The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
MGCINI Nyoni remembers the day that he decided that he would like to dedicate the rest of his life to the arts.
Back then, he was still a biology teacher and had taken Dinyane High School from Tsholotsho to the national drama finals. He had done so against the odds. Initially the headmaster at the school had been against the idea of even participating in the preliminary stages of the competition. Instead of ignoring it as he has been instructed, Nyoni had replied the letter confirming the school’s participation in the competition without his boss’ consent. Soon the team he led was sweeping all competitors before it.
“I took it to the school head and he said forget it. I actually went against him and registered for the competition and when the school received correspondence that’s when the school head and everyone else got interested. So we went through all the rounds and qualified for the national finals in Harare,” he told Sunday Life.
The day of those national finals in the capital remains painted brilliantly on his mind. It was on that fateful day that he saw a young prodigy giving a master class in musical instrumentation.
That young man, unknown to the untrained eye of a biology teacher from an obscure school in Matabeleland North, was about to win the heart of the first of many disciples that would follow him as his life in music blossomed.
It was, for Nyoni, like watching a flower spread its petals in full bloom. Decked out in his Prince Edward High School gear, the prodigy did not put a foot wrong and by the time he had taken full flight, some time in the middle of that breathtaking performance, he had stolen Nyoni’s heart. His life, from that moment, would be dedicated to the arts.
“That was the first time that I saw the late Sam Mtukudzi. Sam Mtukudzi was with Prince Edward High School. At the time I did not know who he was. When I saw him, he played every bit of marimba instrument that was there.
I understand all those instruments give a different sound like bass or whatever. He was playing all those instruments on his own during a song. He would go from one, dump the sticks that he was playing with and then jump on to the next. He was taking turns with the other PE boys but he was obviously leading the process. I was fascinated.
I was busy wondering who this boy was and then someone said this is Oliver Mtukudzi’s son. At the time I just dismissed it as empty talk,” he said.
It was this young man, then unknown to the thousands who would later follow him in his later career, who convinced him to drop his chalk and cap his red marking pen. His true calling had just nudged him on the shoulder and he could not ignore it. At Sam Mtukudzi’s hands, his teaching career had come to an end.
“That was the day that I saw something special. My mind kept replaying what that boy had been doing with his marimba. Of course I saw other presentations from other schools but I think it inspired me. It triggered a feeling in me and from that point on I felt that I want to be a part of this world.
This world is where I belong. I quit my job that year. With no plan in mind I just quit,” he said.
Nyoni has come a long way since those days as awestruck days.
Today he is regarded as perhaps one of the leading voices in the arts in the Bulawayo despite the fact his work itself is silent. Pictures do not speak much and neither does the man who takes them. His work however, is very loud. In the last few years, he has done a tremendous job of documenting the city’s art and its artistes.
He won the grudging approval of some hard to please critics including Sam’s father, Oliver, a man who was known for his disdain of anything less than perfect.
Only a few months before he passed away, Nyoni had a chance to see the man and myth that was Tuku from behind his lens. On that day, not knowing that it would be the last time he takes a picture of the legend before he returned to dust, Nyoni was awestruck not only by his obvious star quality but his respect and reverence for the man behind the camera.
“What I love about working with senior artistes is that they respect specialisation. When I told Tuku, because he knew we were having a photo shoot, what kind of shoot that I wanted he actually packed a suitcase specifically for that particular occasion. He took my lead and allowed me to direct him. So I directed the shoot and he would actually ask what he had to do at any particular moment,” he said.
Tuku, he said, has been a model professional in front of the camera as he was on stage. Of the hundreds of artistes’ pictures in his archive, Tuku’s images stick out.
“I did great collaborations with Oliver Mtukudzi. Even on a bad day he would deliver. He knew he was talented. Talent plus hard work pus dedication plus experience creates skill. He was now skillful in his craft. He knew what he was doing. I don’t photograph artistes, I collaborate with them.”
A collaboration is two artistes coming together to make a work of excellence. If an artiste is rubbish on stage, my work will also show that.
That’s because that artiste is not giving me the right energy. Sometimes if I’m at a show and its bad I’ll put away my camera after five minutes because I’d have realised that there’s no opportunity for a collaboration,” he said.
That work with Tuku would not go unnoticed. When the legend passed away, Nyoni’s image of Tuku would find itself on the cover of the Cape Town Jazz Festival in February, becoming the music extravaganza’s lasting image of the music champion. Not all the feedback was positive.
The image would also be noticed by rivals too and some of them felt that he did not deserve such an honour.
“You know what a fellow photographer said? He said something I thought was silly. Instead of congratulating me on that cover he said he should start photographing musicians that are going to die. He thought I made it to the cover because Tuku had died which is silly.
Unfortunately for that photographer he’s not going to grow because he did not realise I made it to that cover because of my skill. Many photographers have taken a picture of Tuku, including that photographer, but mine was the one that made it,” he said.
But how did the biology teacher actually become a photographer? After all Nyoni was known in Bulawayo arts circles as a poet and a writer before earning his stripes as a photographer under the guidance and encouragement of photographer extraordinaire KB Mpofu and city arts juggernaut Tswarelo Mothobe.
“After I quit my job I was commissioned by a certain organisation to come up with a theatre piece and film it. I felt that this was strange and so instead I suggested that we make a film instead. They had their own ideas and when I got the budget money I decided to buy a camera than hire a camera.
I did that and when the project was done I wondered what I would do with the camera. I’m already a poet and I’m already a theatre person so I thought perhaps that’s where I should start — the arts. That was that,” he said.