I’m guilty. 12 years ago, when I was traveling around Zimbabwe-recording the more unusual types of mbira, I finally found a man that played the elusive Mbira DzaVaNdau. His name is Temba Kumbula. Like many of us, I had been bitten hard by the bug that is mbira music. I was obsessed, there is no doubt. Hearing those sounds of that particular instrument, I was transfixed, and a desire to learn that music was unavoidable (as it had been for me when exposed to njari, matepe, munyonga, and nyanga as well). I was only in the rural area that he lived for two days. The first day, we made introductions, and I told him about how I was recording musicians and if I ever sold the music, I’d send them back the money for the recordings. I asked if he knew of any other mbira players in the area and he knew of one other. I asked if he would send for him and then the next day we could record. I also discovered that Mr. Kumbula built his own instrument.
The next day, we recorded the music that ended up on the From Chimanimani to Birchnaugh Bridge album. It was an amazing recording session. At the end of the session, I was convinced that I wanted to learn how to play the Mbira DzaVaNdau-but how? I didn’t have one. I asked Mr. Kumbula if he would sell me his instrument. It was many years ago, but I believe I offered him something like $100 or maybe even $200 US. It was probably more money than he had ever seen at one time. He thought about it for a moment and quickly agreed. We both had smiles on our faces. Mr. Kumbula was kind enough to also record a couple of songs as lessons for me to get started. Soon after, I was all packed up and on my way. I imagine it was like a whirlwind that seemed like a dream-some white guy from the US blowing in, recording him and his friend, giving him a lot of money for his instrument, and then gone the next minute.
But then what? This was a man who had been severely affected by the recent Storms and flooding that had destroyed much of Mozambique (just across the border). Their house was literally several pieces of metal leaned up against each other to protect them from the elements. Even the man’s deze was made from a discarded metal oil can. Mr. Kumbula sold me his only musical instrument-the instrument that his son Zivanai also played on. He was a builder, so surely he could just build himself another mbira. But as someone who has built maybe 100 mbiras can tell you, building them is not easy. It takes time. In the rural areas, people work all the time-to plant crops or farm or get ready for the next planting. There are times when there is no work, but in this mans case, could he afford to take 3 days or a week off of work to build himself a new instrument? To find a tree to get the wood? To find the metal scraps for keys? If I was to guess, he was in his mid 30’s, so he had a better chance than some to do just that, but what about buying an instrument from an old man? If we buy the only instrument of a 70+ year old man, can we realistically expect that he will build himself another one?
We have all heard the stories of the missionaries coming to Zimbabwe and burning mbiras-almost destroying the music forever. But what about this? What about this second wave of rich foreigners coming and buying the primary instruments for old people-people who managed to keep the music alive through the war? Are our dollars and excitement not possibly achieving the same result of potentially snuffing out a lineage of mbira forever?
I have done this myself. I bought a man’s primary instrument. I am guilty. I am thankful for the opportunity to learn from my mistakes, and hopefully this post will help educate some other friends about this dangerous practice.
Please, friends-fellow lovers of this music-do not buy the only instrument of a musician. If he is a builder, let him (or her) build you an instrument. Wait a few days. If you can’t wait, give them a deposit and come back. Then it will be your instrument, where you can put in your magic energy.