Oliver Mtukudzi [Photo: Courtesy]

Upon the sad news of Zimbabwean great Oliver Mtukudzi’s death in 2019 (at 66, in Avenues Clinic in Harare), the national anthem on most of our radio stations was his song ‘Todii’ – which also so happens to be the ONLY song of Mtukudzi that most Kenyans know.

On shows like Khainga Okembwa’s KBC one, one heard tributes to ‘Tuku’ (his pet name) through the prism of ‘Todii.’ ‘Todii was the song that we got up to back in the day (2000),’ one listener reminisced. ‘Thank you (late) Waweru Mburu ‘Wembe’ of Citizen for the memories around Todii …’ Another listener said he thought the lyrics ‘What Shall We Do?’ in Todii were actually ‘Wacha Wivu.’

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Me too! In fact, the song Todii, sang mostly in Shona (with smatterings of English) and in Mtukudzi’s glorious and melodious voice – (that saw him rise from being a young band singer with Wagon Wheels at Club Mutanga in the late 1970s to being a legend who tanga tanga’d across the globe giving shows) – was about AIDS.

Oliver Mtukudzi, once on a visit to Kenya, joked that if our people understood Shona, ‘I am sure Todii would not be all this popular in Kenya.’ Of course, what is not politically correct these days is to consider HIV diagnosis as a death sentence. But back in 1999, the epidemic was at an all-time high – so much so that some doomsayers were predicting that the average African’s lifespan would be 45 years by 2005. (In fact, by last year, 63 is the average lifespan of an African, a decade below the global life expectancy average)).

Two million Africans had passed away of AIDS in 1999, so Todii was timely in this tragic epoch. According to a UN report on the epidemic released in the June of 2000, the pre-ARV period, ‘the average AIDS victim is an African who will contract the disease before their 25th year, and who will not live to see their thirty fifth birthday.’

I had a relative diagnosed in 1999 who passed on shortly after turning 34, and wrote a ‘Todii’ like piece of poetry still in my possession that captures the blame game and sheer mortal despair the disease caused back in that time, a bit of dark art from a dying heart. ‘You had an extraordinary talent for sin/ and you were in a trance thinking you shouldn’t die alone/ Save a bottle of brandy in case I get admitted/ I’ll take all the pills to kill the pain/

Life was a sickness without a cure/ you didn’t have to be vengeful it will get us anyway/ You don’t have to take the blame, because you were cursed, cursed since your birth/ And all your worst fears were bound to come true, anyway. That’s the reason your hellos always sounded like bon voyage …’

But the sheer musicality of Todii’s delivery, plus the language barrier, took away the sting of its message – and paradoxically made the messenger Oliver Mtukudzi a household name across the continent for the two decades of life left to him.

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On the international stage, Prince had bestrode the decade between 1982-1992 like a colossus, making hit record after hit record, even as he got into epic battles with the sorts of Sony Music, in a bid to regain control of his musical backlist. In fact, it can be said in that decade, there were no emperors ruling the Earth.

There was only Prince! And in 1999, no song was partied harder to than his epic ‘1999.’ Yet, very few of the folks raving to its catchy tune suspected Prince had written it in the 1980s, inspired by the AIDS scare that was then sweeping like the Horseman of the Apocalypse across America. Like a lot of great art, the message was meshed not into the music, but right in your face.