The first feature article in the Celebrating Female Mbira Series will be on the late Jenny Muchumi. This is an extract from an article written by Denver Banda for Mbira.org based on a 2007 interview. We would like to thank Mbira.org for allowing us to post the article on Zvembira.com
A voice rings out loud into the star studded sky of an August night in Mhondoro. Its familiar energy and clarity seem to be taunting the spirits and ancestors to rejoin the living, and moving the living to a wild crescendo…Suddenly, she ululates, ululates again as the high notes on the mbira ring out complementing her ululation:
“Mbira, Hosho, Mbira, Hosho, Mbira, Hosho, Mbira, Manja, Hosho, Manja, Mbira!!”
Jenny Muchumi was born on 9 June 1950 during the kurova guva (ceremony to bring a new ancestral spirit back to the community) season. Njuma Kraal in Seke Communal Area celebrated when Tangwara Chingwaru and Esnath Mandizvidza welcomed their first child into a family that would grow to two boys and five girls of the VaSeke clan. Jenny grew up at Njuma Kraal under the watchful eye of her grandmother Ambuya Hurugumi, who was the medium of a mhepo spirit called Chingumira. Jenny lived with her grandmother because her parents worked as farm laborers in the Dewedzo area of Rusape, and it was not a good place for a young child. Also, as the first child, and first grandchild, she was the pride and joy of her parents and grandmother.
Ambuya Harugumi had a banya (ceremonial hut) called Zvakapindwa, which she used for rituals and for holding court with other great spirits. It is in this banya, and at her grandmother’s home, that Jenny learned about traditional music. It was a key component to the activities that went on in the banya and in the healing sessions that took place at home.
It was the late Canaan Jirira, a cousin who played for her grandmother, who taught Jenny her first mbira songs. She was taught the kushaura (lead) parts of the traditional mbira repertoire. In 1964, Jenny was good enough to play for her grandmother in the banya, as well as when her grandmother healed people. Ambuya Harugumi noted that Jenny was the first woman in the clan to play mbira, and she instructed Canaan Jira and Elias Mhizha (her aunt’s son) to teach Jenny as much as they could. The teaching method was that Canaan and Elias would play mbira, and Jenny would observe their hand movements and the keys they hit. She would then replicate the same keys on a different instrument.
Jenny Muchumi attended school up to Standard Five, which is the equivalent of five or six years of primary education. It was expensive, and neither her parents nor her grandmother could afford to keep sending her to school.
“My folks stayed far from home, and the failure to finish school made me love the mbira more, because it was an outlet that compensated for the education that I did not receive. My parents and grandmother understood why I had so much love for the mbira.”
Muchumi enjoys playing mbira in the bira and at dandaros (ceremonies)more than playing solo. She chuckles before she speaks animatedly, “I love playing mbira in the bira more because the true barometer of my prowess is the participants’ response to my singing, and their dancing.”
Jenny’s favorite song is Mahororo, and she attributes this to the fact that it is an ancient piece that fixes everything in ceremonies. Her second favorite is Pamuroro Ndodzungaira, and she loves the song for the interlocking patterns that emerge as one plays. On singing styles, Jenny Muchumi loves the huro (yodeling) and kudeketera (poetry and commentary). She loves these two singing styles because they afford her the freedom to weave in and out of the mbira notes, and her voice will be finishing the notes that the mbira misses especially at the beginnings and at the ends. Jenny also whistles when she plays mbira,
“The whistling came about as a result of the male spirit that I in me, it will be in the background waiting to break free. The ululation is the perfect and powerful complement to the whistle because it cancels out the male and balance is maintained.”
When Jenny helped her ambuya (grandmother) in the banya, she was not compensated in any way. She played so that her grandmother would work with the svikiros (spirit mediums) and midzimu (spirits) who came to Njuma Kraal. Canaan Jirira usually played the kutsinhira (intertwining part) and Jenny played the kushaura (lead part).
“I never learnt to play kutsinhira, that is my handicap. But, the fact that I sing, whistle, play ngoma (drums), hosho (gourd rattles) and dance all make up for this in the long run, for they are my kutsinhira parts.”
In performance, Jenny dances unique old style steps. Approniah Makate, a follower of bira ceremony trends in the Mhondoro rural area noted that when Jenny is dancing,
“Her feet become the hands that drum the floor in steady rhythms that all prop up the mbira musicians’ playing. Her feet become the bass drum to the music, I do not know how she does it but I think she gets help from somewhere (implying spirits).”
When asked where the dance steps come form, Jenny simply says she started dancing at her grandmother’s banya at ceremonies, and she does not know how the actual movements started.
Muchumi is very good at kukuza mbira (encouraging musicians and participants in the ceremony). She uses the words “Mbira”, “Hosho” (rattles), “Manja” (handclaps) and “Ngoma” (drums) to liven up the people. When she calls out them in their order, the mbira players are reenergized, the hosho players increase their tempo, the handclappers increase their volume and the crispness of their clapping, and the ngoma player rolls his mutumba (type of drum). The resulting effect is the true experience of a traditional mbira ceremony in Zimbabwe.
On the new styles of playing Jenny had this to say,
“We should put our authentic culture on the forefront. Personally, I prefer the old mbira pieces. The new ways are sweet to the ear and to the pocket, but they do not have depth and they aren’t for our traditional orientation. I hear that some are singing Christian hymns on the mbira. I have nothing against diversity and creativity but mixing religions is not my thing.”
In this respect, Muchumi is echoing the sentiments of many mbira players who prefer the old ways of doing things. As much as the music is dynamic, all mbira players acknowledge that the old songs are powerful.
Born Jane Chingodza, Jenny married Musekiwa Muchumi in 1967; together they had seven children, two girls and five boys. Musekiwa was a n’anga (traditional healer), and Jenny’s mbira playing was helpful to his practice. She helped him with his practice in the Mufakose area of Harare. When he retired from work, they moved with the family to what was then Mhondoro Tribal Trust Lands. Jenny continued to play mbira in Mhondoro, and she had the advantage of being a female mbira player.
“There were no lady mbira players in Mhondoro. but it was a hub of male mbira players. It was to my benefit that, for a change, they had a woman playing, and this was how I gained the upper hand over the men.”
Starting in the early 1990s, Jenny’s husband suffered from mental illness, thought to be a result of a family vendetta. Her husband’s relatives did deal with the problem, and it has persisted. With her husband incapacitated, Jenny turned to both music and subsistence farming to support her family. As the main breadwinner for the family, the proceeds from her MBIRA recordings, and from her performances, are taking care of her husband and grandchildren.
Jenny has teamed up at various times with the late young Simon Hoto, Crispen Mashayamombe, Alois Mutinhiri, Rodwell Muturikwa and Friday Chamunorwa, over the years she has been in Mhondoro. Her most consistent partner was Simon Hoto, who taught her more kushaura (lead part) variations to various songs, and his singing added variety to Jenny’s huge repertoire of singing styles. Jenny and Simon’s performances were always packed because they had an undeniable attachment with the music, and the fact that they worked together for a long time made their music polished powerful. The proceeds form their performances were shared equally despite the fact that she was the leader of the group.
When Simon Hoto died, Jenny stopped playing mbira much for a while. She eventually started playing again when she teamed up with Simon’s friends Mudavanhu Magaya and Denver Banda, and Muda’s father, Cosmas Magaya. Jenny has been a crucial part of their group Mhuri yekwaMagaya for the past seven years with her vocals, mbira and dance. She has performed at important functions, including the installation of Chief Mashayamombe.
Jenny believes that the most important thing when it comes to mbira music is,
“Doing the right thing always, be it singing, playing, dancing or drumming. Authenticity sets us apart from the commercial and tourist mbira that is on the radio.”
To pass the knowledge on, Jenny has been teaching her grandson Alan Chashaya, and son Stanley, to play mbira.
Jenny Muchumi taught, and performed with Vakaranga Venharetare, including Patience Chaitezvi and Erica Azim, in the US during 2008.