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African Jazz

Zimbabwe: Shona Mbira Music

By Published: January 16, 2003
Listeners curious about the way mbira music develops should pay close attention to this recording. The first two tracks isolate the instruments, which in this case consist of two mbiras and one hosho, before the complete piece appears in its entirety. The lead mbira player starts off with a melodic figure, consisting of plucked notes around a loose harmony, repeated in a cyclical fashion. A couple of cycles later, the second mbira player steps in to provide counterpoint and contrast. The interlocking notes have a pointillist feel, partly due to the nature of the instrument and partly due to the style of the music. Perhaps a suitable European analogy would be the coupled figures of a fugue or invention, where two lines of related melodies intersect at unusual angles. But that's only a crude approximation, of course.

Improvisation plays a key role on Shona Mbira Music, despite the formal structure any traditional piece may have. While mbira music may sound repetitive to naive ears, it's the very nature of the repetition that provides emphasis and a framework for variation. Improvisation takes the form of subtle changes in rhythm or melody, still structured around a common theme. Variations both traditional (time-tested substitutions and changes) and novel (invented on the spot by the player) appear in this music.

While the supporting players vary a great deal on this record, the common denominator is Hakurotwi Mude. Mude's mastery of the mbira supports his tremendous versatility as a vocalist—proficient in huro (a treble style featuring yodeling), mahon'era (a lower pitched style of paced riffs), and the kudeketera style of ancient poetry that younger players call "deep Shona." Not to overstate the point, but Mude has no equal in this department, and the way he brings disparate elements together is magical.

For listeners unfamiliar with the vocal elements of Shona music, these songs will provide a wonderful awakening. And as a broad general introduction to the variety of styles and approaches of mbira music, this record is exceptional.

Various Artists
The Soul of Mbira: Traditions of the Shona People
Nonesuch Explorer Series 79704-2
2002 (1973)

Lest we forget the purpose of the mbira, The Soul Of Mbira serves as a potent reminder. First and foremost, the instrument serves as a spiritual channel. In Shona culture, that means it's a medium for trance and awakening. Whether in small groups or in the setting of an entire gathered village, the music has the power to transport listeners across space and time. This feature of mbira music aligns it closely with many other traditions found on the African continent: the trance drumming of West Africa (and its New World derivatives in Cuba and Haiti) and the ritual flutes of Morocco, for example. In each case, there is no audience per se. Everyone present participates in one way or another.

Like all these traditions, mbira music is extremely repetitive. The fundamental unit is a central cycle that repeats indefinitely until the end of a piece—and no, there are no rhythmic interludes or closing splashes. The many notes that make up each cycle come out of shifting patterns on the mbira, whose keys are arranged to support certain motifs important to Shona music. And (very importantly!) the hosho (shaker) player unceasingly restates the rhythm of each piece. Each piece on these three traditional mbira recordings (aside from solo performances) include a hosho. A message from Shona players: do not leave home without it.

The opening piece on The Soul of Mbira is an excerpt from a bira (ancient spiritual ceremony). The same traditional piece appears on Shona Mbira Music, but it's a totally different species here in a large group setting. Each person present is a performer, in some sense—whether singing, clapping, or dancing.

This recording also goes to the opposite extreme, presenting the work of Simon Mashoko and two other mbira players who have mastered their tradition to the point where they can deliver it convincingly without accompaniment. While playing the mbira in a conventional groups can be demanding with the constant need for counterpoint, it's truly a virtuoso feat in the solo setting. Mashoko's mbira playing has many layers, intertwined and coursing throughout two pieces. His style flits back and forth from lyric-dense vocalizations on the bottom end to whistles and yodeling on the top.

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