(Article from Alex at http://splintersandcandy.com/)
Chris Berry is a student of the mbira, the traditional African thumb piano that is sacred to the Shona people. He spent eight years in Zimbabwe studying the instrument and learning about its role in rituals and ceremonies. He traveled deep into the forest and played music with the Bayaka people, bringing a mobile studio with him to record multilayered compositions. As the acoustic mbira is difficult to properly amplify, Berry imagined an electric version with pickups. In order to get the sound he wanted, Berry modified his mbira.
“I cut the mbira in half and sent one side out through a guitar amp, and another side out to the bass amp. I had to go back and redesign the mbira, as it was too tinny and live and make all the keys twice the thickness, or more. I needed a deader sound.” – Chris Berry
This altered version of the mbira is at the center of Berry’s latest album, King of Me, on Kanaga System Krush. A traditional mbira typically has 21 keys. Berry’s mbira has 16 keys in addition to the original 21, giving him 37 notes to work with. Since his instrument has an extended range, Berry handles guitar and bass parts on his own while he sings. Joining him on the record is Ivory Coast drummer Abou Diarrassouba (The Wailers, Easy Star All-Stars, The Mighty Diamonds), who digs into complex polyrhythmic African rhythms on his drum kit. Percussionist Daniel Moreno (George Benson, Don Cherry, Salif Keita) and Malian djembe player Moussa Camara round out the rhythm section. Malian singer Awa Sangho (Les Go de Koteba) and sultry songstress Deja Solis add rich vocals to the mix. This stripped-down group provides the perfect backing for Berry’s original compositions.
“I laid myself bare. It’s easy to hide behind a rambunctious horn section. Big arrangements can take the heat off you as an artist. But now, there’s nothing to hide behind. After all I’ve done, this is who I am.” – Chris Berry
King of Me reveals how dynamic Berry’s electric mbira is. The songs are propelled by striking mbira arrangements which cover treble, bass, melody and percussion all-in-one. The gritty texture of the instrument gets under your skin and the rhythmic groove of the band sets this album alight. Listen to “Sekai,” a song dedicated to Berry’s daughter, above and watch a video below where he demonstrates the electric mbira and compares it with a traditional, acoustic mbira. Chris Berry is on tour, so take a look at the dates on his facebook page