At 60, Oliver Mtukudzi Still 'Giving Life To The People' With Music

Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi often says that you don't get to sing a song if you have nothing to say. He talks with guest host Celeste Headlee, and shares a few tunes.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. We continue our performance chat with Zimbabwe and pop music legend Oliver Mtukudzi. Tuku, as he's known to fans, will be 61 this year. And his latest album, "Sarawoga," is his 61st. When we spoke, I asked him if his guitar playing has changed in all the decades that he's been performing.

OLIVER MTUKUDZI: Not really. Not really differently. It's more like experimental - I'm experimental. So each time I come up with a new song I try and experiment something new in it. The only difference that has come into my music that I've come to realize is quality. 'Cause the guitars I used then, in the '70s, '80s, and the equipment that we - of recording studios that we used then, there's a great change...

HEADLEE: ...All right.

MTUKUDZI: ...Of equipment and now things can be done much easier, you know. My first album we recorded in a 4-channel studio and we'd mix the drums in one channel and all other instruments in another...

HEADLEE: ...All the singers crowded around one mic, yeah...

MTUKUDZI: ...Crowded around one mic and do a proper balance then. If you don't do it during the recording, you can't do anything better than that. So it compromised the sound but it was good for the era of that time. I remember we used to perform using a hundred watt amplifier in a stadium. But people were satisfied, it was OK. But you can't do that today, because the era of today, it needs more power.

HEADLEE: I've heard you say many times that where you come from you don't get to sing a song if you have nothing to say, that you need the message, and it's something you've obviously taken very seriously in your music...

MTUKUDZI: ...Yeah.

HEADLEE: ...Frankly, I wish more American artists held by the same standard. But why not? Why not have just a pretty song for pretty sake? Why does it always have to have something to say - a message?

MTUKUDZI: Well, I think that's purpose of song. That's purpose of talent, purpose of art - any discipline of art. You know, purpose of that is to give life and hope to the people.

HEADLEE: So no beauty for beauty's sake?

MTUKUDZI: There's always a purpose for beauty. There's purpose for beauty. Purpose of beauty is to attract you to the good thing. And that's where the instrumentation comes in. That's the beauty about a song. That's all flavor to what you're talking about.

HEADLEE: Well, since you've brought up instrumentation - you're famous for using things like thumb piano in your music and using it in pop music, and you're obviously one of the very founders of what we think of now as Afro Pop. But you said, I realized our youngsters were thinking that these instruments were the worst and were looking down on them, so I did three albums playing all songs that way, on traditional instruments, to prove the point that our instruments aren't inferior and our young people shouldn't feel inferior either. Is this one of the reasons that you still play acoustic as opposed to an electric guitar?

MTUKUDZI: I love my acoustic guitar. I love the sound 'cause it's closer to mbira sound, it sounds more traditional, more - what can I say, it's acoustic sound, it's not electric sound. It is who we are.

HEADLEE: I mean, I think one of the things that really distinguishes your guitar playing is that you have such an amazing command of using the guitar both as a melodic instrument and a percussive instrument. I mean, that's - very few guitarists get that...

MTUKUDZI: ...True.

HEADLEE: And I wondered if that was another reason why you stuck with acoustic - is that you also needed to use it as percussion.

MTUKUDZI: Exactly. And that's the reason why my fans loved the music, Tuku music, because of the way I played the guitar.

HEADLEE: You just mentioned Tuku music, that's - I mean, everybody knows Tuku music. But I wonder if you could tell us what that is.

MTUKUDZI: According to me, Tuku music is African music born of Zimbabwe.

HEADLEE: That's it?

MTUKUDZI: That's it. But my fans rather call it Tuku music.

HEADLEE: In honor of you.

MTUKUDZI: Yes, because they can't place my music - they hear all these elements in the song, so they thought, oh, Tuku music.

HEADLEE: Well, let's hear an example. I mean, probably the song that you're most well-known for is "Todii." And when people think Tuku music, that's one of the first songs that comes to my mind. Could we hear that one?

MTUKUDZI: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODII")

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I am in the studio with Zimbabwean legendary musician Oliver Mtukudzi for a special performance and for a chat. It's a very different situation now than when you wrote that song. That song is about the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS. This is a disease to which you've lost family members. How has it changed? Has it improved?

MTUKUDZI: Well, I'm glad to say that the song has served its purpose. Because the song was designed to at least trigger discussion among us people about the disease. It's a song that was full of questions with no solution at all. And all those questions started making people talk about the disease and try and take the stigma away from it.

HEADLEE: 'Cause in the chorus you're asking what would you do, and there's nothing you can do.

MTUKUDZI: Yeah so people - to make a decision after really thinking deep about these questions. That if you're - OK, if your husband is HIV positive, what do you - do you divorce him? Do you run away? So it's served its purpose and people have improved - are talking about the disease. Now it's no longer the same as the time I wrote this song.

HEADLEE: I wondered if I could ask you - my favorite song off your new album is, and please correct my pronunciation, which I'm sure is terrible, but "Haidyoreke?"

MTUKUDZI: "Haidyoreke."

HEADLEE: Yes. This - I understand that your totem is the elephant.

MTUKUDZI: Yes.

HEADLEE: And I hear that in this song, 'cause this is about paying attention to time.

MTUKUDZI: Yes.

HEADLEE: And to a certain extent it follows up with "Sarawoga," that you have to pay attention to what you have, and be in the moment and not waste time.

MTUKUDZI: Exactly, exactly. In fact, the inspiration that came off that song is, you can't pull back the hands of time. And for the seconds we have in life, let's use it wisely. Let's not waste time. I was lucky to have 21 years with my son. And I'm glad that I managed do the best out of it with him. So please, out there, use your time wisely. If you have your child - your daughter and your son, make the best time of - 'cause you never know for how long you're going to have that daughter, for how long are you're going to have that son. We don't even know. So let's make the best of our time we have.

HEADLEE: Would you play it for me?

MTUKUDZI: Yeah, sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAIDYOREKE")

HEADLEE: That's so good. I can't even tell you how amazing it is to have your voice coming out, what's normally on my CD...

MTUKUDZI: Thank you.

HEADLEE: ...In here in front of me. And that must be an experience - I mean, if you think about it, some of your fans are 20 years old, I mean, they've been listening to your voice, giving them advice, their whole lives. They've grown up listening to you.

MTUKUDZI: Well, thank you very much, yes.

HEADLEE: But I wonder how much of that is with you as a day-to-day reality? Has that been in some ways a burden on you, to think that other people have been looking to you as they grow up?

MTUKUDZI: Well, I think, I guess, I'm blessed enough to understand why I do what I do. And if you understand your purpose then it shouldn't be a burden at all. It should be a commitment of what you're supposed to be doing, to serve that next heart. To heal that broken heart.Which is why God gave you the talent, which is the purpose of giving life to the people. So I'm glad and honored that youngsters from kindergarten to people older than me, to be really understanding the music and enjoying the music, and hopefully, listening to what I'm saying in the music.

HEADLEE: You know, I mean, you began your life as a musician, as a very politically connected and motivated musician. And I mean, I would be totally remiss if I didn't ask you about the upcoming elections. But I understand that you've shied away from talking about politics recently, and I wonder why.

MTUKUDZI: I didn't shy, I don't know what's politics. I didn't shy at all. I don't know what politics is. But I know what music is, and what music does to that next person. I know the music unites people, music gives hope, and music is a way of life that I know. But what politics is - I don't know.

HEADLEE: So I won't ask...

MTUKUDZI: ...So I didn't shy, I didn't shy.

HEADLEE: ...So I won't ask you how you feel about Robert Mugabe, but let me ask you what you hope for in the years ahead for Zimbabwe?

MTUKUDZI: I'm very optimistic, it's the best place to be. Come to Zimbabwe today, you'll be surprised what kind of people we are. It's a pity that the world outside our borders concentrates on a handful of people who have their own personal interests. But come to Zimbabwe and see, and experience, what really Zimbabwe is. And a lot of journalists use rumor, they get information from another journalist and so - they don't want to come and see from themselves. So it's like rumors going around and the truth is not there.

HEADLEE: Well, Zimbabwe couldn't ask for a better ambassador, a more incredible ambassador, than you and your music, and again, I want to express how honored I am...

MTUKUDZI: ...Thank you.

HEADLEE: ...To have you here in front of me. We're going to hear from you again in just a moment, so think about what song you want to go out with. But - I've been speaking with Oliver Mtukudzi, Zimbabwean musician. His latest album is "Sarawoga." Kind enough to join us here in our studio in Washington, D.C. with members of his band, "The Black Spirits." Thank you so much. And what are you going to play for us?

MTUKUDZI: Well, I'm going to play one of the songs on the "Sarawoga" CD. It's called "Chiringa."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHIRINGA")

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Have a Merry Christmas and we'll talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHIRINGA")

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