Rise of the mbira instrument

True, pure, chaste and proudly Zimbabwean, the Mbira instrument produces inimitable and unique melodies that tell a story of a people’s rich cultural relationship with the spiritual world. Because of this connection with the spiritual, mbira is a very political instrument in Zimbabwe hence it was at one point during colonialism banned as it was labelled an evil instrument belonging to the dark, damned satanic world.

As a result, after independence in Zimbabwe, mbira music did not develop as fast as it should have, limiting itself only to spiritual ceremonies, thus anybody who played mbira was thought to be directly connected to the ancestors.

Now 26 years after independence, Zimbabwe is slowly but surely trying to restore the correct image that the mbira instrument, through its music exudes. This has been a long painful process, but with the country’s first ever Mbira Festival that took place yesterday in Harare, the labouring have begun paying off.

This festival, which featured Zimbabwean Mbira Queen, Mbuya Stella Chiweshe and mbira princess, Chiwoniso Maraire saw experienced and budding mbira groups battling for top honours. However, mbira groups have not always been this many and the question we ask today is what has triggered the phenomenal rise of mbira groups in recent years?

Tinashe Mukumbi, manager of popular mbira artiste, Matemai attributed the rise of mbira music to better organisation and the existence of proper management structures.

“Club owners and promoters want groups with genuine management structures that they can deal with and of late mbira groups have been able to do that. I can tell you now that now Matemai has a contract with Jameson Hotel to play every Friday and Saturday. Playing in these up-market places has also exposed a different kind of audience to mbira music hence the music continues to spread its wings,” Mukumbi said.

He also added that mbira groups were now getting more recognition because some of them are not only singing about spiritual issues but also diversifying their message to deal with lighter issues and daily challenges such as HIV/Aids.

“For this reason, first and foremost people are listening to mbira music as a form of music, appreciating it as a genre of music. They are now more comfortable with just the beat and the message in the music and not necessarily what the instrument signifies,” he said.

On the hand, Albert Chimedza a mbira promoter and player himself, who has been at he forefront of commercialising mbira music through his Gonan’ombe Mbira Centre believe that mbira music and mbira groups have always been around, what has changed, according to him is the wider coverage of mbira in the media.

“Groups such as Mbira dzeNharira and Mushawaparara have always been there since the 80s, its just they were not getting enough publicity. They are getting more publicity because they are getting more commercial otherwise they will starve to death,” Chimedza said.

But because mbira is a religious and political instrument, it could be argued that people are now getting past the negative colonial perceptions that were associated with mbira music. It could be a matter of people shaking off mental slavery inherent in the colonial system.

It is against this background that Chiwoniso Maraire, Zimbabwe’s most polished mbira musician attributes the reception of mbira music in recent years to a deeper spiritual awareness that is getting to people.

“People are moving on. They are reaching a deeper spiritual awareness and getting over the stigma that has been associated with mbira. I always knew this would happen and it was just a matter of time before this natural process would happen and now it’s happening.

“Solid, serious promoters of Mbira were long overdue but they are here now. Any form of music needs vigilant marketing,” Chiwoniso.

Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole should preserve and foster this uniquely African musical heritage hence the need to incorporate mbira music into Zimbabwean formal education.

If our young understand and appreciate the African traditional music forms in the same manner they appreciate the piano and the flute then we can be sure our culture and history is in safe hands.

People also need to exploit African indigenous knowledge fully. The mbira instrument may be the starting point with potential to open both artistic and commercial possibilities of mbira as a contemporary musical instrument.

November 2006
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