Friday Song: Oliver Mtukudzi, HEAR ME, LORD

When the daily news is a grim daily carnival of human inadequacy and ugliness, that’s when we need music most. A rhythm, a tune, feeling – perhaps even a thought or two  – put to a melody can remind us of the good, the bright and the hopeful in human life

And few songwriters do that better than Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi, the great Zimbabwean musician  who wrote this week’s Friday Song.

I first heard Mtukudzi’s unforgettable voice in Michael Raeburn’s 1990 film Jit,. Set in Harare, the film was quirky and charming  – Time Out’s critic thought it would do for Zimbabwe what The Harder They Come had done for Jamaica – and for me its stand-out moment was when the soundtrack reached  the opening chords of a great, joyful song called ‘Under Pressure’.

Depress- depression

I’m under pressure…

There is nothing about this song that doesn’t work. Tuku’s husky voice with its trademark cough, the wonderful arrangement – not just guitars, percussion and a brass section, but what sounds like xylophones but is probably a keyboard  – the questions and answer female backing vocals, its sheer irresistible catchiness.

Can’t stop singing this song

I’m under pressure.

No doubt a post-Graceland awareness of African helped Jit , making western audiences more attuned to African music. but, for me, the collaboration of Tuku with Bonnie Raitt with his song ‘Hear Me, Lord’   – you can see a great video of them performing it together in Austin here – had a rawness and integrity (and an artistic equality) that Paul Simon never achieves with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Graceland.

Whereas Bonnie Raitt and Tuku Mtukudzi were two musicians playing together, united by their love of music, there was for me something contrived about the Paul Simon CD, which I have always thought was a step backwards after his great albums of the early 1970s.   It was a wonderful feat of production, and it felt like it – a lot of money was spent to get that authentic sound. Something about the African set-up had the effect on Simon’s lyrics of making them fidgetty and self-conscious, as if he had to make up for the direct line of the music with fancy words.

By contrast , Tuku Mtukudzi, who died in January this year,  never liked to analyse his songs in interviews. His words in songs like ‘Hear Me, Lord’ were simple and followed the music.

Help me now help me lord
Help me lord i’m feeling low
Help me now help me lord
Help me lord i’m feeling low

In a forty-year career, he released an astonishing 67 albums, and was one of the great figures of modern African history. Having supported independence, he became increasingly disenchanted with the Mugabe regime but, unlike his fellow musician Thomas Mapfumo, he remained in Zimbabwe, declining to take sides but letting his songs shine a light on the realities of life in the country  – poverty,  HIV/AIDS, cruelty.

My favourite Tuku songs tend to have strong simple themes  –  ‘Neria’, the theme song of a film in which Tuku starred, sung solo here in a BBC session about a widow trying to survive after the death of her husband, ‘Todii‘ about the AIDS epidemic, Dzoka Uyamwe’ about urban alienation. There is more about what is called ‘Tuku music’ on the Music in Africa website and a great live session for the NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert.

The strength of Oliver Mtukudzi’s beliefs  – his integrity as a musician –  comes through in his wonderful, husky voice and in every bar of his songs. I love that guitaring style and how even the saddest songs, instil hope.

He said once, and it’s a quote that says everything about his music:

According to my mother‚ she believed that I will never come up with a song that surpasses my birth cry. From that‚ I’ve been making music to compare to that first cry. What my birth cry meant to my mother — that is the kind of music I make.

Here he is with his band performing the wonderful ‘Hear Me, Lord’.