IF you’ve ever dreamt of playing alongside Afro-jazz legend Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, just drop into his studio in Zimbabwe and pick up an instrument.
Mtukudzi – one of Africa’s most famous and admired musicians – has an open-door policy at his arts centre in Norton, 50 kilometres west of Harare.
Aged 65 and with more than 60 albums under his belt, the self-taught singer and guitarist says the centre provides a home for all musicians, particularly youngsters who often face disapproval from their parents at home.
Named “Pakare Paye”, which translates as “same old place” in the Shona language, it charges no fees, employs no tutors and follows no curriculum.
“This is not a school,” Mtukudzi told AFP during a break from rehearsals at the sprawling complex of thatched and brick one-storey buildings.
“We don’t deal with education here – we deal with talent. A college says, ‘we will teach you’ but we say ‘you have got it, let’s learn'”.
The husky-voiced Mtukudzi, whose stage name is Tuku, said he started to plan the centre after realising the problems he confronted in the 1970s when he began singing still existed.
Zimbabwean parents often frown on the arts as a profession, preferring their children take up careers in the law or medicine.
Seeking a mentor
For decades, young artists seeking a supportive mentor would head to Mtukudzi’s house in the town of Kwekwe, carrying their song scripts or just showing off their dancing and choreography stunts.
His daughter Shami jokes that “our house was the first arts centre”, recounting how the home was flooded with aspiring artists.
“These children are not appreciated at home, they are looking for somewhere to be appreciated and I offer that,” Mtukudzi said.
“Then I thought – let me look for a place where I can attend to the youngsters.”
Set on a three-hectare plot and equipped with a recording studio, multiple indoor and outdoor stages and accommodation chalets, the centre has fostered many musicians and performers since it was opened in 2004.
Mtukudzi allows students to just come along and try out instruments.
He listens carefully and when he has identified which ones they are good at, he encourages them to practice hard.
His approach is to set them on the path to becoming self-taught, like he was, rather than being the teacher, but he helps them later on to fine-tune their talent.
Guitarist Rodwell Roda, 33, is one graduate who started music when he was just 14 years old.
“My parents did not want me to play a guitar,” said Roda, who now plays in Tuku’s resident band, The Black Spirits.
“So I used to borrow a guitar from friends and practise outside.
“The moment I came here, I started to learn more things, and learnt to be more humble… It doesn’t mean to play with him, you have to have pride.”
A ‘free platform’
Fiona Gwena, 26, is another graduate who also now sings with Tuku and plays percussion.
“I just had a passion for music so after school I heard of this place and came here in 2012. It’s a free platform,” said Gwena.
Three years ago, Bright Shumba, 31, quit his job as a heavy-duty machine operator in the western coal-mining town of Hwange to pursue his dream.
“My wife and mother didn’t understand that I chose to leave my job (for music). Luckily I met Tuku. To me he is not just an artist… he is like a spiritual father,” said Shumba.
Using his personal savings, Mtukudzi bought an old factory, tore it down and built the centre, which also teaches sound engineering, theatre and dance.
Funding now comes from income earned on the chalets as well as a traditional restaurant open to locals and tourists.
“I want to showcase what they can do, and from there I inspire them by appreciating them,” said Mtukudzi.
Shrugs off celebrity
Through nearly four grim decades of brutal repression of dissent and economic collapse under former president Robert Mugabe, Mtukudzi has come to embody achievement.
He made his first recording in 1973 at the then Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation.
He later toured the world and is still releasing albums – the 67th named “Hanya’Ga” meaning “Concern” in February – and he was rated by Forbes magazine one of Africa’s 10 most bankable artists.
But he shrugs off such acclaim.
“I don’t even understand the word celebrity,” he said.
Instead he sets great store by the words of his mother, who said that he would never sing a note better than his first scream after his birth.
“It means when I was born I had already started singing. This is who I am.”