Listeners who come to traditional African music from the American variety will find it a refreshingly organic experience. The sonorities reflect a variety of instruments both ancient and modern, including drums and percussion instruments (of course) but also extending far beyond to strings, flutes, and a wide range of plucked or hammered metal and wood instruments. The mbira, from the latter category, is this month's subject.
The mbira, constructed by attaching a series of tuned metal strips to a wooden platform, is best known in Western circles as the thumb piano. While that term may help us to understand the construction of the instrument, it does not do the mbira justice. The mbira is more a medium than a piece of hardware. In the Shona tradition of Zimbabwe, mbira musicians represent the wise men of the culture; their performance often serves as a catalyst for spiritual awakening. They usually perform in groups that include at least two mbiras, a hosho (shaker), and at least one singer. Instrumentalists most commonly also sing.
In a large ceremonial gathering called a bira, musicians provide a framework for group participationincluding dance and song, but also a passage into trance. At some point, performers may put down their instruments and step forward into a sort of awakening. Younger musicians refer to the high-level performance of ancient Shona poetry as "deep Shona," a language that only elders can truly understand.
The four mbira discs under consideration this month include three traditional recordings and one modern interpretation.
The first three represent a portion of the traditional African material recently released by Nonesuch as part of its Explorer Series (which in time will be huge). These recordings originally appeared decades ago, and have just been revised (remastered and beautifully packaged) for reissue. The final disc, by Stella Chiweshe, is an interesting cross-cultural fusion of Shona mbira music with other styles. Look here for prominent use of the marimba, an instrument which originated in Zimbabwe.
Dumisani Abraham Maraire
The African Mbira: Music of the Shona People
Nonesuch Explorer Series 79703-2
Of the three Nonesuch mbira records, The African Mbira offers the greatest sense of continuity. That's because the entire recording was made by the same group of musicians: Dumisani Maraire (the leader) on mbira and vocals, Nkosana Maraire on hosho (shaker) and vocals, and Shukuti Chiora on vocals. The single mbira voice is somewhat unusual in Shona music, since two mbiras usually duet in performance. But that leaves more space for the hosho player and vocalists to fill with color and accent. Almost no mbira music features drums, and this recording is no exception.
While one might expect the instruments to play a lead role in Shona music, reality often turns out quite the opposite. They provide a framework for vocal performance by the leader and his accompanists, lending both a strong sense of time (through the prominent pulse of the hosho and the polyrhythmic energy of the mbira) and melody (a parameter specified by each tune and developed over time on the mbira). Each song is rooted in repertoire, which in total extends to over a hundred pieces.
The formal lyrics of a given piece are often quite vague, from a sentence to a phrase to a single word. Dumisani fills in the rest as he goes. Like a blues man, Dumisani relates a mood, accompanying himself on the mbira as he goes. Vocal perfection in our usual sense is irrelevant; emotional transparency and spirituality come first. The subjects relate to sorrow, endurance, respect, and praise. And like the blues man, Dumisani does not travel far from main themes. Repetition exists everywhere, at times becoming the primary thematic figure. While the words here may be unfamiliar to American audiences, the liner notes do an excellent job of relating central ideas.
The mbira maintains a constant forward rhythm throughout each song, presented in short motifs that cycle indefinitely through simple harmonies. Its rich timbral soundgenerated by thumbs and index finger on the actual instrument as it sits within a resonant gourd with rattlesreflects both the mbira's own characteristic warm glow and the higher pitched events that come and go with each stroke. The counterpoint achieved by simultaneously playing two parts gives the feel of two players, which is particularly dramatic in this setting. (Interestingly, the harmonies on this record occasionally bring to mind the three-part mbaqanga styles of South Africa, which borders Zimbabwe on the south.)
Dumisani's tragic passing in 1999 makes this record key, since it documents his distinctive style.
Shona Mbira Music
Nonesuch Explorer Series 79710-2
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 vocalistproficient 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.
The Soul of Mbira: Traditions of the Shona People
Nonesuch Explorer Series 79704-2
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 pieceand 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 sensewhether 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.
Perhaps most revealing are the words: the liner notes convey the utter poetry of his work. Symbolism, metaphor, and deep abstractions surge throughout "Mbiriviri." Mashoko, to his credit, deals out a great deal of the unexpected. Midway through the story, he runs into a group of old men who break his "mat" (mbira) and replace it with a cow ("zva... zva... zva..."). Then he comes across a group trying to milk a frog. Psychadelic, yes. Mashoko puts it simply: "When I sing, you never know where I'm going next." The soul of mbira is poetry, and Mashoko serves as a wonderful example.
Talking Mbira: Spirits of Liberation
Heresy! Mbira music with electric guitars? What have the children come to?!
If there's anything that defines the Shona mbira music of Zimbabwe, it's spirituality and tradition. The instrument has become so integrated into magic and culture that it's generally performed only by men who have spent a lifetime mastering it. They rely on traditional pieces and melodic figures, reinforced by the layout of the instrument and common elements of group interaction. Mbira performances include mbiras, shakers, and vocals, and that's basically it.
Stella Chiweshe has decided to hold on to some of these traditions and dispose of the rest. She overcame her first problem, being female in a male-dominated culture, by stepping forward and creating serious art. (That's no small thing. She's the first woman to lead a band in Zimbabwe.)
She also disposed of the limited instrumentation of traditional Shona culture by introducing drums, electric guitar and bassand, most notably, the marimba. Based on Chiweshe's combinations, the marimba and the mbira quite simply belong together. The marimba, a relatively recent invention in Zimbabwe, offers a warm wooden resonance to balance the ringing sound of the mbira. On all but two tracks of Talking Mbira, two marimbas appear along with one or two mbiras.
And that's where Chiweshe holds on to tradition. The melodies of her songs are inviting and accessible (read: World Music), but the underpinnings retain the interlocking patterns that have long defined mbira music. Her introduction of marimbas follows closely on the interlocking patterns and motifs of traditional Shona music. Rather than diluting or distracting from Chiweshe's own mbira playing, these instruments augment and enrich the music. In some sense, they become deeper mbiras. The idea is inventive, yet still built on the foundation of generations of ancestors. Bonus points for Chiweshe making this particular connection.