One of Zimbabwe and Africa’s most iconic musicians, Oliver Mtukudzi, died on Wednesday in the capital, Harare, at age 66, a fellow musician confirmed.
Albert Nyathi, a veteran Zimbabwean musician and poet who performed with Mtukudzi, was with several other mourners at the hospital where the star passed away.
“It is difficult to accept, I have no words,” Nyathi said. “What is left is to celebrate his life.”
Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper reported that Mtukudzi had “succumbed to a long battle with diabetes.”
With his distinctive husky voice, Mtukudzi had a career that stretched from white minority-ruled Rhodesia to majority-ruled Zimbabwe, producing a string of hits that spread his fame across Africa and eventually to an international audience.
Tuku, as he was widely known, avoided political controversy. The closest he came was with his 2001 song “Bvuma,” which in the Shona language means “accept that you are old” and was taken as a message to longtime leader Robert Mugabe to retire.
Paul Mangwana, a senior official with Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, praised Mtukudzi for remaining “apolitical,” saying he supported calls for the singer to be buried at the national heroes’ acre, a shrine that is a preserve of ruling party elites.
“He was a nation-builder. Where it was necessary to criticize he would, and where it was necessary to praise he would,” Mangwana said at the hospital.
In a country where political tensions are high and party loyalties matter, Mtukudzi cut across the divide, singing at ruling party events but also performing at late opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s wedding and funeral.
One of Mtukudzi’s biggest hits was “Neria,” a mournful song about the tribulations of a woman who was thrown into poverty when her husband died because customary law did not allow her to inherit his property. It was the title song of a movie of the same name.
In 1980, Mtukudzi celebrated Zimbabwe’s independence by singing the country’s new national anthem, “Ishe Komborera Africa” (God Bless Africa) with a reggae inflection.
Mtukudzi’s rollicking, captivating performances won him devoted fans. He sang, played guitar and danced while directing a tight band of guitarists, keyboards, percussionists and dancers who seamlessly performed his catchy songs. He made several successful international tours and performed in South Africa late last year.
He also was known for mentoring young Zimbabwean musicians. “He was like a father figure,” said MacDonald Chidavaenzi, a songwriter and producer who said he was mentored by the singer.
Mtukudzi wrote songs in a style that were a mix of Zimbabwean and neighboring South African rhythms that became known at “Tuku music.”
Zimbabwe’s government quickly expressed its “heartfelt condolences” to Mtukudzi’s family. “Zimbabwe music is poorer without our music legend,” the information ministry tweeted.
The ruling African National Congress in South Africa tweeted simply “Rest in peace.”
Meldrum reported from Johannesburg.