Last year Gilbert went to a mbira making workshop, he blogged about it and his personal journey with mbira. Here is the blog for those who missed it. Comes with great photos. Enjoy!
My personal journey with mbira
So, I love mbira music, its rhythms and swirls just take me places.
5 years ago, out of the blue, I felt that I needed to play mbira. This was surprising, as I really didn’t know what an mbira was, or what mbira music was … but I felt a need.
I found an mbira ‘shop’ on the internet, & ordered. The mbira arrived from the USA, I thumbed its keys. Searching the internet, I found a small amount of information & help. Best was musical score notations of 2 or 3 traditional Shona mbira pieces. I set about learning them. It was DIFFICULT!
A couple of months later, I found a mention of a man called Chartwell Dutiro, a Zimbabwean man, born & bred in mbira, who, it said, ran an annual mbira camp in Devon. Suddenly, I had a way into the music.
The camp was like heaven … I was surrounded by mbira music 20 hours a day, I could listen to some of the very best players in Europe, I could LEARN. It was still DIFFICULT, but on the last day, playing a first duet with another beginner, hearing ourselves weave 2 rhythms together to make something bigger, I was hooked.
Since then, I’ve played mbira pretty much every day, it gets better, and it gets easier, but the road only gets longer, as I begin to understand more possibilities within this simple yet incredibly dense music. Mbira has brought me new friends, new experiences, new ways of learning & still most important, deep deep music.
A great opportunity arises!
So … into the present , & to the business of this essay … I’m a practical guy, I love making things … I’d like to make an mbira. BUT, where to start? I have by now, 3 beautiful mbiras, so good that I could not hope to equal their sound, or even come close, if I was to make my own, so maybe I’ll just leave it?
But then, suddenly, a chance …
“Dear mbira playing friends,
I am sending you notification of an ‘Mbira Making Workshop’ that Mhararano Mbira Academy is hosting for our great friend and Master Mbira Maker, Sebastian Pott who is coming over to the UK from Germany.
This workshop will take place in Dartington, Totnes, Devon from 30th March to 3rd April inclusive”
So, here we go …
Day One: Arrival and Making a Gwariva
Arriving at Bowden House, near Totnes in Devon, UK, Josh (who travelled with me) & I found ourselves in a small group of like-minded souls, each of us ready to make an mbira.. It was a beautiful sunny Friday morning. We had 5 days, 10am – 5pm … time enough. We ambled into the shed that was to be our workshop, lugging the tools & anvils (a short section of railway track in my case) that we’d rounded up from home.
Sebastian Pott, our expert master for the workshop, brought a selection of timber for our soundboards. He talked us through the different qualities of Paduak, Walnut, Sapele & Mubvamaropa timbers. We each chose a piece of timber and set to sawing out our boards, and then planing them to thickness. For many of us, this was all new. Saws … yes, planes … err maybe. Sebastian gave help where it was needed, direction where he could.
Sebastian’s style of teaching was already in evidence. He was totally keen that we should make these instruments for ourselves. Yes, he would give every assistance, but he pushed us to stand on our own feet as soon as possible. Perfect, I think.
Having squared up our boards, and got them down to the required thickness, it was time to start carving. Would we like to use a router to do the rough work? Or go the hard way & chisel all? Some went one way, some the other.
The end of Day One saw us with our boards carved out, and mostly with the steel bridge in place. It had been a lot slower than I’d have guessed, but each board, or gwariva, now looked beautiful … & kind of ‘proper’.
Day Two: The Keys
Doug & Andy had found beds with friends, Pete was in his camper, Jodie & Peter lived locally, Josh & I being extremely hardy/foolhardy had decided to camp. The community at Bowden House gave us a lovely place to pitch, under tall thin birch trees, amongst daffodils & primroses. We campers awoke to a frost, but a nice morning.
Gathering for 10am, we set to work. Those who still needed to fit bridges got on with that, others moved on to the bar that holds the keys in place from above. both of these parts of the making are very critical in their positioning … Sebastian started giving us measurements in half millimetres! I have never worked to that sort of measurement before. I swear he was just mucking me around …
So, we had boards with bridge & bar fitted. Now onto the major work … making the keys.
Now, what do you think an mbira key is made of? Clearly we are all beyond thinking that they might be sawn off spoon handles, but I for one had heard stories of many re-cycled items being used … bed springs, motorcycle spokes, bits of umbrella etc.
Well the answer, for us anyway, was that yes these things can be used … I think Jodie did use some bedspring … but our main source was to be round steel rods.
We had to transform this steel into even, tuned mbira keys. Under Sebastian’s watchful eye, we began to hammer. Each key has to be hit hard & repeatedly, slowly squeezing the metal outwards, carefully shaping it so that the key will be widest at its tip, thinning as you look down on it as it moves towards where it will sit on the bridge. This means that it also thickens vertically as it approaches the bridge. Beyond the bridge, the rod needs to be hammered from its circular section to a flattened rectangle.
As we began to hammer, the shape began to come! … It worked! … Hammer, hammer, hammer, hammer, hammer … after an age I had my 1st key. It had a pattern caused by the pitting of the railway track that I was using as an anvil, it gently snaked its way from bridge to tip, it seemed impossibly long. I fitted it to the board, twanged it, and … it sounded like an mbira key. I was on my way.
That evening, I had a gig in Totnes to play, with the Bristol based band, Zango. I was a little envious of the others, maybe making a second key before stopping, but I had to go. I’d fondly thought that my fellow mbira makers might come along to the gig … it was traditional mbira music after all … but no, they just kept hammering! Apparently, they were made to down tools at 9pm. I can’t say that I blame them, we were on a mission now. I’d have done the same.
Days Three & Four : More Keys
Peter, the only member of the Bowden house community in our group, found that it took all his power to stop the early risers from starting hammering soon after 7am! Hammering is LOUD, and we had many neighbours. We edged towards our anvils, desperate to get making more keys, but respected the morning quiet. Our 1st keys had taken an average of something over an hour … we had 3 days left, needed 24 keys each, and Sebastian had intimated that there was going to be a lot of filing after the hammering. We NEEDED to GET ON! And we did. The sunny days allowed us to work outside when we wanted, the speed began to pick up. We GOT BUSY!
Each person’s character was beginning to be reflected in their boards & keys. Pete’s board was sanded beautifully to a super-smooth finish, he hammered his keys with precision to an equally smooth shine. He worried constantly over the slightest imperfection. Light-framed Jodie found the hammering hard work, she hammered slowly with a smaller hammer … she made beautiful keys. Josh worked slowly, making wonderful keys … me, I bashed them out as quick as possible. My gwavira is not totally square, I didn’t want it sanded too much … my keys had a ‘patina’ of hammer marks, ripples & shapes! I loved them, I envied others’ precision. They envied my speed … & loved THEIR keys.
We had each selected our boards with their different timbers, and importantly, we had each selected the style & tuning of mbira that we wished to make. Jodie wanted a smallish ‘concert pitch’ tuning on a mubvamaropa board, lowest note C, to play with a jazz outfit, Andy wanted a 23 key ‘Devon Nyamaropa’ on sapele, Peter a Devon Nyamaropa on glorious blood red Paduak. Pete, hoping to play with piano, violin etc. was making a concert pitch ‘A’, Doug & Josh wanted the tuning of Chartwell’s home village … a medium low mavembe tuning known as Dindinyongwe, both opted for mubvamaropa. Me, I love mubvamaropa, the traditional Zimbabwean mbira timber, that feels something like olive wood to hold … warm & just slightly waxy … & I set myself to make a bass-y nyamaropa tuning known as Dambatsoko, after the village of the same name. This meant that I needed the biggest, longest keys, meaning I’d set myself the most hammering.
The work was hard & heavy, but we had a goal … just one more key, & then one more. Slowly, our boards began to fill with keys edging their way from bass notes upwards. We began each key with a slightly shorter piece of rod than that used for the one before. This produces a slightly higher tuned key, which in turn produces the typical layout of the mbira dza vadzimu.
On Sunday evening, Chartwell, his wife, Jenny, and daughter, Paida, invited us to their house for a meal & music. Chartwell cooked 2 succulent meat dishes, Catherine Rose (a mainstay of Mhararano) helped with side dishes. We ate heartily, drank a little, and then turned to mbira. Sitting, full of food, playing these beautiful tunes that are the reason that we are all there, I think it was perfect. Hearing each person add their part to the music, some flying high on variations, others just keeping up, the speed inevitably getting faster, yes … perfect. Tired heads and thumbs sore from the tools as well as playing, we bid goodnight. Our dreams were all off mbira I am sure. I know my waking thoughts were of the next key, of tuning.
We all knew that we were behind schedule, but that just made us more determined. We could do it. 8 keys a day. I finished Day 3 with 12 … if I could make 12 more the next day that would leave me a whole day for filing & tuning … that ought to be enough time.
We kept hammering. We began to test tuning, using instruments that were already complete where we could, or for the ‘concert pitch’ mbiras, a little battery powered tuner. We also began to file the keys to shape & pitch.
In fact, at the beginning of the official Day 4 (many of us had started early again), Sebastian told us to take a break from hammering & start to learn about filing. He showed us how to use the vice in such a way that it will not damage the key, how to remove metal from the right area of the key to get the note to move sharper or flatter as required, how to shape the keys. I liked filing, it made my keys transform from weird snaky things into pretty straight, regular keys. I sort of regretted their loss of ‘character’, but they began to look like REAL keys.
We began to pick out small tunes on our few keys. Working our way across the 7 bass notes gave us the first octave(nearly), then it was onto the keys for the upper left register.
Now, another problem began to make my life difficult … spacing. Building a low tuned mbira meant that I needed to be using thick steel rod. My keys were taking up too much space at the bridge and above. I couldn’t fit them all in.
Doug, Andy & Jodie had to leave at the end of Day 4, so Sebastian helped them particularly. None of them got finished, but they all went away with the skills necessary to finishing for themselves. Well actually, Doug & Jodie did, Andy decided that he just couldn’t leave, and didn’t! I felt for Doug & Jodie … I knew how much I wanted to leave with a complete mbira, but I knew that they could do it for themselves at home. Doug’s fairly central Oxford neighbours may be in for a bit of a shock though!
And we were 5. The hammering was pretty much behind us now, today was about filing, fitting & tuning. This is repetetive work for the beginner … you test a key, find that at its required position & length, its a little sharp maybe. So you tap it out of the mbira with a hammer, put it into the vice, file a little something & tap it back into position on the board. Guess what … its now a little flat … so you repeat the process & again, and again for 24 keys. Also, I swear they change themselves. What was correct becomes sharp, and its back to the process one more time. I’m not naturally good at repetetive tasks like this, I have to make myself patient, tell myself that its coming together, and will work.
I’m beginning to wonder at this point if it will all be worthwhile. My mbira doesn’t seem to sound very good. I hear others’ part-made mbiras & they sound much better. Was I an idiot to hurry my keys along? Whats the point of making an mbira that I won’t want to play? They say that every building project has its low times … and mbira making seems the same for me.
When Sebastian tells me that one of my keys is unusable, I just set to bashing out a replacement. I realise that I can now make a key pretty accurately in a few minutes … I’m really progressing. Poor Josh, who has the fewest keys finished, gets told that 3 of his keys will not do …
Andy suddenly emerges from his corner with a finished mbira! Sebastian drills a finger hole for him, and Andy plays it. It sounds GREAT. Chartwell, who has been teasing us all, constantly asking if he can borrow our mbiras to play, knowing full well that we have only some keys, is beaming as he tries out this one. Wow! Wow! Wow!
I have to get back to Gloucestershire, and Josh to Yorkshire. We realise that we are not going to finish, nor are Pete or Peter. Its disappointing, especially since by this time I am SO close. However, we will finish them very soon.
Its been a GREAT workshop, with GREAT people.
The reason that we were all there was to make mbiras. We worked in a proper dedicated fashion towards that goal.
We laughed continuously, hammered till our muscles burned, hammered some more, filed like demons, ate well, laughed some more. Sometimes we had to just push on through. We queued for Sebastian’s attention & help. As it became clear that we were getting behind, each of us became slightly manic … working faster, thinking faster, moving faster … & also, most apparently, each of us began to understand the process, to become confident in our ability to hammer out a key, shape it, file it, fit it to the growing mbira, test its tuning, remove it, fettle it, place it in again, test it … we learnt to do these things that were dark arts to us all beforehand.
Sebastian’s total generosity in sharing his hard won, self-taught skills gave us all a grounding in mbira making. We have a long long way to go, but I hope that we’re all pretty pleased with the results of our labour.
When Andy completed his mbira, the first to do so, we looked in awe. Chartwell had a play on it … it sounded wonderful, it looked wonderful. He’d done it, Andy had made himself an MBIRA.
2 minutes later, the rest of us were hard back at it. We wanted to finish too! We REALLY WANTED it! File, test, hammer onwards …
My greatest love & thanks to Sebastian. My total respect also. Mbira making, even at the simples level, is not easy. To hammer out keys which will work for pitch, have complimentary overtones, look great & require very little filing, as he can do … well … that’s skill.
Moreover, Sebastian proved himself a natural teacher. Good humoured throughout … despite our inept attempts at times … hard working, exacting, understanding … the poor guy must be shattered. His was the hardest job, he did not have a moment’s rest, he was always in demand. I owe him.
Thanks also to Chartwell Dutiro, who had the vision of Mhararano, the new Mbira Academy, based at Dartington, Devon. This workshop took place under the umbrella of Mhararano. Thanks also to Chartwell & his family for welcoming us on Sunday evening.
Thanks to Catherine Rose, Chartwell’s number one helper at Mhararano, who took many of these photos, often brought us lunch, and did much of the leg work to make the workshop happen.
Thanks to Bowden House for welcoming us, to Doug King-Smith in particular, for allowing us use of his wonderful self-built workshop, The Woodshed
Thanks to Peter & Geraldine, Peter who made himself an mbira also liaised between the community & the workshop, Geraldine made us wonderful evening meals. Thank you.
At the end of the workshop, I had a very nearly finished mbira … it really only still needed fine-tuning, a finger hole drilling, buzzers fitting & general tidy up. I gave myself 2 days off from it while I got back to the day-job, and then, as Friday was Good Friday, I spent the afternoon doing those things. Friday night, I played my own Dambatsoko mbira!