In the beginningOliver’s musical career started at the age of 23 with the 1975 release of his debut single, Stop After Orange. He only went professional two years later in 1977 teaming up with Thomas Mapfumo at the famous Wagon Wheels Band and recording Dzandimomotera which was inspired directly by Zimbabwe’s 1970s war of liberation. The song depicted the black man’s life struggles under the minority white settler regime.
|Tuku Tribute: Oliver Mtukudzi Biography|
Oliver recalls: “When we left the Wagon Wheels, we thought we would continue using the same name (Wagon Wheels) but the management we had left behind put together another band which they called by the same name. Naturally we thought the continued use of the name would confuse people and we came up with our own name, The Black Spirits.”
In terms of lyrical composition, in the period leading to Zimbabwe’s 1980 independence, Oliver’s music was a mix of the revolutionary jam songs with undertones targeting the repressive Rhodesian regime. Yet he also composed the day-to-day social context music about life and the essence of ubantu (humanity).
Music against oppression“Before independence it was the fight against the Rhodesian regime. My music then spoke against oppression and the repressive regime and how we were suffering at the hands of the regime. I left school and for three years I couldn’t find a job yet I was one of the few guys among my peers with a fine secondary education. But I couldn’t get a job because I was black. My music then helped people identify themselves…who we were and what we wanted to be.”
In all his music in pre-independence Oliver never took on the Rhodesian regime head-on preferring the power of metaphor to communicate meaning.
“I wasn’t afraid of anyone. The beauty of the Shona language (the majority vernacular language in Zimbabwe) is that it is endowed with all those rich idioms and metaphor…and the beauty of art is that you can use the power of language to craft particular meaning without necessarily giving it away. So, I used the beauty of Shona to communicate in my own way and people got the message.
“At independence I did praise songs just like most of the artists during that era because it was justifiably celebration time. I did songs like Zimbabwe that was celebratory music…songs like Gore reMasimba eVanhu (Year of the People’s Power). I was celebrating the demise of the regime and the advent of black majority rule. But over and above celebrating I was also singing about self-discipline and restraint in that new era be it at social or political level.”
To this day Oliver incorporates the aspect of self-discipline and tolerance in his repertoires. He is emotional about the socio-cultural norms and principles that govern the Shona traditional way of life particularly the respect for the next person.
The West Nkosi experienceAs his music made waves in the 1970s his popularity rose. His writing prowess and style of singing attracted big names among African producers among them West Nkosi – a respected South African who came to Zimbabwe in search of music.
Was Oliver’s music to lose its originality after Nkosi’s South African influence?
“I don’t think the influence of South Africa was there. It’s just that I introduced the keyboard in my music. And South Africans then were using the keyboard a lot in their music. So when I introduced the keyboard people said West Nkosi was influencing me.
“One thing about our music and South African music is that the music is the same, really. If it weren’t for a handful of people who created these geographical boundaries we would be the same people in many respects. West Nkosi came to produce me because he was looking for new sound and if he was to influence my music he was going to get the same sound that he was running away from in South Africa. He wanted fresh music so he got me, Zexie Manatsa, Susan Mapfumo…all of us.”
Success did not come easy for Oliver who also hit hard times along the way, splitting with his band but moving on with other backing groups notably the KweKwe based Zig Zag Band in Zimbabwe’s Midlands province, 213 kilometers south of Harare, where Oliver relocated and also lived for many years.
Institution of The Black Spirits
Despite splitting with The Black Spirits, reuniting but losing other members in the process, over fundamental business etiquette, Oliver has always spoken well about the institution of The Black Spirits and the many members who have been part of the band over the last 35 years.
“It is quite obvious that every member of The Black Spirits, past and current, is unique in his and her own way and I truly believe God does not duplicate talent. All the guys I have played with had their own individual contribution to my music.
I cannot be said to have mentored all those I have played with in The Black Spirits because we are talking about talent here and not education. The education part only came when and where I would advise them on how the song would go but I am and was always open to their contributions when arranging music. I actually learnt a lot from all the band members.”