Oliver Mtukudzi, who has died aged 66 of complications from diabetes, was a legend of the Zimbabwean music scene. Fondly known as Tuku, he was a guitarist and singer-songwriter, celebrated as much for the messages in his lyrics as for the distinctive musical style that became known as Tuku music.
Early in his career he worked alongside Thomas Mapfumo, the nation’s other musical hero of the era. But while Mapfumo’s songs were defiantly political, forcing him to live outside the country for much of the Mugabe era, Mtukudzi was far more subtle.
He remained in Zimbabwe, where he became the country’s most popular homegrown artist, singing about the problems and aspirations of the people, offering advice through his lyrics and bravely tackling such issues as Aids, but avoided direct political controversy.
He sang at events staged by Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF, but also performed at the wedding and funeral of the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. When asked why he didn’t confront the authorities in his songs, he answered: “My music is not for the government, my music is for the people.”
His most apparently “political” song, the big hit Wasakara, gives advice to an elderly man: “You are spent, it is time to accept you are old.” Was he referring to Mugabe? He refused to say. Later, when Mugabe’s central intelligence organisation asked him to explain lyrics on the album Vhunze Moto (Burning Ember) he is said to have replied: “You speak Shona, don’t you?”
A prolific songwriter, he recorded an astonishing 67 albums. He also wrote the music for, and starred in, Jit (1990), the first feature film with an all-Zimbabwean cast, and then the massively popular Neria (1993), the story of a woman reduced to poverty because customary law didn’t allow her to inherit her husband’s property.
The latter won him the M-Net best soundtrack award from the South African television channel, while the title song became yet another hit. For the stage, he wrote and directed Was My Child (1995), a musical drama on the plight of Zimbabwe’s street children.
His fame in the west never initially matched that of Mapfumo or the Bhundu Boys, but that changed after the international success of his album Tuku Music in 1999. That year he toured the US alongside the West African celebrities Baaba Maal and Toumani Diabaté.
His profile in the US was helped by the American singer Bonnie Raitt, who covered his song Hear Me Lord on her 2002 album Silver Lining. In the UK that year he played the Royal Festival Hall in London, while later visits included Womad in 2014.
Born in the Highfield township outside what is now Harare but was then Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia, Oliver was brought up in a devoutly Christian family. The oldest of seven children, he sang in the church choir, and listened to traditional mbira thumb-piano musicand the drumming of the Shona-speaking Korekore people. Then, in the early 1960s, he first heard the American soul music of James Brown, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, after a local businessman had bought a small radio “and the whole community used to go to his shop just to sit and listen”.
He bought a simple box guitar and learned to play by experimenting, trying to imitate the sound of the mbira, although, he said, “professional guitarists at the time used to laugh at me. I’ve always been experimental.”
Despite opposition from his mother, who warned “don’t you realise you will never get married if you become a guitar player?”, he continued to practise and to write his own songs.
“The first ones were love songs,” he said, “but after I left school, I couldn’t get a job, so I started to write about that, about my experiences.” He recorded his first song, Stop After Orange, in 1975, but became famous across what was then Rhodesia in 1977 after he joined the band Wagon Wheels, which also included Mapfumo. Their single Dzandimomotera was a huge hit, spending 11 weeks as the country’s No 1.
Mtukudzi left Wagon Wheels to front his own band, the Black Spirits, whose bestselling 1978 album Ndipeiwo Zano (Give Me Advice) was produced by the South African star West Nkosi. Nkosi introduced the South African music style mbaqanga into the Tuku mix.
In 1979, when the curfew imposed during the war for liberation was lifted, Mtukudzi travelled extensively across the country, playing even in the most remote areas, and in 1980 his album Africa became a soundtrack for the new state of Zimbabwe. Bob Marley had performed at the independence celebrations, and Mtukudzi experimented with adding reggae to his many influences.
His singing and songwriting remained powerful to the end. His 2013 album Sarawoga (Left Alone) lamented the death of his musician son Sam, killed in a car crash three years earlier. Mtukudzi collaborated with his friend Hugh Masekela on the latter’s final album, No Borders (2017), while his own final release, Hanya’Ga (Concern), released last year, expressed continuing concern at Zimbabwe’s future even after the ousting of Mugabe.
The return to Zimbabwe last year of his old colleague Mapfumo, after 14 years of self-imposed exile in the US, saw Mtukudzi sing and dance on stage at an emotional homecoming concert. Mapfumo described Mtukudzi as “one of the best musicians we ever had”.
Mtuzudzi was a goodwill ambassador for the UN children’s fund and was made cavaliere of the Order of Merit by the Italian government.
He is survived by his wife, Daisy, and by five children and two grandchildren.
• Oliver Mtukudzi, musician, songwriter and actor, born 22 September 1952; died 23 January 2019