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.