mbira lessons

By Sifelani Tsiko (The Herald)

American novelist and civil rights activist, James Baldwin had this to say about the importance of history in the present in an essay titled “White Man’s Guilt”.

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

His writings resonated powerfully when I heard that Government had announced that it would assist the Mbira Centre in Harare to transform into a Mbira Institute.

For a long time the mbira instrument and mbira music have been treated with contempt by much of the western art world. The device, which carries “Zimbabweaness”, was also part of cultural artefacts or depositories that were pillaged by European interlopers.

This great music cultural symbol, together with other African art, were ridiculously undervalued, abused, inflicted upon by European authors, composers, artists, musicians and producers. This resulted in the mbira instruments being treated with contempt by Africans themselves as well as much of the art world.

Zimbabwe’s extraordinary and priceless mbira treasure together with other African cultural artefacts were largely seen as “primitive” and holding little aesthetic value. Perhaps, infuriated by this commonly held opinion, it is heartening and liberating to see Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo and his Permanent Secretary George Charamba taking the lead in efforts to reclaim one of the country’s masterpieces.

“Initially the orchestra will start here but we want it to develop a Mbira Institute. We want the institute to encourage the use of the instrument in our schools,” he said after touring the Mbira Centre recently.

He felt strongly that mbira could be a great tool for marketing Zimbabwe and its cultural heritage.

Providing support to the Mbira Centre will make the mbira become recognized as masterpieces and highly valued as cultural expression that showcases our “Zimbabweaness” to the world.

Engaging the Mbira Centre owned by Albert Chimedza, whose main activities are mbira production, mbira education and performance, is critical for the country to develop and activate strategies to reclaim and take control of mbira music while positioning it for the future.

Moves by Prof Moyo and Charamba can help to secure preservation of this great musical wealth and legacy which dates back more than 1 000 years and is indigenous to several countries including Angola, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Support from Government encourages and motivates the purpose, will, reason and challenge for mbira enthusiasts to transform the past and present experience into a beneficial, progressive and prosperous future going into the next 50 years of Zimbabwe’s music.

The use of mbira instruments and music is more pronounced here in Zimbabwe more than anywhere in the world and supporting its growth will give the world a fresh, true and historically grounded Zimbabwean music narrative.

Wrote one music critic on the globalising influence of mbira music: “The mbira is the most iconic of all Zimbabwean instruments, has existed for more than seven centuries and in the last 40 years, it has gained steady acceptance as an instrument of choice among musicians in North and South America, Europe, Australia and Asia.

“While it is Dumisani Maraire (father and mentor to the late Mbira maestro, Chiwoniso) who ignited the spread of Mbira outside Africa, much of the resultant growth was initiated by non-Zimbabweans, many of whom passed through his hands.”

And reigniting interest in the preservation and development of mbira is a responsibility that the Government, artistes, music lovers and all stakeholders must carry to ensure that this extraordinary musical instrument receives due acclaim and lives forever.

Mbira to Zimbabwe is what reggae music is to Jamaica and the mbira comes with different keys, in different shapes and sizes. It can be played solo or in an ensemble and over the years artistes have developed it to be played along with electric guitars, pianos, drums for different music genres.

Artistes who have carried the mbira music legacy forward include, among many, Hope Masike, the late Chiwoniso Maraire, her late father Dumisani Maraire, Ephat Mujuru, Beaular Dyoko, Thomas Mapfumo and Prudence Katomeni-Mbofana.

Artistes and music academics say Zimbabwe must take practical steps to promote, propagate and develop mbira music and calls for national investment in schools and colleges have also been made.

It would be painful and terrible to see this great, extraordinary and Zimbabwean aesthetic treasure benefiting outsiders more than the insiders.

If Zimbabweans invest wisely in mbira, it could be liberating for a country that has already set itself towards achieving higher ideals of freedom and maturity. And, there is no doubt as Baldwin once put it that: “History is not about the past, but the present . . . ,” and that “to accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”

And, learning to utilise our precious mbira should ensure that Zimbabweans have control of their destiny and resources unbowed by the divisive and dominant music and art policies of powerful countries which aim to exploit chiefly Africa’s talent and unique cultural resources.

If nothing is done, then the country’s rare cultural diamond – mbira – will be lost forever to the world.