When Tuku sang for women…Looking back at Tuku’s Neria and Tozeza Baba

Oliver Mutukudzi

Oliver Mutukudzi

Bruce Ndlovu

LAST week, as the country joined the rest of the globe in celebrating World Women’s Day during Women’s Month, one would have been hard pressed to find a hit on the airwaves that spoke for the gender being celebrated.

From rappers whose lyrics drip with uncontained lust for the fairer sex to singers crooning for the damsels of their dreams, there is no shortage of songs that glorify women or their bodies.

When one listens to the radio, women it seems, are the sun around which the worlds of most musicians spin. However, in a society where women’s oppression is still a big talking point, precious few of those songs touch at the heart of their suffering. Beyond their beauty or curvaceous bodies, where are the songs that show the ugly side of being a woman?

One man who has not been shy to touch on the not so sweet or romantic side of woman is Zimbabwe’s own superstar Oliver Mtukudzi.

As a veteran with over 60 albums to his name, Tuku’s discography is littered with gems that shine the light on the trials and tribulations of the everyday Zimbabwean.

Few of those songs however, have had the profound impact of Neria and Tozeza Baba, two songs whose message is timeless.

The inspiration behind Neria is common knowledge in Zimbabwean music. The song’s lasting effect perhaps was aided by the fact that it is a rarity on the Zimbabwean showbiz scene: the perfect soundtrack to an equally outstanding movie.

On its own, even without association with the 1993 movie from which it took its name from, Tuku’s effort is cinematic. Through metaphor and double meaning, the lyricist, has always been known to paint moving pictures with his words.

However, on Neria, he proves that his pen does not need his lyrics to inspire head scratching for him to paint a vivid picture. In this song’s case, it is indeed a bleak portrait that the master musician conjures up.

“Vanhukadzi vanobatwa senhapwa, kugara senherera

Usaore moyo ka Neria, Mwari anewe,”he sings.

As heartbreaking as these lyrics, they capture life as it is for many Zimbabwean widows, who are often as left as destitute as the children that depend on them when their husbands pass away.

Before even the last bit of dust has been shovelled on their loved one’s graves, they become subjected to the most humiliating treatment from people they consider kith and kin.

Musically, the song shows Tuku at his irresistible best. Mtukudzi and his acoustic guitar are the co-stars in the track as, stripping the song of almost every other instrument, Tuku delivers his message with heartbreaking precision.

Neria is sorrowful yet beautiful and does a good job of showcasing the fact that Tuku is perhaps aware that a song’s message alone will not carry the day. It is only when a song is dressed in good instrumentation and catchy melody that fans will give it an audience.

While Neria sees Tuku in an advisory role, telling a widow to hold on as the vultures circle above, Tozeza Baba sees a fully grown Tuku take on the role of a child disgusted and disgruntled by a father’s actions.

While in Neria he sounds like a concerned brother or uncle whispering motivational advice to a down and out sister, on Tozeza Baba he sounds like an agitated son standing outside a growth point bar, pouring his scornful heart out for the whole village to hear. Besides his admittance that he was so poor that he never wore shoes to school, not much is known about the musician’s upbringing, making it hard to tell if the song’s subject matter is a reflection of his own childhood.

Regardless of the fact whether the song’s lyrics are Tuku’s biography in song or not, what is not in dispute is that he touched on a subject that is relevant and timeless.

Years after he put pen to pad and wrote that masterpiece, domestic violence is still a problem of epidemic proportions in Zimbabwe. Last year, police noted that domestic violence cases were on the increase in Zimbabwe, with police records showing that some 40 500 cases were reported between January and September alone.

Unlike Neria, Tozeza Baba can be described as a fun track, which is surprising given the topics that it tackles. Abusive husbands, traumatised children and alcoholism are all woven into a tune that moves along at breakneck speed. That the song was not weighed down by its heavy subject matter is perhaps further testament to Tuku’s mastery of song, as it is a track that one can dance to despite the issues that it raises.

“Imi Baba imi manyanya” begins, admonishing a father who has clearly gone overboard with his wife bashing. Tozeza Baba, the song’s chorus says, but throughout its duration the song’s tone is that of mockery and admonishment rather than fear. Clearly this is a child that has had enough of an errant father’s behaviour.

As the song reaches its end, Tuku maintains a playful tone, with the explosion of drum, mbira and guitar taking a track that mixes fun and seriousness in equal measure to an exciting, climatic finish.