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Shona Music

Trail Map Courtesy of PCTA


Shona Music

Shona Mbira Music

In Zimbabwe, a Shona mbira piece consists of a basic cyclical pattern which includes numerous intertwined melodies, often with contrasting and syncopated rhythms. There are extensive possibilities for rhythmic and melodic variation within the traditional improvisational style. Each performance of an mbira piece is unique in a way similar to the jazz master's performance - the identity of the piece is clear, the musician's typical style is evident, yet the performance is fresh, new, unexpected, and totally expressive of the present moment.

When two mbira are played together, the interlocking parts result in a compact yet overflowing richness of polyphony and polyrhythms. Each piece in the traditional repertoire includes a kushaura (leading) part and a kutsinhira (intertwining) part. No part of the cycle of the piece is identified as the beginning. The kushaura musician starts playing his mbira part at the point in the cycle that he hears at that moment. After a few notes or cycles, the kutsinhira player enters at the point in the cycle that he hears - possibly a completely different point from the one where the kushaura player began. The end of a performance may also be placed at any point in the cycle. Mbira players often find that they hear mbira continuously, even when the instrument is not actually being played, both when awake and while dreaming. So, the start of a performance is merely joining with the music already being heard. Hosho, a pair of gourd rattles playing a consistent rhythm, complete the mbira ensemble, usually starting after the mbira players.

In rare instances, a virtuoso mbira performer such as Forward Kwenda will perform at ceremonies alone. This requires an extremely complex solo style which leaves the musician and listeners satisfied that both kushaura and kutsinhira are present. This type of solo style is very specific to the individual musician.

A traditional repertoire of hundreds of mbira pieces is passed from generation to generation, and pieces are popular today which are known to have been popular more than 700 years ago. At mapira ceremonies honoring vadzimu (ancestor spirits), pieces must be performed which were the favorites of the ancestor being called. Ceremonies for the more powerful mhondoro and makombwe spirits may require even older traditional styles. In this manner, the same pieces are retained in the mbira repertoire over the centuries. When a musician plays a piece new to him, it is considered a reminder from the spirits of an ancient piece dropped from the repertoire, not a composition.

The Mbira Instrument

The mbira of the Zezuru group of the Shona people of Zimbabwe consists of 22 to 28 metal keys mounted on a gwariva (hardwood soundboard) made from the mubvamaropa tree (Pterocarpus angolensis). Although the metal keys were originally smelted directly from rock containing iron ore, now they may be made from sofa springs, bicycle spokes, car seat springs, and other recycled steel materials. The mbira is usually placed inside a large calabash resonator (deze) to amplify it. A mutsigo (stick) is used to wedge the mbira securely inside the deze. The mbira is played with the two thumbs stroking down and the right forefinger stroking up.

Either metal beads strung on a wire, or bottle tops or shells mounted on a metal plate, are placed on the lower portion of the mbira soundboard to add a buzz which varies from a soft hiss to a tambourine-like sound. Bottle tops or shells are also mounted on the deze to increase the buzz. The buzz is considered an essential part of the mbira sound, required to clear the mind of thoughts and worries so that the mbira music can fill the consciousness of the performers and listeners. The buzz adds depth and context to the clear tones of the mbira keys, and may be heard as whispering voices, singing, tapping, knocking, wind or rain.

Many different mbira tunings are used, according to personal preference. The only requirement is that two instruments played together should generally agree in tuning. If the same sequence of keys is played, the music is considered to be the same mbira piece, even if played on instruments tuned with completely different intervals. For example, the gandanga (outlaw) tuning, also known as mavembe (people with speech defects) tuning, has a different interval relationship between keys than the more common nyamaropa tuning. The pitch of an mbira is also a matter of personal preference, ranging from high to very deep. Each instrument has a range of three octaves, or slightly more.

The Role of Mbira in Shona Culture

Mbira (the name of both the instrument and the music) is mystical music which has been played for over a thousand years by certain tribes of the Shona people, a group which forms the vast majority of the population of Zimbabwe, and extends into Mozambique. Mbira pervades all aspects of Shona culture, both sacred and secular. Its most important function is as a "telephone to the spirits", used to contact both deceased ancestors and tribal guardians, at all-night bira (pl. mapira) ceremonies. At these ceremonies, vadzimu (spirits of family ancestors), mhondoro (spirits of deceased chiefs) and makombwe (the most powerful guardian spirits of the Shona) give guidance on family and community matters and exert power over weather and health.

Mbira is required to bring rain during drought, stop rain during floods, and bring clouds when crops are burned by the sun. Mbira is used to chase away harmful spirits, and to cure illnesses with or without a n'anga (traditional diviner/herbalist). Mbira is included in celebrations of all kinds, including weddings, installation of new chiefs, and, more recently, government events such as independence day and international conferences.

Mbira is also required at death ceremonies, and is played for a week following a chief's death before the community is informed of his passing. At the guva ceremony, approximately one year after a person's physical death, mbira is used to welcome that individual's spirit back to the community.

Mbira is desired for the general qualities it imparts: peaceful mind and strong life force.

In previous centuries, court musicians played mbira for Shona kings and their diviners. Although the mbira was originally used in a limited number of Shona areas, today it is popular throughout Zimbabwe. Mbira is desired for the general qualities it imparts: peaceful mind and strong life force. The Shona mbira is also rapidly becoming known around the world, due to tours by both traditional musicians and Zimbabwean electric bands which include the instrument.

During Zimbabwe's colonial period (when it was known as Rhodesia), missionaries taught that mbira was evil, and the popularity of mbira in Zimbabwe declined. Since independence in 1980, mbira has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity. Traditional musicians remind their communities that mbira is played to encourage the spirits which protect the land and people of Zimbabwe - neither mbira nor the spirits should be neglected if Zimbabweans wish to enjoy health and prosperity. As for the new phenomenon of foreigners playing mbira, Zimbabweans report that their spirits are more pleased with non-Shona mbira players than with some of their own descendants who have turned away from tradition. Of course, respect for other aspects of tradition is required for this approval, not just musical ability.

Mbira Singing

Traditionally, vocals are added to the Shona musical mix by both mbira players and listeners. The kushaura (lead) singer is often one of the mbira players or a vocalist who is a member of the mbira group. Kutsinhira (response) vocals may be added by other mbira players or anyone else present.

Huro (singing) includes mahon'era - low-pitched syllabic singing without meaning; magure - high pitched syllabic singing without meaning, including yodelling; and song texts.

Mbira song texts vary in length from a few words to lengthy poems. Texts may include both lyrics specific to a certain mbira piece and lyrics which may be sung with any mbira piece. Some texts are ancient wisdom in "deep Shona," while others may be contemporary personal commentary on current events. Non-musical Shona oral literature such as tsumo (proverbs) and nhetembo (praise poetry) may be included in mbira singing. Singing during the course of an mbira piece may be a collection of "one-liners," a cohesive text, or both. Meaning of mbira lyrics is often symbolic, and listeners interpret it in a variety of ways - which may or may not include the meaning intended by the singer.

Mahon'era and magure singing styles use the voice as a musical instrument, imitating the mbira melodies, and responding and interweaving with them. The mbira singer enjoys great freedom of personal expression, both in text content and musical improvisation.

Shona traditional belief is that mbira singing, and well as mbira playing and mbira dancing are inspired in the individual directly from the spirits.

Text Courtesy of Mbira (www.mbira.org)

See Also:
Mbira Music | Cosmas Magaya

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