The soul of Mbira

© Paul Berliner

An ethnography of the Mbira among the Shona people of Rhodesia by Paul Franklin Berliner. A Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of Wesleyan University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy in Music, Middletown, Connecticut, 1974.

„To the many mbira players who have inspired and guided my interest in Shona mbira music, I gratefully dedicate this work.“

The mbira is an idiophone consisting of a number of keys fastened over a bridge to a hardwood soundboard. The soundboard is held with both hands by the musician and the keys are plucked with the thumbs and sometimes the index fingers. Mbira music is one of the most ancient and popular forms of music found throughout black Africa and constitutes a contribution of unique richness to the world’s music.

While mbira players have been accorded much prestige in Africa, their art has rarely received the attention and the appreciation that it deserves in the West. Too often the mbira has been viewed in ethnocentric terms as a miniature version of a Western instrument (i.e., finger piano), and regarded as far less significant than, in fact, it is. In contrast to the existent stereotypes, mbira music with its varied styles of vocal accompaniment represents a highly developed musical system with an integrity of its own. In some African cultures, the mbira is a ritual object with deep symbolic meaning and plays a vital role in the society. Among the Shona people of Rhodesia, for instance, the mbira is used for ancestral worship and bridges the world of the living with that of departed relatives. Because of their great importance in Shona culture, and because of the deep traditions associated with them as early as the sixteenth century, Shona mbira have been chosen as the subject of this study.

Although transcriptions of Shona mbira music and its accompanying vocal styles are provided in this work, and the structure of the music is discussed briefly, its main object is to place the mbira in its broad cultural context. In order to give the reader a feeling for the music itself, references are made in the text to an accompanying record produced by the author from field recordings of Shona mbira music (The Soul of Mbira, Nonesuch H–72054). The first chapter deals with the phenomenon of mbira mbira-like instruments in other parts of the world. it is followed by a chapter that describes the major types of Shona mbiras. In the third chapter, the history of Shona mbiras is explored in relation to written and oral literary sources. The fourth chapter describes the personal and unique relationship that exists between mbira players and their instruments. The next two chapters are devoted to the various aspects of traditional Shona religion, including the important relationship that exists between mbira players and spirit mediums. The following chapters includes discussions of mbira music in the larger musical context of spirit possession ceremonies, the poetry of the mbira, the biographical scetches of five mbira players, the process of learning the mbira, its repertory, and the social interaction and musicianship among mbira players. A concluding chapter discusses the Law of Mbira and the status of mbira players in Rhodesia, past and present. (…)

9. Biographical scetches of five mbira players. E. Mr. Simon Mashoko (Gwenyambira) (S.M. may be heard on accompany record, Side II, band 1), born 1918, age 56, Fort Victoria, mbira player, composer, mbira maker, recording artist, catechist for the Roman Catholic Church. Gwenyambira (Plate 84) was born in a musical family: both his mother’s brother and his father’s brother played the njari. His interest surfaced when he was fourteen years old and both of his uncles were his tutors. When he was in his teens, after his interest and talent had been proven, his father’s brother built an mbira for him. From that day on, Gwenyambira was allowed to play with his uncles and they performed together at biras being three. They were not usually paid in cash for their performances but were given gifts in beer and meat from the animals sacrificed at the biras. Gwenyambira was a devoted student and practiced whenever he had the chance. His mbira went everywhere with him; he carried it with him when he worked in the fields and played it during work breaks. Like a best friend, the mbira was always in reach, even nearby when he slept at night. „If a student wants to learn seriously,“ says Gwenyambiura, „he must practice all the time.“ Gwenyambira went to a community school for secondary school education but the most significant part of his youth, as he remembers, was devoted to studying the mbira with his uncles.

When I asked Mashoko if he had ever learned mbira music from dreams, he replied that he had been told by older musicians (and assumed it to be true) that the forefathers of the Shona people had dreamed mbira compositions, but that he had never dreamed that way himself. Dreams did play an important part in shaping his career, however. After the age of twenty, he had a series of strange and wondrous dreams. At the time he was working as an office boy in Mashava. In the first dream, he woke in the middle of the night, hearing a voice calling for him, „Simon Mashoko, come here.“ He put on his short trousers and left his bed to go to the door of his home. He opened the door to look out and stood still as if frozen. There was a man in a long white robe standing in the air a short distance away, and two lions stood on the ground between them. The men beckoned Gwenyambira to come to him, but he refused, fearing he would be attacked by the lions. The man said many things to him, much of which he could not understand clearly – partly because in the background there was a loud and strangely beautiful music that sounded like mbira music. „Now will you please come here?“, asked the figure in the air, Mashoko replied, „No, I am afraid to come out of my house for these two animals will eat me.“ The man did not lough but continued to speak in his somewhat cryptic language as the music sounded in the background. Suddenly he finished and disappeared together with the lions. Simon shook his head to wake and went back to sleep. Later he put the dream out of his head. It was not long afterward, however, that he had another comparable dream. This time three winged men appeared outside of his home calling to him in the same way. One was holding a sword which was engulfed with flames. „But I can’t come to you,“ Simon protested in the dream, „You want to cut my head off.“ As in the first dream, the beautiful and strange mbira-like music sounded throughout. One of the man made reference to his earlier dream: „Well, if you won’t come here, remember another man who came to you and called you. You were afraid because you saw wild animals.“ „Yes“ Simon replied, „but who was that man?“ „You shall know him,“ they answered and with that the angels disappeared.

Gwenyambira again dismissed the dream and put it out of his mind. Three months later, however, he came upon several Christian teachers discussing their religious experiences in a beer hall. They spoke of the Bible and Jesus. After the discussion broke up, Simon spoke with one of the teachers, a Roman Catholic. „Tell me, Father, can you interprete dreams?“ he asked. After a long discussion the teacher advised Mashoko that the figure in the first dream, the one standing in air in robes, was Jesus Christ calling him to his side. Gwenyambira thought also of the words of the angel in the second dream, „You shall know him.“ Suddenly the teacher’s interpretation rang true. Mashoko and the Christian became good friends from that point on. At the same time, Gwenyambira continued to play the traditional pieces for the vadzimu on his njari. He moved to Gwelo and joined the congregation of a Catholic Church there. Having completed his training, he was baptized. While active in the Church, he often returned home to visit his mother’s brother and continued playing mbira with him. At twenty-one, he also began to work on singing with the mbira. Previously he had devoted his time to playing the instrument itself. When he felt he had mastered the mbira sufficiently to add the singing parts, he began imitating his uncles. He learned the poetry of the mbira which they sang and worked at developing a yodelling technique. At the same time he thought deeply about his dream again, particularly about the strange music which accompanied them. He decided that they explained that his special calling was to both the Church and to the mbira. He said, „Perhaps it was Jesus or the angels who were playing the mbira in the dream.“ He decided that it was his calling to play the mbira in the Church and compose church music for the mbira. It was some time before this ambition was realized because he faced a great deal of resistance. Other African members of the Church in Gwelo had told the European priest that he was an mbira player. The priest told him that he should leave the mbira if he wanted to be a Christian. He had heard from others that it was the instrument of the bad and evil spirits; the devil. Gwenyambira refused. „I cannot leave the mbira,“he told him. “If I want God, I must keep my mbira and play songs for Him.“ „But the mbira belongs to bad spirits,“ argued the Father. „No,“, retorted Mashoko, „I have been playing the mbira for many years and I have never seen any bad spirits. I must go forward with my mbira.“ While others accused Gwenyambira of not being a real Christian man, he continued to play his mbira. Basically, he found no contradiction in believing in both a Christian God and the ancestral spirits. He prayed to God in church and played his mbira for his vadzimu, so that he could remember „what my ancestors were doing.“ He felt secure in the knowledge that God would want him to play the mbira for his people and show others the „good ways of our forefathers.“ While in the Gwelo area, Gwenyambira had an opportunity to play mbira commercially outside of religious events. He was hired along with other African musicians to perform traditional music during the breaks at African sports events. This was arranged by a European who was working for the municipality. Musicians each received about nine dollars for a day’s participation. At the age of thirty-six he competed and won first prize in a municipal contest that was held for musicians performing traditional music of many different tribes. He performed in the animal skins of (his) forefathers on that occasion and was awarded a trophy cup for his talents.

It was after this event that Gwenyambira began devoting more of his energies to the Church. He had learned the gospel stories and now experimented with setting the gospel texts in Shona translation to mbira music. As the church began to loosen its restrictions regarding traditional African music, Gwenyambira was encouraged to compose liturgical music. He recorded several record albums of his liturgical compositions. Simon Mashoko had been supporting himself by working as a meter reader in Gwelo when a number of Church officials took an interest in his work. From the age of fourty-five, his affiliation with the Church grew stronger. He was asked to work at Catholic missions. He spent time teaching his own religious music and studying to become a catechist. After carrying partial duties as a catechist for thirteen years, he was officially given a diploma and full credentials for his work in 1966. He was then fourty-eight years old. Since receiving his diploma, Mashoko had been working full-time for the Catholic Church, preaching his beliefe that God is the Father of all the spirits of the ancestors and that both must be honored. He carries out his duties as a lay priest and his responsibilities as an mbira player. For his work, Gwenyambira is provided with a subsistance income by the Church. He has become widely known throughout Rhodesia not only for his excellence as a performer of traditional mbira music, but also as the first composer of Church music for the njari.

Chapter V

Bira and Ndandaro: The mbira and spirit possession Flaming wicks flickered in kerosene lanterns and cockroaches dashed wildly through the lights’ reflections on the walls of the brick round-house kitchen of the Shona village. During the day a fire had burned in the center of the largest of the Shona houses and ist smoke filtered through the thached roof. On this evening, however, the fire pit had been filled with dirt to make it level with the rest of the floor space and the large clay cooking pots had been cleared away from their shelf on the raised cement bench opposite the kitchen’s entrance. In their places were large gourd resonators lined with shells, mbiras, and hosho (gourd rattles).

After a short break for beer, the musicians carefully made their way through the large crowd that had gathered for the bira (the music of the bira may be heard on the accompanying record, Side I, band 1), the ceremony for the ancestral spirits (Plates 67–77). Of the fifty or sixty people present, the members of the immediate village accounted for the largest number. Guests from nearby villages had begun to arrive after sundown, and finally, several hours after the music had begun, the kitchen was packed with people of all ages – from suckling infants to the oldest men and women. The air was filled with the din of simultaneous conversation and occasional bursts of laughter from various quarters of the kitchen. Ladles of beer were passed around from huge clay pots designated for different groups: villagers, guests, and, especially, the ancestors. Good will abounded. Stepping over extended legs and maneuvering around moving bodies in the dim light, the mbira players made their way back to their instruments. At ten in the evening, having been hired to play for the entire bira, the musicians had only made a small dent in the evening’s performance. They took their places on the raised cement bench and positioned their mbiras in the large gourd resonators. All the women and children were seated on the right side and the men on their left.

An old women shouted out, „Nhemamusasa!“, calling for her favorite of the traditional compositions for the mbira. Moyo, the distinguished singer with the mbira ensemble, nodded his head in return. His wellknown group, „Mhuni Ye Kwa Matamba“ (fictitious name) had taken its name from the chief of their home in the tribal trust lands. „Nhemamusasa,“ repeated Moyo to one of the young mbira players of his group. The music arose slowly from the gourd resonator of the first player, outlining the basic pattern of the piece. After a number of repetitions of the melody, a second mbira player joined in, carefully fitting his following part one beat behind that of the first player. As the two mbira parts meshed together, a third musician picked up two gourd rattles and joined in. Reinforcing the basic underlying pulse of the piece, the hosho player slowly increased the tempo of the music. „Kurumidza hosho!“ („Be quick, hosho player!“) the singer shouted, suplying further encouragement. The singer shut his eyes and threw back his head. He sang out a long high melodic phrase punctuated with yodelling and the music soared ahead. Caught up in the excitement of the piece, men and women stood up after another to dance. There was space for about ten dancers directly in front of the musicians. Women comprised the first row of dancers and a row of men formed behind them. Dancing independently, as if each in his own world, they faced the musicians, leaving their backs to the entrance of the house. Others rose and danced in place where they had been sitting.

As the house filled with the sound of the mbira ensemble interspersed with the poetic exclamations and improvised melodies of the featured singer, no one was without a means of participating. When the hosho player tired, another man rose to take over the gourd rattle parts, later passing them to someone else. Response to the mbira came from all directions: some people clapped interlocking drumming accompaniment to the music, others sang soft background melodies to the harmony of the mbira. One old man shouted out lines of poetry to the mbira in the spaces left by the main singer. One of the many styles of dance to the mbira included stepping with the voice which was itself a form of rhythmic accompaniment. At high points throughout the piece, women ululated in approval. The music was the sum total of the contributions of all the members present. The piece continued for over thirty minutes. The style of the hosho player, Chikomo (fictitious name) increase in intensity. While the rhythmic framework for the hosho’s pulse was a continous „and-a-one-and-a-one-and-a-one ...“ its overall articulation became sharp like the crack of a whip. The hosho player’s mood changed. As his arms rose and fell, snapping the gourd rattles, his face became an expressionless mask. He stared out before him through glaced eyes. Suddenly, with loud exclamation, the hosho flew out of his hands into the air and his body shot off of the cement bench. A man ducked to avoid being hit by the gourd rattles and several dancers jumped out of the way of his body hit the ground. The hosho player, who earlier had been laughing and drinking with the others, rolled over and over on the ground, his entire body in a spasm. His teeth chattered loudly and his voice repeated a chilling cry in a falling melodic line: „Ahhhhh..da..da..da..da.-dada-dada.“ As he tossed and turned, the music continued without him. Another man picked up the hosho to take his place and the dancers danced around him – careful to stay out of the way of his kicking feet. After twenty minutes his cries ceased and his body became still. Eventually he rose and left the house. He returned shortly wearing black cloth in place of his European clothes. He took his place among the dancers but stared off in the distance as if in another world. A spirit had taken over his body.

The musicians played piece after piece. The hosho player kept a steady pulse and the harmonic cycles of the mbira pieces were repeated over and over. As people danced, drank beer, and sang through the night, all sense of time was lost. It was two in the morning when a second spirit arrived and took the body of the ensemble’s singer, Moyo. This possession was not as violent as the first. With a long groan, Moyo fell forward and dropped to his knees. He has first become possessed several years before and since then his spirit’s reputation had grown. It was for Moyo’s spirit as well as the music that his group had been hired by the village that evening. (…)

Chapter VII

The music and character of the bira: A journey through the night.

In its many aspects, the mbira is a communal affair; its music is the sum of the contributions of all the members of the village who choose to participate. The nucleus of the music is provided by the mbiras, although, in some areas, drums may be played with or in place of the mbiras. The latter instance depends on the customs in particular areas of Rhodesia, the needs of the particular spirits for whom the bira is held, and finally, the availability of musicians. Mbira players hired for the evening are eypected to play from after sundown, perhaps eight o’clock, to sunrise the next morning. After the ceremony, the villagers may ask them to stay on and continue to play for entertainment, although the players are not obligated to do so, or they may look for other mbira players in the area to replace them. In ancient times, Shona chiefs kept large bands of mbira players in their courts and, today, on special religious occasions, as many as fifteen or twenty mbira players perform together. For the most part, however, an mbira ensemble consists of two to five mbira players, a hosho (gourd rattle) player, and one or more singers – often from among the players themselves. It is around the nucleus of the mbiras and the basic supporting rhythm of the hosho that the singing, clapping, are dancing parts revolve. Shona mbira compositions frequently consist of a fourty-eight beat pattern divided evenly into four harmonic sections of twelve beats each that are repeated in a continual cycle throughout the performance of the piece.
(…) Since the large Shona mbiras are designed to be played in duets or in small ensembles (as well as in solo performance), mbira composition patterns contain the essential structure and mood of the piece.
(…) Mashoko’s and Mude’s performances demonstrate the fact that yodelling is not used in Shona singing merely as an effect but as a vehicle for melodic and rhythmic improvisation and variation.

Chapter VIII

Kudeketera: The poetry of the mbira.

A dignified old man sat back against the wall of the kitchen in the darkness and watched the going’s-on of the mbira. His tattered overcoat kept the winter air from chilling him as a clapped energetically to the accompaniment of the mbira ensemble. The kitchen was filled with many villagers singing and clapping. Dancers passed before him. His face remained expressionless as he watched the proceedings. Just about every thirty seconds, however, he burst forth with a seemingly effortless line of poetry that came across as a mixture of singing, talking, and sighing. His participation was subtle and it was not clear from the reactions of many others present whether they had heard him at all. Those present were involved in their own thoughts and their owen roles as participants. Periodically, however, several of the younger villagers covered tements of the old man. „You have killed the elephant, but the head is mine,“ he sang, „You have brought me butter, but I have no bread,“ etc. A young man with fancy European clothes danced over in front of the singer and shortly thereafter, the old man sang, „It is those young man with their tight pants who have brought the white man’s way upon us.“ The embarrassed youth danced away from the vocalist. The next day a villager smiled, thinking back on the bira, and commented to me: „That clever old man; he really kept things going last night.“ (…)
(…) Literal meaning (11):
I next came upon people sitting, milking a frog. I asked, „Why are you milking a frog?“ They replied, „We have no cow.“I said, „This is a cow; you can get milk from this cow.“ But I found now they took the cow and cut off one of its teats. They said, „Sorry but don’t worry, people always repay you. We’ll give you a wife.“
Intended Meaning:
(Mr. Mashoko delights in surprising his listeners with such an absurd image, an unexpected turn in the story. „When I sing,“, he says, „you never know where I am going next.“)
Literal Meaning (12):
So they gave me a wife with a long neck. That was nice to me for she had the same neck as mine. I said, „Thank you very much; you have given me a wife to brew beer for me.“ I said, „Let us go“ and my wife began to walk ahead of me. I said, „You’re walking so nicely for me, someone will try to kill me (jealous of such a beautiful wife). She didn’t reply. After walking like that, we found a big tree and sat and thought together. I told her, „You can cook beer for a few days while we’re here!“
Literal Meaning (13):
She cooked sour beer and I asked, „Why did you cook sour beer?“ She said, „Oh, my husband, you’re being stupid, now. My father told me, if you marry, cook sour beer and you’ll know that place is yours.“ Those were good words. I said, „Give me my ax (ceremonial ax); I want to dance. You must go from me.“ As he dances, he finally slips and almost falls, but his wife catches him. „Why did you catch me?“ he asks. „You almost fell down!“ she replied. „No, you must go away or I may step on you and scratch you“ the husband ordered. As the pleased husband dances by himself, the story ends.
As Mashoko sings „Mbiri Viri“ his face becomes alive with the portrayal of the characters in his story. His command of many vocal styles heightens the feeling and imagery in his story. In the version of „Mbiri viri“ mentioned above, Mashoko imitates the sound of the main character walking by himself, „,“, the character walking with his cow, „Dey..deya..deya,“ the beautiful walk of his wife before him, „Tiya..tiya..tiya..“ and finally the sound of the husband’s leg rattles as he dances by himself, “tsa..tsa..tsa..tsa..tsa..tsa.“ Throughout the story, Mashoko freely interjects passages in huro and mahonyera style. A similar version of this song by Simon Mashoko may be heard on the record accompanying this thesis, Side II, band 1. (…)

© Paul Berliner, Connecticut, 1974