Last week’s post on The Most Popular Mbira Video on YouTube posed some questions, (to me anyway), on the identity of mbira and what that might mean for the broader identity of mbira internationally. When i did the search for the most popular mbira video my assumption was that it will be a Zimbabwean mbira video that topped them all but it was something else altogether! As my assumption was emphatically shattered, the next logical step was to question what mbira means to people around the world, setting aside my Zimbabwean mbira biases. Is it just a type of instrument or is it about some particular music style? I am also wondering whether there is a danger of over simplification as a result of calling everything with a wooden board and metal keys a mbira.
Picture it this way; does it matter that it’s a violin, berbet, cello, lute, oud, guitar, banjo, mandolin or harp? These are all string instruments but somehow they have distinct identities though belonging to the same family. Therefore, does it matter that it is an array mbira, a kalimba, likembe, munyonga, nyunga nyunga, or njari? Or in this case just mbira works?
My thinking on this has been heightened by experiences of meeting someone and they say to you “Ah, so you play mbira? I know so and so who plays too, I will hook you up”. And as the story goes, you get ‘hooked up’, you discover that the other person plays a different type of mbira to the one you play, you have a polite conversation, try to see if the instruments can be played together (most likely not) and head home a bit frustrated. In all fairness what you would have been told will be factually correct under the current uses of the word mbira but still frustrating on the grounds of lack of clarity! Been tempted to say to a guitar player, ‘Ah, so you play guitar? I know so and so who plays one of those…..’, you know the rest!
What’s your view on this?
PS: I was thrilled though inside because a basic search brings up mostly Zimbabwean mbira videos! Here is a small sample of some of these Zimbabwean mbira videos!