If you can learn the skill of learning mbira parts from recordings, there are many unique advantages:
– A good library of mbira recordings potentially provides more variations, and more ideas for different ways of playing a piece than you could ever possibly learn from a single teacher.
– You can use and abuse a recording in a way you can’t do with a real teacher (forcing it to play the same thing over and over again at your leisure)
– If you are slightly deranged and listen to lots of different recordings over and over again for months at a time, you will eventually start automatically playing parts that you’ve heard without having to sit down and consciously go through the process of learning them (a sort of musical osmosis)
– Acquiring the skill of learning by ear will allow you to ‘steal’ parts that people don’t want (or don’t have the time) to sit down and show you!
– Eventually, you will be able to learn parts very quickly. Sometimes just hearing a part once or twice will be enough to know what’s going on; even without having an mbira to hand to test out what you think you’re hearing. I’ve learned many parts on the way to work with my headphones on. Once you’ve done the initial work of decoding which keys are being played when, actually playing it yourself is relatively easy.
All recordings are not equal
If you haven’t learned parts from recordings before, you need to start with the right types of recording. Some specific recommended recordings will be listed at the end of this post, but what follows are some general points to keep in mind when selecting albums. For the most part, I’m going to recommend that you get all your recordings for this purpose from www.mbira.org as 99% of the albums Erica sells are field recordings as opposed to studio recordings. Almost all the studio recordings I’ve heard have too much going on in them (overdubbed layers of drumming, clapping, singing etc.) to make them useful for learning parts from. The albums on mbira.org are live recordings that are nicely categorised into solo, duet and group recordings, and have great clarity.
Attention should be paid to the tuning of the mbira(s) used on a recording. If possible, you should try to get recordings that are in the same tuning as an mbira you own. Whilst it becomes possible to translate from gandanga/mavembe to nyamaropa or vice versa later on, make life easy for yourself at first!
While it is possible to learn tunes you’ve never played before, it’ll be much easier to begin by learning new parts for a tune you already know. So in the beginning, go for recordings that feature mainly pieces you already know some parts for.
You also need to consider the artist you’re attempting to learn from. Players with a complex style such as Forward Kwenda or Tute Chigamba will likely be too difficult to begin with. My favourite player when I was first learning to do this was Cosmas Magaya as his style is interesting, but he plays in a very precise and clean way that I found easier to pick up.
Although solo recordings might seem like the best thing to go for as there will be less going on to distract you, it’s worth being aware that players will often go for a more complex style to compensate for the lack of a second player. I would recommend instead going for a duet recording with the kushaura and kutsinhira parts have been recorded separately in the left and right channels. The musicians will be playing in a more ‘typical’ style, and you can choose to focus on either the kushaura or kutsinhira part simply by putting your ear to one speaker/earphone or the other.
With a group recording, you’ll more likely than not find that it isn’t possible to pick out exact parts as there is simply too much going on (especially if there are more than two mbira players). However, this in a way is an advantage as you’ll be forced to fill in the gaps using your own knowledge and according to your own preferences, and in the process you’ll be creating your own variations!
Tools of the trade
You’ll find it easiest to focus if you listen to recordings with headphones on to block out extraneous noise. Earbuds work best as for stereo recordings where kushaura and kutsinhira are recorded in separate channels as you can simply take one out depending on which part you want to focus on. You’re going to be rewinding and replaying the same sections of music over and over again. There are some iOS and Android apps that can make this easier for you by allowing you to set a section of music to be looped over and over. There are several apps out there that will do this. I use mimiCopy which also allows you to slow down the speed of the clip with affecting the pitch (although the sound quality gets progressively worse the more you slow it down).
All of the below are available from www.mbira.org as digital downloads. This list is skewed towards nyamaropa tuning recordings just because that’s what I mainly play so apologies to the gandanga players out there! These are recordings that I have found useful to learn from in the past because of the clear playing styles used and good audio quality.
Cosmas Magaya 1994
Luken Pasipamire Kwari 2001
Duet recordings (2 mbiras – some with singing, some without – all recorded with kushaura and kutsinhira in left and right channels):
Luken Pasipamire & Chris Mhlanga 1999
Matthew Ruswa & Biggy Mavunga 2009
The Chiyanike Brothers 2010
Renold & Caution Shonhai 2005
Renold & Caution Shonhai 2009
Gift Mzarabani & Ignatius Mutandwa 2006
Rinos Simboti Mukuwurirwa & Tiri Chiongotere 1999
Friday Mudzurere & Mondrek Muchena 1986
Group recordings (2 or more mbiras, hosho and singing)
Mhuri yewkaMuchena & Hakurotwi Mude 1985 – Part 1
Mhuri yekwaMuchena & Hakurotwi Mude 1985 – Part 2
Mondrek Muchena & Boniface Mutandwa 1985
I hope I’ve convinced you that learning mbira from recordings is a useful way of adding to your arsenal of variations and ideas for improvisation, and also given you some useful tips to get you started in your quest. If you have any questions or tips of your own, please add a comment below. Good luck!