Mbira UK

An opinion piece by Andreas Keller (Nannus) This article was originally a comment to an article by Ignatius Mabasa on this post Zimbabwe: Artistes Must Try New Things.

The question raised in Mabasa’s article is whether musicians should innovate or just preserve the old music.

I think both must be done. I think the traditional mbira music is of great value and efforts should be made to preserve, teach and perform as well as document it, in the form of transcriptions, recordings and so on. Also, texts should be written down, translated (to make them accessible to a wider and international audience) and commented in order to provide the context that interested people might not have. This would be good for people who are not Shona, like myself (I am German) or even a younger generation of Shona who grow up in an international, modern and perhaps less traditional cultural setting. I hope some musicians will take up the challenge to keep and preserve the old music and I hope a large enough audience can be found to finance this. This music is just too good to allow it to be lost.

But new things should also be added. Exchange with musicians and artists from other parts of the world are not a bad thing. Just as Zimbabwean musicians are also using electric guitars and have done so for quite some time (like, for example, Thomas Mapfumo) and use it to play their own style of music, musicians from other countries might use Mbiras and develop the music for it into their own directions.
Tradition is nothing that has ever stayed constant; otherwise all the peoples of Africa or even the world would have exactly the same music. The perception of tradition as something static is wrong. The large diversity that exists is the result of creativity and innovation at all times. Every “traditional” tune has been invented once by somebody. The Mbira has once been invented by somebody, starting with simpler instruments. Some things that seem to be old traditions are maybe only a few decades old, others maybe just one or two hundred years.
And quite often, cultural developments are the result of international exchange. The Shona sculptures mentioned in Ignatius Mabasa’s article, for example, are a recent development, started in the late 1950s and partially triggered by Europeans like Frank McEwen.
However, having observed how music has been developing in Africa over the last 30 years, I see three dangers:
The first is the danger of a loss of quality through commercialization. There are too many sad examples of African musicians who choose money over quality and adapted their music to the taste of Europeans or Americans in order to sell more. This is a legitimate choice to make, but it is still regrettable from my point of view, since I enjoy musical diversity.
Secondly, there might be a danger of music and culture being engrossed and thereby restricted by nationalistic ideologies. I don’t know if this is the case in Zimbabwe, but generally I think that such ideologies lead to a loss of creativity and quality.
The third danger is that, in the age of TV and the internet, people from the young generation might be completely turning away from the music of their parents. This trend towards music that is “cool” (but often not very good) moves hand in hand with the trend towards commercialization mentioned above.
What might help in all these cases would be an attempt to educate young people to appreciate diversity and quality and, as a result, appreciate the music of their ancestors as something worth preserving, but without restricting them to it. Personally I like a lot of different types of music, and Zimbabwean Mbira music is one of them. I would be happy to see (or hear) it being preserved as well as being developed into new and interesting directions.

15 Replies to “A View on Innovation and Preservation in African Music”

  1. A well written post, I absolutely agree for the most part. However, as a long time lover and player of all types of music, I must say that it is often the youth I turn to for new sounds and inspiration. The older generation tend to get ‘stuck in their ways’, I know I am guilty of this to an extent. Commercialisation (and loss of culture) runs through all generations unfortunately! The use of synthesis, computers and new ‘instruments’ (like record decks?!) are something that comes as second nature to the younger generation and therefore opens up creative potential that is simply not accessible to some older folk! I believe this is why I often find that really exciting new tracks nearly always come from the youth. This is real ‘cool’ rather than commercial ‘cool’…

    1. You are right. But there are also young people who learn old instruments, for example violin or piano, and then learn to play very old classical music. I would like to see this happening with the classical music of Africa as well. On the other hand, it is true that exciting new music often comes from young people (although there are great examples of extremely good music being composed by old people as well).

  2. I really liked that you stated one thing that people often either choose to forget or ignore, the fact that tradition is not static. It might not change rapidly but it is never static. I think there is now uneasiness about changes because of the pace of change. People fear that change happening too fast would totally destroy the traditional stuff. Sometimes I wonder to myself, if it was going to change anyway with time but not as fast does it really matter?

    1. Every tradition is the result of innovations in the past. I am absolutely not opposed to innovation. I just think an effort should be made to keep what is good. At least music should be recorded. One can also try to write it down in some notation (if the western musical notation is not appropriate for this, a new one should be invented. Maybe that has been done already, I don’t know). Recording and transcribing music has the danger of fixing it in one form when actually, in the minds of people, there is a higher diversity and variability, but it is better than loosing the music. This problem can partially be met by recording as many versions of the same tune as possible. When people playing Mbira are filmed, it is, I think, a good idea to film them from behind, so the movements of the hands are visible. It is then possible, in case their knowledge gets lost, to reconstruct what they where doing from the film. A recording with a mobile phone camera uploaded to youtube is better than nothing. In Zimbabwe there are maybe not so many people yet who can do this, but I see more and more such recordings appearing on the web, from Mbira music and other traditions. Having recordings and transcriptions is better than nothing but it would be fine if actually some people would cary on the tradition actively by keeping the old songs alive. The same is true, by the way, of dance.

      1. Absolutely true. One of my worries at the moment is that lots of mbira recordings are not accessible to Zimbabweans in Zimbabwe. I know for certain that most stuff we listen to and access online is not easily accessible to many in Zim. I think it is absolutely important that recordings are made so that when we talk of changes in future we actually have reference points instead of working on assumption. I think you just opened up a line for a new blog post to consider for me! The issue of access to recordings 🙂

  3. Cool article!! I wrote a small comment also in response to Mr Mabasa’s article which had a few areas that I thought were problematic.
    The article largely missed the mark by looking at local traditional music only in the context of entertainment, ignoring its central and unchangeable role in traditional rites as well as its charm to different people on a path to spiritual discovery or not :).
    Priority now goes to discussing actual ways and interventions to support experimentation in, notation and documentation of traditional music as well as developing a viable market for it inside and outside Zimbabwe instead of pushing false alarms.
    In reality, life for the emerging dreadlocked, weed smoking artist, as Mabasa puts it, is hard enough and for him to experiment is even harder given his need to eat on a daily basis. There are no frictional jobs to support him while he waits for positive results.
    The only available option is to play the popular music that the conservative local radio is playing to the conservative local audiences.
    Experimentation requires resources, exposure, support and encouragement from those who hold the best interest of Zimbabwean arts and culture at heart with full confidence in who we are now and what we agree to become.

    1. I don’t know much about the role of Mbira music in the context of traditional culture (I am a German living in Germany and I have never been to Zimbabwe), but this is definitely an important point.
      The other important point is money and the economical situation of the musicians. Where musicians have to live from their music, they have to adjust to whatever market is there. So both preservation of the old and inventing the new depend largely on money.
      The attitude of radio stations may change. They might become less conservative within a generation. If or when economy develops more strongly, the traditional culture will be challenged by modern consumer culture. In many parts of Africa, the old culture an the old music are quickly disappearing, and even the specifically African types of modern or pop music are retreating in many places, being replaced with things like American music or American style music. At the moment, Mbira music might not be threatened and innovation might be difficult for people inside Zimbabwe, but that might change and then a conscious effort would be needed to preserve both the old things and even modernized versions of the old music.

  4. Hi Nannus,

    First of all, with much respect and expecting an open mind reception between the people who’s been participating in this discussion, I’m going to give my opinion about this topic.

    I’m a “Latin-American” musician currently living in London. I completely agree with most of the things you say; but also I would like to clarified some points from a critical thinking perspective.

    The real issue here is not the “innovation of the Mbira”. Though You’ve clearly described (in a decent and respectful way) the dangers of the “develop” of music in Africa, this is more complex than personal tastes or a marketing thing. I come from a South America indigenous family, I grew up playing “tambora percussion” in Venezuela but I’m new to the Mbira world; I must say I’m in love with it. Every time I study an instrument, I always do my research about the roots behind it, the culture, the meaning and the language in which such instrument has been involved cause I know the importance of respecting other musical knowledges.

    You have to take into account that what is at stake here, is not a mere debate about “innovation” but a racist and asymmetric power relation within the world music knowledge. In fact, during the last 500 years west Europe (now USA, Australia, South Africa as well) have taken without any permission the global south cultural advances, so no matter how many blogs european-Usa people write about it, some of them always take everything without asking just to make “profit”; you know, the “money god”.

    Your opinion is valuable and respectable, but the real issue here is, that the time has come for the creators of those instruments to decide. For example, in countries like Colombia and Ecuador, some indigenous and african instruments have been destroyed FOREVER, just because some european hippies-hipsters decided to change the tuning into the westernized mode, without realising the fact that, killing that other simultaneity is another type of genocide, is what it’s called in Latin American philosophy as “epistemicide”: the killing or exploitation of another epistemology-cosmology in hands of the european modernity-coloniality.

    Someone could argue that, in “reality” the West world is helping to preserve those musical cosmologies in terms of sharing them at a global scale, paying a fair amount of money to African-indigenous masters and creators. Which is true when it’s done in a respectful way, for example the work of Erica Azim of Mbira.org seems honest and full of good willing and intentions; you can tell she is trying not only to preserve the instrument, but the old zimbabwean tradition as well. I also have known in my new Mbira journey other humble and helpful people like Ruth E. Bromley from Australia, etc.

    It’s important that some people from Europe-Usa understand the reason why zimbabwean (or any other global south tribes) musicians are forced to sell their instruments in order to find a modern slave job (mainly constructing “modern roads”…yes, the “American dream”), or migrate to the “develop first world” to clean white people toilets. We’re living in a “colonial matrix” supported by racism-sexism, and other Eurocentric hierarchies that includes, of course, AESTHETICS, that is: what is consider beauty and accepted as “ART”, which ends in a constant imposition or “globalization” where the market (led by a white man, not even a woman) is the one who decides what should be “innovated” (modernized) taking out all the substance and content from sacred musical knowledges in order to satisfied the cannibal capitalist economic system. Epistemicide. The same happens when some “missionaries” learn how to play our instruments in order to impose the Judeo Christhian religion over other ways of living spirituality (another west hierarchy of the current colonial matrix). You say:

    “Where musicians have to live from their music, they have to adjust to whatever market is there. So both preservation of the old and inventing the new depend largely on money”

    Which is a rather indifferent and shallow opinion that (as always happens in these topics) tends to ignore the REAL problem behind the instrument, the musical knowledge and the aboriginal-indigenous musicians.

    Other people could say: “come on, coloniality is a thing of the past” “you are the racist one, the anti-white one” “racism has always exists”. Yes, racism has always exists, but before 1492 was a local situation. Not every part of the world was racist, in other cases it was a mere prejudice against different people. After that date, racism has become GLOBAL and INSTITUTIONAL, supported by european modernity and its biological-scientificist theories of “evolution”. Imposing at a global scale “how things should or should not be”; which is not far from the debate about the “evolution of the Mbira”. You also say:

    “The perception of tradition as something static is wrong”

    Why? (Again the “evolution” discourse). There is nothing wrong with tradition as something “static” as there is nothing wrong with modernity and technology when are applied in a respectful way, in fact, thanks to these Mbira websites I’m able to learn more about the instrument and I can buy a new one whenever I want without going to Zimbabwe to do so: that’s the best example I can show about technology pros. But assuming that tradition as something static is “wrong” is the same mistake that the white men has made since René Descartes to this “Jay Z” days, is the european “Ego conquiro” speaking on behalf of the others; is the European-Usa arrogance at its best. It does not matter what colour you are, nowadays It’s a production of knowledge taking over the world, so we are all infected by that provincial arrogant mentality.

    I saw at the Zvembira Facebook page a Jay Z’s picture with this question:

    “Is it a good idea to try to get very famous musicians that have a worldwide following to be photographed with mbira in their hands? ”

    What bothers me, is that some african american people are so brainwashed by the media, that they even see this as the “cool” thing to do. They don’t even realised the risk of extinction of their own culture; some of them really believe brotha “Jay Z”, brotha “Obama” and “sista” Beyoncé, are good african models.

    That’s why I believe this debate is really about the preservation (or the killing) of cosmologies “others”. Not until west world understood these things, we’re going to be able to have a horizontal dialogue, an “equal to equal” debate.

    Excuse me if I sounded rude with this response (I know this is a rather delicate topic) but I couldn’t resist sharing my opinion.


    1. Hi Yanchama,
      Thanks for your contribution. I agree with most of what you say. Let me clarify some points. I think that I agree with you on most of the points you raise.
      I am closely associated with Africans since the early 1980s. I am married to an African and have a daughter with her. I think I have a very good understanding of what racism is (including some personal experience). Personally, my opinion about this is that races do not exist in a biological sense. They are socially or culturally constructed. The idea to divide people into races is maybe the most destructive idea anybody has ever come up with. I have stopped thinking in terms of races. I am not “white”, my wife is not “black” and my daughter is not “mixed”. We are all just human beings. My opinion is that these problems can only be solved if we stop completely to view ourselves and others in terms of “race”. Unfortunately, thinking in terms of race is still widespread. Many Africans, for example, think of themselves as “blacks” and define their identity in terms of that concept although that concept was invented by racists in order to exploit them . I suggest we stop using those terms. “Race” is a wicked concept. Scientifically, there are no races. The “scientific” race theories are a product of the 19th century.
      Yes, the relationship between the northern countries and the southern countries is asymmetric. What I hope for is that people just learn to value their own culture. There are many very wonderful traditions of music in Africa. I don’t know much about South American music but the little I know is great. People should value their traditions. There are also some “modern” or “pop” cultures. E.g. in West Africa there is the Highlife music that goes back about a hundred years, being as old as Jazz. I find it terrible that many people in the young generation now lose interest in it and only listen to hip-hop and things like that. In the end, everywhere music is going to sound the same, which is terrible. I believe our opinions on this point are very similar.
      When I wrote that traditions are not static I meant that the traditional music is the result of a development. For example, instruments like the Mbira where invented thousands of years ago, probably in what is now Cameroon. They spread all over Africa (and where later brought to South America as well). You find such instruments and music for them in a large part of Africa, but the instruments are all different and the music is all different, so obviously people have been innovative and creative all the time, inventing new things and changing the instruments and the music. So these traditions where never static. They have a rich and complex history. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with innovating. What I find terrible is that many people are denying their traditions and are actually killing it. What you describe as “epistimicide” (an excellent term, thank you) is partially the result of some kind of “auto-racism” of people I would describe as brainwashed. Many people seem to have some kind of inferiority complex. These attitudes have a history (you mention the missionaries who are part of that) and it is connected to the relationship of power between north and south that you also describe.
      You cite me writing “Where musicians have to live from their music, they have to adjust to whatever market is there. So both preservation of the old and inventing the new depend largely on money”. This is not my opinion but a description of the situation. Some musicians are forced by economic constraints to adapt their music to the market. This is a situation I find very unfortunate. It is not something I like. What I find unfortunate is that many people, especially in the younger generation, seem to lose the appreciation of the old music. Many young Africans now listen to American music instead. Many of the old types of traditional music are in danger of dying out, as well as many of the modern uniquely African traditions like Highlife and Soukous. Probably the situation is similar in South America. I am looking for a way to preserve the old music. That is why I wrote this article. I guess we are actually on the same side here.
      I don’t think it is wrong to develop new types of music and mix different traditions. But I would be very happy if some people just try to preserve the old music and succeed in convincing the young people of its value. I feel your anger and actually, I share it. I find it is a great loss if in the end, everything sounds the same and everybody is only listening to hip-hop.
      You write “For example, in countries like Colombia and Ecuador, some indigenous and african instruments have been destroyed FOREVER, just because some european hippies-hipsters decided to change the tuning into the westernized mode…”. I am totally on your side here. The differences in tunings and other aspects of musical cultures must be understood and appreciated (read, for example, my article on this blog about timbres in African music: http://zvembira.com/2013/08/12/buzzing-sounds/).
      I don’t agree with you in what you write about people like Beyoncé or Obama. They are not Africans. They are not obliged to be culturally African because they are “Black”. As I have written above, I think that the concept of race should be abolished COMPLETELY. If we do this, we see that the concept of “African Americans” is nonsense. Somebody can integrate a lot of African elements into his or her personal culture irrespective of having African or American ancestors. There are some types of “Black American” culture that have some African as well as some European influences and are distinct from some other American sub-cultures that have mainly European roots. But nobody is obliged to a certain culture because he has a certain ancestry or skin color. For example, my German father loved the music of Louis Armstrong (that is what I have been growing up with, hundreds, if not thousands of ours of this fantastic music) and I have learned some African dances (like Adowa and Makossa). I find European dance bizarre, although I am a European. In music, I love certain types of European music and certain types of African music. These things are not genetic or racial, they are completely and exclusively cultural and culture has nothing to do with your genes or your skin color or your ancestry. The culture of the “black” Americans is to a large part European. They are Americans, not Africans. I don’t see them as brainwashed (although their ancestors where definitely brainwashed). This is now their culture, and the opinion that they should regard themselves as Africans and adapt their culture seems racist to me. A “black” person does not have to adopt African culture because he or she is “black”. If he or she adopts elements of African culture because they are really great (as I have done myself) that is something fantastic. If they adopt elements of European culture because they are really great, that is also fantastic.
      You write: “That’s why I believe this debate is really about the preservation (or the killing) of cosmologies “others”. Not until west world understood these things, we’re going to be able to have a horizontal dialogue, an “equal to equal” debate.” Yes, I agree!

      Andreas (Nannus)

      1. Nannus,

        First of all, THANKS for being open to dialogue. I’d say 99% of the times I try to have this discussion with european activist, musicians, colonized immigrants, “Revolutionaries” and scholars, they always get angry at me or they just simple ignore me cause “what can a savage-primitive-indigenous like me teach them?”

        There is even someone in Facebook calling my opinion “Misconceptions and falsehoods”; and it appears to be an african man.

        I want to clarified some things. You completely MISUNDERSTOOD my concept of RACE. I completely AGREE with you: “RACE” is an invention, a social construction by europeans. I do not situated the creation of that myth in 19th century, even though I know was during that time when the concept was perfected by biological and scientificst discourses in order to control this “colonial matrix” and create a global division of work within a world-system, among other european inventions like the “Nation-state” concept (I dislike all types of “patriotism”). Also a UNI-versal epistemology-cosmology (modernity and its “dark” side, coloniality) that situates white people at the top, I mean, white men (not women).

        And this is the part I want to put on the table. Even though it’s true that “race” is a biological-scientificist creation (you have to take into account that when I say “BIOLOGICAL” I’m talking about a european “science” not about our actual bodies, skin, flesh) it’s important to realise that “discourses create materiality”; so the race “biological-scientificis european discourses” are so inside our imaginaries, that some people (the majority) ended up believing the lie, applying racism in their everyday life, and this is a major problem in the world nowadays, cause if people only understood this, it would be the end of the colonial matrix, myths like races and gender (inside a European patriarchy) are the base of the pyramid; without those creations the pyramid would collapse and white privileged would lost all their power. Which takes me to the other point:

        I believe (as well as you) that we are all HUMANS, cause we both know the concept of race is a LIE. But it happens to be that “race” as a social creation became real in the majority of people imagineries, in their “ontology” or the way they re-create/live their reality. They didn’t even have the option to chose different, it has been imposed during the last 500 years and still in charge.

        So please (and I’m asking this as a distant friend”) DON’T put me inside the “inferiority complex” BOX. Cause race – as a creation, a fiction – is RELEVANT nowadays. I have to deal with that everyday of my life. British people (europeans in general) have been very aggressive with me and my people (as well with global south people), so I find problematic your suggestion of “stop using that term”. I agree with you, “race” is a wicked term and it should be ABOLISHED, but it’s not that easy. We’re living in this colonial matrix, dominated not only by racism but by other europeans hierarchies like sexism (males over the rest), religion (Judeo-Christendom over the rest) , aesthetics (white conception of beauty over the rest), linguistic (imperial languages (english, french, spanish) over the rest, etc.

        I believe the solution is not only to eliminated the racist hierarchy, but the other ones as well. I believe ( as the Martinique’s thinker Aimé Cesairé say) in a PLURIVERSE, not a UNI-verse. A world where other worlds are possible without ONE civilization over the rest, but as well respecting our differences in a peaceful dialogue, cause even though I agree with you that we are all HUMANS, I don’t want to be inside the “MTV”, “Human rights”, “NATO” concept of “equality and diversity”, which accept our cultural differences only if we let the status quo intact: still servants.

        I never said: “Obama” “jay Z” and “Beyoncé” were Africans, I said that it is a shame that the majority of “African-Americans” believe they are “good african role models”. In fact, this point is a good example of how “RACE” is a lie, cause “globalization” is alienating different people under one cosmology, the “Jay Z-E entertainment” one (owned by white men). I believe you are saying something similar. I have known african and indigenous from “Latin America” acting whiter than white (white as a global production of knowledge not as the colour of the skin) and at the same time I have known white intelligent and humble people who understand this complex situation and are very respectful with other peoples land and cultures. I know some white people (excuse me for use this “differentiation of colours” but again, nowadays colour matters, you only have to turn on the television or go to the market) that respect and love african instruments more than some black people stuck in the american dream, idolising terrible people like Jay Z, Obama, or “sista” Beyoncé.

        Believe me, I wish everyone have the opportunity to understand these things, that’s the world I want but I know I wont see it. West – capitalist – civilization is declining, but it’s gonna take decades, probably a lot of war (I hope not) until human beings finds another way of living, another civilization, one without ONE privilege people over the rest.

        Is that, or the end of world history cause the actual civilization is killing LIFE in all its manifestations (plants, animals, humans).

        Thanks Andreas for being patient, for your link, and for not be violent in your response.


      2. P.D: Now I understand better your point about the “innovation” of the Mbira. I want you to know that I agree with you. You are talking about an equilibrium, a respectful relation between different “worlds”; instead of other people who just want to destroy the old sounds cause their modernized eyes can’t see beyond. As I said, nothing bad with tradition, nothing bad with modernity, when all is done with respect and from equal to equal position.

        I also understand your point about the money thing. Unfortunately, Whether we like it or not, we’re all entangled inside the capitalist net in this moment of history, so don’t get me wrong, as a musician I know the importance of earning money with dignity and not as a slave. My critique was against the people who use musical knowledge or heritages with perversity, just to make money.

        Probably what people like Jay Z or Kanye West would do if they start using the Mbira in their “art”.


  5. well i am supporting the idea of doing both, yes mbira sounds of zimbabwe can not go stagnant, but we need to hear different sounds mbira can make as an instrument and even when played with mixed instruments.. yes the mbira tunes originantes must be preserved.. we like to hear the nhemamusasa, mahururu, nyanamaropa, sounds in all the edited sounds .. if i look in the Latin america.. i can hear the salsa Colombian, salasa Cuban, salasa Chilean.. but i will always identify the rhythm of salsa… so Latin america is known by it’s variety in salasa musica.. in Congo we have the rumba , in brazil we have the kisomba, samba rhythm.. yes in zimbabwe we are having many rhythms originating. we have jit jive, which compose tunes of bit mbira using guitars,, .. now we have the mbira dzengerengere.. combining salsa and freelance mbira sounds… thus my sounds.. http://www.mixcloud.com/mcdawilliam/ so we need the mbira instrument to dominate the worlds, in china, in america etc… but also we need the singers to also expose the mbira orginal music.. which also composes culture of worshiping the ancestors.. a pulling factor in the mbira world.. for we have Christianity eradicating mbira sounds in zimbabwe as associated with demons washiping,,.. now MBIRA DZEMANGERENGERE, is a rhythm to use any mbira sound to compose an exciting dance and songs to eradicate the Christianity stereo type of mbira in zimbabwe.. enjoy my latest mbira dzengerengere song.. http://www.mixcloud.com/mcdawilliam/project-sabina-akandipfuhwira-ndirutsiseivo/

    1. Thanks for your views. I agree. There is a lot of variety and that is a very good thing.
      I think what you write about Christiian stereotypes is a very important point. Missionaries have played a very destructive roles for many cultures. In my opinion, the narrow-mindednes that some missionaries and priests are trying to spread really must be fought.It is probably impossible to convince religious fundamentalists, but you can try to convince everybody else.

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