Tatenda Tuku

OliverMtukudziMangwanani, mararasei?

Excuse the apparent jibberish but I am still in the joyous grip of a surreal experience for last Friday I was transported to Zimbabwe the country of my son’s birth without leaving Australia.

How was this possible to be an ocean away not just in my imagination but actually there really and truly, feeling the pulse of that great and troubled nation?

Well it was quite a surprise.

All I had to do was follow my instinct and purchase online tickets from an unheard of website to a gig by the African guitar legend and true poet Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mutukudzi.

It sounded too good to be true scheduled as it was for an obscure venue in downtown Parramatta, the Roxy.

I had hesitated of course as one does when the internet throws up such a rare gem of uncertain truth.  It took me a few days to commit my credit card digits to the ether except that Mutserendende, one of the great mans songs, is the ring tone on my mobile — how could I not trust to fate?

Satisfied by a phone call to the venue that confirmed that ‘yes, Tuku would be playing on Friday’ the bargain was accepted.

Now when overseas artists play in Sydney that for all of them is very far away from home they will have their hard-core fans who flock to fill the mosh pit or at worst pay the big bucks for front row seats. Elsewhere the auditorium will be sprinkled with all kinds of folk: the young ones who only just discovered Tori Amos, the middle aged who are just amazed that Sade is just as stunning today as she was in 1980, a few old folk who have always known good music when they hear it, and the ‘be seen’ folk who needed somewhere to go that night. In short, an eclectic mix.

Not so Tuku.

In the surreal surroundings of an ancient cinema with its high ornate ceiling, overused seats, and flaking paint the audience was almost entirely Shona. It was as if all the Zimbabweans from that most populous tribe who were living within travel distance had come together for a party.

And what a pleasure it was — for if there is one thing that Africa does it is party. Smiles everywhere big enough to save the world, warmth to melt the coldest heart and, of course, everyone dances.

It is one of life’s true experiences to be in an African nightclub when the latest popular number is spun. A cheer greets the first chord and by the second the room is heaving. There is no need for a dance floor because everyone is on their feet where they are, instantly transported by the rhythm and moves to a very happy place

Now I had been telling my wife about this phenomenon of nature for years and had promised it would be high on the itinerary of our long planned Africa trip for she had not witnessed it for herself — until last Friday.

In that cinema now comfortably full with well dressed Africans showing off their unique style the DJ was warming the room for the support act and chose a track popular all over southern Africa in the 1990’s that brought back a memory rush of balmy nights in the silky dust of the Kalahari.

And there it was, instant recognition, a cheer, and joyous movement.

I looked at Milena and she felt it too for there is great power in such collective spontaneity. And that energy grew through the unknown yet lively support act and then with fervor for the legend himself

Despite only having his voice, guitar a bass player, drummer and percussionist, Tuku worked through, with genius that only few have, two hours of his layered songs selected seemingly at random from his vast catalogue.

The people danced, laughed, sang, chatted and most of all smiled.

They adored the performer without any thought for the performance or sound that the critic would have panned for its lack of second guitar, keyboard and female chorus for these give so much depth to his studio tracks.

It was a party you see.

And it was a chance to be back in Zimbabwe without paying the prohibitive airfare and everyone was grateful for it, me especially.

You see I lived in Harare for two years from 1987 in a country still basking in the glow of independence if wary of its future. Career blinkers meant that I did not see all that I should have back then, but Africa is too infectious not to seep into your pores for even in adversity the people smile. And they dance whenever the music moves them with an optimism that is infectious. You carry that joy away with you, hidden perhaps and clouded by the travails of the west, but it is always there somewhere deep within, an unconcerned syncopation that can catch you unawares.

So you can see why I have Oliver Mutukudzi as my ringtone, play his playlists often, and have wept at his lyrics that speak of suffering, courage and humanity even though I cannot translate the words.

And now I also have the privileged memory of dancing with his countrymen for two sacred hours far away from Africa, in the Roxy, Parramatta.

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