It took seven minutes for Oliver Mtukudzi and his band to get on stage. It took less than three for him to have me in tears. The Zimbabwean-born musician is an emcee, adjudicating the dance electric – and last night, in front of a packed crowd at DSG Hall, he gave the performance of a lifetime.
Zimbabwean music legend Oliver Mtukudzi performs at DSG Hall venue in Grahamstown on 10 July 2015; at the 2015 National Arts Festival. The singer/guitarist performed to a fully booked venue. Mtukudzi is joined on stage by Alice Muringayi on vocals, Enock Piriro on bass guitar and Tendai Samson Mataure on drums. (Photo: CUEPIX/Niamh Walsh-Vorster)
Most of us in the room did not know Shona, Mtukudzi’s native tongue, but that was hardly the point. You don’t buy into the guitarist because you understand the words: you buy into the confidence with which he says them. His voice is coarse and masculine, yet it’s an instrument that he uses sparingly. His verses are delicate and his hooks make use of short phrases and words to get even the uninitiated members of the crowd to at least try to sing along.
Tuku is a storyteller and he approaches his music with a simple philosophy: “It’s not what you achieve,” he says, “it’s what you overcome.” What’s interesting, is that despite having performed on stages bigger than this, the 62-year-old has double the energy of musicians half his age. He enjoys the attention that comes with performing to a live audience, and you can tell that by the way he struts around dancing and shuffling his feet, leaving no inch of the stage unchartered. You haven’t lived until you have seen him do the Pata Pata.
His performance is about manipulating the mood of the audience. He can get you going with a high-tempo number, before hitting a lower, more sombre register. You follow wherever he goes.
By the time he performs his third track, Neria, the crowd are on their feet. He gives them what they want. This is a man who has a plan in place, and part of his intention in playing his signature song so early, was to get the familiar out of the way, to set the crowd up for a set that would transcendent every musical landscape from Afro-blues to funk and Nguni pop.
What makes Tuku’s groove so magnetic is the setup. Drums thud and bass punctuates the gaps between Mtukudzi’s conjuring of intricate riffs and turns of phrase that either leave you transfixed or stomping your feet. This is an artist who makes music that is functional and part of that function is for his songs to be more than just a personal artistic endeavour: they are meant to be devoured.
From syncronised dancing, to songs that are underscored by silences in between, Tuku’s performance was conversational. There are moments where you don’t know where his limbs end and the guitar begins. Mtukudzi is a master guitarist, and he knows how to show it off. Echoes of ululation and whistles engulf the hall every time he does.
Even when things go wrong, like a moment where his guitar loses its connection to the sound system, Mtukudzi remains a compassionate commander-in-chief. He looks around and checks if the rest of his band has not lost their timing because of the error, before stepping back and signalling to the sound guys that there is a problem. He is still strumming his axe, keeping up with the rest of the outfit. When the connection is restored and his six string becomes audible again there is a loud cheer from the crowd. Tuku is back on song like he’s always been. Like he’ll always be.
Cue guest writer
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