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How far is far enough for mbira to adapt to and adopt new technologies?

Chain adjusters

Most of us will be familiar with the uneasiness that surrounds the relationship between new technologies and the ‘traditional’ mbira technologies. From the uneasiness on the use of fibreglass dezes, the issue of electric pickups to the use of chain adjusters instead of wire, there seems to be a number of ‘technological advancements and adaptations’ that divide opinion in mbira circles.

A view from Twitter

After posting a question on Twitter on this issue, there were a number of interesting views on the issue and one stated an often ignored fact. Please see below what @Clickyc had to say about the mbira;

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Points of enquiry

To explore the issue of mbira and new technologies further, over the next  few weeks we will be seeking people’s , (mbira players and ‘general public’), views on the following subjects.

  1. Case of the deze: Fibreglass or natural gourd? Some say the sound from fibreglass dezes sounds ‘unnatural’, others say good natural gourds are hard to come by, others say there is no difference whatsoever. What are your experiences and preferences on using either natural gourd or fibreglass dezes? 
  2. Case of types of amplification: Deze or electric pickup? one feature of most Zimbabwean traditional mbira is that they are detachable from the deze. You can play the instrument outside the deze and it’s fine but the moment you want to amplify it you need the deze, that is traditionally speaking. In the advent of amps, is it OK to put an electric pickup on your mbira and use an amp (electronic deze)? 
  3. The case of keeping keys in place:  Chain adjusters or wire, does it matter?
  4. Buzzing: Shells, Castle, Coke, Fanta, Heineken, Honey Dew, or Eagle bottle tops? What works for buzzing? Should all mbiras have some sort of buzzing? One usual experience from here in England is hen a person hears you play mbira for the first time that usually say ‘how lovely, but is all that buzzing necessary? Wouldn’t it sound cleaner without it’!

Responses will be posted in bite sized posts on Zvembira.com.

Have a great weekend! Ridzai mbira!

6 Replies to “Mbira and New Technologies”

  1. moderation is always key. At one point in the 80`s , someone came up with a fancy idea of the headless frat board for the guitar and the ridiculous ‘ mid life crisis’ electric drums.
    We all know how that story went.
    Bottom line , there is a reason the piano still takes as much space as it did 400 years ago and drum kits are still a pain in the butt to transport.
    Music is art and we have to be careful how we modernize the Sanza/mbira without eradicating it`s authenticity.
    Why do yo think musicians don`t strap on the invisible microphone like ones used on interviews on live shows?

  2. 1… I have both fibreglass and natural deze… The natural one is now the only one I will play but it did take a long time to get hold of. I can only describe it as a more ‘natural and wooden’ sound – subjective of course. I am surprised there hasn’t been more experimentation with hardened papier mache, I even considered trying wooden venir at one point but never got round to it.

    2… Amplification. I think the electronic pickups do not capture the whole sound of the mbira. As with any acoustic musical instrument, it needs proper microphones to pick up what the listener would normally hear. This seems to be the only way of capturing the ‘true’ sound, gourd and all.

    3… Having made my own mbira once and making minor adjustments several times since completion, I cannot imagine the struggle it must be with wire. I am not aware of any effect the flattened bolt method has on the sound so it would have to be a strong argument to convince me otherwise!!

    4… I’m a bit on the fence for buzzing. I use bottle tops because they last and are easy to come by, but I must admit it doesn’t sit very comfortably with me! I would imagine shells are to bottle tops as fibreglass is to a calabash deze – but havn’t really had the time to compare…

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