Bruce Ndlovu, Life correspondent
While the world of music is mourning the passing on of legendary South African jazz musician Ray Phiri, one man who should be particularly grateful to the recently deceased guitar wizard is Zimbabwean superstar Oliver Mtukudzi.
Phiri passed on last Tuesday at a Nelspruit clinic, two months after getting diagnosed with lung cancer. Phiri dedicated most of the 70 years of his life to music, becoming a guitar player par excellence during a storied career. From Paul Simon to his work with Stimela, Phiri’s magical fingers tickled guitar strings to beautiful effect, with his work on the instrument becoming the highlight of many hit tunes.
However, unknown to many, Phiri also had a hand in crafting Tuku music, a sound that has become a staple for ears in Zimbabwe and beyond. This little known fact was revealed by a still fit Phiri to musician and cultural critic Admire Kudita in an interview.
“I played a role in the creation of Tuku Music. We used to go to Harare where there was Radio One. It had four tracks and West Nkosi would invite me to the sessions in Harare (then Salisbury). I spent a lot of time shuttling into this country but did not actually live here.
“Then producer West Nkosi (of the then Gallo now Gramma Records) would record the music and we would go back to South Africa and dissect it. If you look at Tuku’s music it has a very South African music influence. It was the session band that would record Tuku’s music in the studio recordings and then West Nkosi would have him down in Jo’burg to record alone,” said Phiri who was visiting Zimbabwe as part of the South African delegation for Zimbabwe International Trade Fair.
According to Phiri, a man described as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the world of music and showbiz, the guitar work on Tuku’s first few projects bears marks of his signature sound. However, because he was a gun for hire working as a session musician, he was never credited for his input.
“Bakhithi Khumalo would play bass and Isaac Mtshali would play drums adding a mbaqanga/smanje smanje feel. If you ask him and he is honest, he will confirm this. If you listen to the very first albums of Oliver Mtukudzi you will hear that was my guitar work but I am not credited because the idea was to build the Black Spirits and we were just sessionists for hire. The Black Spirits of the ‘70s were the very first successful recording group. We also worked with the Elisha Josamus and would take those guys and record them,” said the late guitarist.
According to the man who spoke to the jazz maestro, Kudita, at the time of the interview the music legend had seemed somewhat disappointed with the lack of acknowledgement that his work had got, particularly as the Tuku music brand grew in leaps and bounds over the years.
“He told me that he played on Tuku’s early records in the 70s but as he spoke I noticed what seemed to be regret at the fact that it is a little acknowledged fact by the singer himself,” said Kudita.
However, Tuku’s manager, Sam Mataure, was not available to confirm whether the two legends had indeed worked together to craft the sound that so many have grown to love.