp. Suzanna was going to host an event for Oliver Mtukudzi at Dolce VIP Club the following night, and she was having a few friends over too. She had picked out two journalists to come join them and I was one of them. First of all, I didn’t even know Suzanna Owiyo had heard about me, now she was inviting me to go into an intimate setting with her and another great?

I got to the club at eight o’clock that Friday, as had been the agreed time, but had to wait for the associate of Suzanna to come and sign me in to this exclusive club. I just remember the all-white deco on the walls as I went down the stairs of the basement set-up.

Afro-jazz legend Oliver Mtukudzi and Kenya's songbird Suzanna Owiyo on stage during Suzanna's third album launch in 2011.

Afro-jazz legend Oliver Mtukudzi and Kenya's songbird Suzanna Owiyo on stage during Suzanna's third album launch in 2011. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

As I waited, I was still doing more research into the person of Mtukudzi. As revered as he was, some controversy had surrounded him. His perceived lack of support for his daughter’s musical career had been a hot topic online. I felt like the room was getting colder, like someone had switched up the air conditioners.

Just before nine, in came Oliver and his wife Daisy. It was the first time I was seeing her. The couple sat side by side, rarely letting anyone in between. Of course by now, Oliver, in a white and red vertically-striped shirt and a pair of white, baggy trousers, wasn’t the sprightly man I had seen on stage three years before.

He looked a little frail and seemed to have aged quite a bit. He was even skinnier than what I remembered. But his aura hadn’t left him. He was still Mtukudzi and, sitting across from him as a I awaited to be introduced, I was quivering from just being in this musical legend’s presence.

When I got to sit with him and we talked over the soft background music, I started feeling that grandfather coming back. We talked about his ambassadorial task as UNICEF Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Eastern and Southern Africa.

“Despite giving, I’ve also gained from the travelling,” he joked about the position he had held since 2011.

He had been to Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana and Malawi as he sought to encourage and inspire people working with and around children. He had previously said at the Koroga Festival that he is a grandfather to all, and that was why his music comes out like a conversation with his global family.

Legendary jazz musician Oliver Mtukudzi.

Legendary jazz musician Oliver Mtukudzi in New York City on October 14, 2015. PHOTO | FILE | GETTY IMAGES | AFP


At the point of our talk his album “Eheka Nhai Yahwe!” was doing so well that he had postponed the launch of “Hany’ga (Concern)” from July of 2017, to last year in February. He avoided talking about inspirations behind any single song, rather concentrating on the album as a whole. The album was an expression of different concerns for Africa.

“Most people get dragged away from who they are by competing with each other. We are created not to compete but to complement each other. It’s meant to encourage us to do just that. I’ve worked on it for quite a long time,” he said.

He said he wasn’t feeling pressured by being looked up to as a cultural ambassador for the continent.

“Just by being an artiste, you are a representative of a culture already. It’s just part of what we do every day,” he noted.

Legendary jazz musician Oliver Mtukudzi.

Legendary jazz musician Oliver Mtukudzi. PHOTO | COURTESY

Concerning his daughter’s venture into music, and his late son’s, he said he had never encouraged any of his children to be musicians because they can’t fit in his shoes neither can he fit in theirs.

He said Selmor and Sam found their way to music and he wanted them to be who they are. He said he made a deliberate decision not to attend Selmor’s shows initially.

“I don’t want her to feel entitled to being a star just because she is the daughter of a star. She has to walk every step of the climb on her own because there is no shortcut to this; not me pushing her to be a star. Right now she is proud of achieving big on her own,” he said.

He also said he wouldn’t do a collaboration with her simply because she is his daughter, the song has to be something worth it.

He was to return to Kenya in July of 2018 for a concert, which never got to take place. He will surely be missed as one of the greatest influencers of both music and culture.


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