The irony of the mbira instrument
While the mbira (thumb piano) instrument is being appreciated internationally, particularly in European and Asian countries, the instrument is struggling to make an impact in its native continent.
Originally, common types of mbira such as nhare, mbira dzavadzimu, nyunga nyunga, matepe and njari were pioneered by Southern Africa where the instrument was significant in the region’s tradition.
“The nhare and mbira dzavadzimu, which has 23 to 24 keys and 21 to 26 keys respectively originated from Zimbabwe. In the Zimbabwean tradition, nhare was used for rituals of communicating with Musikavanhu or Nyadenga (God) while mbira dzavadzimu was used on rituals of bringing the spirit of the dead back on its homestead,” said Jacob Mafuleni, a music director of Tsuro Art Centre, Harare.
Mafulani is a former member of popular mbira group, Mbira Dzenharira.
He said njari mbira, which has 30 to 32 keys, also originated from Zimbabwe particularly Masvingo and Makonde.
“The nyunga nyuga, which normally has 18 keys, originated from Mozambique where it traditionally played the entertainment role during social gatherings and commemorations,” he added.
“Mbira matepe, which has 26 keys originated from along the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.”
However, even though the African instrument played a significant role in African tradition, today mbira music is being overshadowed by other genres.
“In Zimbabwe mbira music is dead. The genre is no longer receiving airplay on both local and regional radio stations as it used to be. Whenever we listen to the radios, it is always Zim Dancehall, hip-hop, R‘n’B or Naija music,” said Mafuleni.
“Book Cafe used to be a relief for the dying genre because the venue used to schedule a platform for mbira music as well as other traditional music.
“It is ironic that mbira music is being more impactful in other continents than where it originated. For example in Japan, many Japanese love the mbira instrument so much that they have actually leant Zimbabwean songs on mbira. Others are actually manufacturing the instrument in Japan and exporting them internationally.
“We have other countries such as the United States of America (USA) where people are actually studying the history of mbira and appreciating the music.”
Mufuleni said he appreciates how some local artistes are modernising mbira music by incorporating an orchestra but some of the music has become way distant from mbira music.
Local song bird and mbira maestro, Hope Masike acknowledges the fact that mbira instrument and music is appreciated more abroad compared to native.
“I know several foreign friends studying mbira, it is sad that we have fewer mbira historians, writers, researchers and stuff here at home. Zimbabwe could own and develop mbira more profitably if the instrument is taken seriously,” said Masike.
“However, I am excited to note that mbira trend is now dynamic with players making great fusions with other instruments such Jah Prayzer type of music. We also have many other artists bringing new flavours such as Alexio Kawara, Diana Samukange and Fungisai Zvakavapano to mention a few.”
She said there are also efforts that have been made by people and organisations such as Ticha Muzavazi and Mbira Centre to introduce mbira in schools.
“We now have some people writing books on mbira, which was not there eight years ago when I started playing mbira professionally.”
In a separate interview, local singer Amara Brown told The Southern Times, “My mbira is well received wherever I go. I recently had an opportunity to incorporate it into South African musical group called Color Me Human at Joburg Theatre last year in November. The audience loved it night after night.
“However, I believe the international market has more appreciation of mbira just as much as they appreciate culture of all kinds more than we as Africans are accustomed to.”
She said there was a need to teach the youth how to play mbira among other native instruments to improve the appreciation of traditional music locally.
Brown added: “Mbira is not yet commercial because it has not formulated a genre. Artistes like Hope Masike and myself are trying to build a sky scraper with a few hands. It needs a movement.”