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Zimbabwean Musician Oliver Mtukudzi Dies At 66

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Zimbabwe has lost one of its most beloved voices. His name is Oliver Mtukudzi, and he died yesterday at the age of 66. The musician was one of the few constants in a country that's been through a lot and faces an uncertain political future. Here's NPR's Andrew Limbong.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Outside Zimbabwe, Oliver Mtukudzi's style of music is described as jazz or world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MUTAVARA")

OLIVER MTUKUDZI: (Singing in foreign language).

LIMBONG: But in Zimbabwe, Mtukudzi was so big, people just refer to it by his nickname, Tuku music. It's a mix of various types of traditional Zimbabwean music blended with Western rock and pop - whatever he heard as a kid. His career began in the late 1970s, when he used that music to talk about the white minority rule in his country then known as Rhodesia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MUTAVARA")

MTUKUDZI: (Singing in foreign language).

LIMBONG: Mtukudzi told NPR in 2002 that this song was written as a message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MTUKUDZI: If you translate it, literally, it says, hit the drum, Mutavara. Hit it hard so that everybody else can hear and can follow your tune. But the actual meaning then wasn't like, hit the drum. It was like, take your arm and fight.

LIMBONG: Mtukudzi steered clear from naming names. He wanted his music to live on beyond specific people and events. But he did address the crisis of HIV and AIDS directly in his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODII")

MTUKUDZI: (Singing) Oh, todii.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

MTUKUDZI: (Singing) What shall we do?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language)

MTUKUDZI: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) What shall we do?

LIMBONG: This song, in particular, deals with issues of sexual violence and gender roles within the HIV and AIDS crisis in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. In 2013, he said he just wanted to open the conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MTUKUDZI: It's a song that was full of questions with no solution at all. And all those questions started making people talk about the disease and try and take the stigma away from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODII")

MTUKUDZI: (Singing in foreign language).

LIMBONG: Throughout his career, Oliver Mtukudzi released more than 60 albums and toured the world despite personal tragedy. His son and collaborator, Sam, died in a car accident in 2010. Oliver Mtukudzi saw music as a way to relieve grief and defuse tension. It wasn't about forgetting your problems, but giving a reason to dance in the face of them. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODII")

MTUKUDZI: (Singing) Oh, todii. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.

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