Oliver Mtukudzi, a Zimbabwean musician who became one of Africa’s best-known performers, died Jan. 23 at a hospital in the capital city of Harare. He was 66.
Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper reported that Mr. Mtukudzi died of complications from diabetes.
With his distinctive husky voice, Mr. 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. In 1980, he celebrated Zimbabwe’s independence by singing the country’s new national anthem, “Ishe Komborera Africa” (God Bless Africa) with a reggae inflection.
Tuku, as he was widely known, avoided political controversy. The closest he came was with his 2001 song “Wasakara,” which in the Shona language means “accept that you are old” and was taken as a message to autocratic leader Robert Mugabe to retire. (Mugabe, now 94, was forced from the presidency by members of his own party in 2017 and replaced by his former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa.)
Paul Mangwana, a senior official with Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, praised Mr. 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.
In a country where political tensions are high and party loyalties matter, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. Mtukudzi wrote songs in a style that were a mix of Zimbabwean and neighboring South African rhythms that became known at “Tuku music.”
Oliver Mtukudzi was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Sept. 22, 1952, and enjoyed his first burst of popularity with the band Wagon Wheels in the late 1970s.
A complete list of survivors was not immediately available, but he reportedly had a fraught personal life, with at least one of his daughters, entertainer Selmor Mtukudzi, calling him a neglectful father. One of his sons, musician Sam Mtukudzi, died in a car accident in 2010.