Ignatius Mabasa Shelling the Nuts
Dumi, as he was affectionately known, freely and happily shared his skills and knowledge, becoming an ambassador of the nyunga-nyunga mbira and marimba music in America
Once upon a time, not so long ago, and not in a land far away, a man called Dumisani Abraham Maraire passed through this world.
And during his few years on earth, he wrote a chapter in the history book as an exceptionally talented music teacher and custodian of Zimbabwean traditional music.
Dumi Maraire was the father of the late international mbira icon, Chiwoniso Maraire. Dumi, as he was affectionately known, freely and happily shared his skills and knowledge, becoming an ambassador of the nyunga-nyunga mbira and marimba music in America.
To ensure that the nyunga-nyunga and marimba music lives on, Dumi and his wife, Mai Chi Nemarundwe Maraire, taught their children that the same music they were teaching the Americans must also become their identity and legacy.
Maraire’s children took to music like a duck takes to water. Chiwoniso, at the age of ten, did the lead vocals in her first commercial recording of the song Tichazomuona together with her mother and father.
While several Zimbabweans have been to many parts of the world and engage in so many forms of intercultural dialogue — I think it is only Dumi Maraire who managed to teach mbira and marimba such that the results and fruits of his labour, passion and teachings are beginning to be seen, heard and felt strongly many years after his death.
And while many people know Dumi’s late daughter Chiwoniso Maraire, they don’t know that Chiwoniso had a brother who was a master marimba player. Both were taught and mentored by their father and mother.
Unfortunately, the versatile and talented young Maraire, who was a student at Prince Edward School, died tragically in the early nineties. I had the opportunity to be mesmerised by that young Maraire boy’s music talent.
When he played marimba, his hands would blur as he struck the wooden keys with speed, precision and beauty that can only be equated to the flapping wings of a humming bird.
I had the rare privilege of knowing Dumi Maraire when he was teaching ethnomusicology at the University of Zimbabwe. Then, he was also acting as music director of the University of Zimbabwe choir.
Those who had a chance to see the University of Zimbabwe choir of Dumi Maraire’s time will agree with me that music, when well arranged, can be therapeutic like Bob Marley said, “One good thing about music is, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
The UZ choir was full of life and one could notice and feel that some of Dumi’s humour and mannerisms had even rubbed on to the group.
Dumi was a passionate teacher — taking his time to compose and arrange music. A lot of people today are great musicians and music teachers because Dumi was selfless and imparted his knowledge and skills to them.
Dumi also loved telling stories and explaining the meaning of traditional songs like Chemutengure and the context of Yave Nyama Yekugocha with passion. I was so much in love with two compositions of Dumi’s called “Vanotambarara” and “Chembere dzemusango.” In 2008 I was fortunate to go on tour with Chiwoniso and Chirikure Chirikure to Mozambique.
Chirikure and Chiwoniso were performing poetry with mbira and I was doing storytelling. On our flight to Mozambique, I challenged Chi to re-record those two poignant songs that were composed by her father.
She promised me that she was going to record the songs for a forthcoming album, but unfortunately that was never to be.
Why am I telling you all this? Dumi and his musically talented children may be gone but his musical influence is with us and is being given a new lease of life through his American students.
One group called Polyphony Marimba from Santa Fe in New Mexico is led by a student of Dumi Maraire’s called Peter Swing. I got to know about Peter and Polyphony through my friends Ken and Martha Simonsen who live in Santa Fe.
Martha and Ken bought and sent me the debut CD by Polyphony and this is what I said after listening to their first CD, “After listening to the marimba CD by Peter and Raven Swing, it knocked my socks off.
“I never imagined marimba music could be so perfect, seamless, flawless to the point of almost making a seed that is resting its sleepy head in the darkness of the soil to germinate in response to the music. If I were the godfather of superlatives, I could have explained better how Polyphony Marimba through their music managed to start a fire without faggots.”
“I think what makes Polyphony Marimba music addictive, beautiful and unique is the care, the love and time that was invested in making the music. But, the most important ingredient that they added is innovation! Who would have thought of rocking and rolling Shona traditional music? Speaking as an artist myself, I can boldly say locally, most artists are afraid of experimenting.
“We tend to be satisfied with the same old and yet the world is moving, if not flying. And that is where we are losing out — sitting and watching things happen to us, to our cultural heritage.”
I must confess that I have become a big fan of Polyphony Marimba and I want to thank Peter Swing and his guys for rekindling my love and respect for the rich music of the marimba instrument.
As I am writing this piece, I am soaking in Polyphony Marimba’s version of that old Chi Maraire song — Tichazomuona, and I can assure you that you will need to listen and enjoy it in a bath tub with your eyes closed, so that it massages you in a bubble bath of emotions.
The way these guys play their marimba is too deep, it will give you wings to spiritually soar above beautiful mountain tops of life. I think I now understand why Oliver Mtukudzi at one stage decided to abandon the electric musical instruments and only play — marimba, mbira and hosho.
It is called going back to the source — and the source is so rich and original. Although you will not get a lot of information on their website, Polyphony Marimba were mentored by the late Dumisani Maraire. From their efforts, one can see that the impact of intercultural dialogue is long term.
Their website says, “Come enjoy roots music of Zimbabwe; dance as we keep alive the music of our mentor, Dumi Maraire, who ‘put the rock & roll in marimba!’ Listen as we branch out into the songs of Peter and Raven Swing. We offer you vital and complex rhythms, a powerful acoustic tone, beautiful uplifting melodies, danceable and unique.”
It is my hope and wish that the US Embassy in Zimbabwe one day brings Polyphony Marimba for the Harare International Festival of the Arts.
I can bet my last dollar that besides rocking Harare, they will inspire, motivate and challenge us as Zimbabweans to see and explore the possibilities of what Mbira and Marimba music can do.
Dumi Maraire may have introduced them to the sounds of Zimbabwe, but they have gone on to experiment, tweak, blend, stretch and make our traditional sounds bud and blossom in a new way and the fragrance is rich and sweeter than Arabian perfumes.
Polyphony Marimba style varies from dark and deep, to swift and smooth. It is like a huge fish that occasionally surfaces from the deep blue waters of a lake to surprise, tease and show off! If their music was something edible, I think it would be a combination of a ripe wild African plum (nhunguru), the creamy marula that can make a bull elephant giddy and fleet-footed at the same time.
And to the combination of the wild African plum and some creamy marula, get a sprinkling of Belgian chocolate. To me, that is how I can best make an attempt to describe the sounds and music of the humble and modest Americans that are led by Peter Swing.
If you are keen to listen to Polyphony Marimba’s music, it is possible for you to hear a couple of tracks on YouTube.
I urge you to take a plunge into their world, and like a good cup of coffee on a cold day, you will ask for a second cup. You will realise the potential that our traditional music has to conquer the world if it is done well and passionately.
For me, their music is not just a reminder of how big Dumi Maraire’s musical footprint is, but also what true intercultural dialogue is all about.