Mbira: Zim’s musical gift to the world

16 Jun, 2022 - 00:06 0 Views
Mbira: Zim’s musical gift to the world

The Herald

Sifelani Tsiko Innovations Editor

The mbira musical instrument – a national heritage instrument of Zimbabwe which is the country’s gift to the world – is still a cultural bombshell, permeating all facets of global life and attracting intense scrutiny from researchers keen to find solutions to human wellness.

The instrument, which was once subject to British colonial oppression of African culture and heritage in favour of Christianity, is now making a rebellious appearance on the global arena with researchers in Japan, the US, Britain and other European countries acknowledging its role in improving cognitive ability and children’s intellectual development.

Various studies in Japan and the UK showed that Mbira musical instrument playing improves verbal memory and neural efficiency in young people. “The present findings provide important new insight for training related plasticity by demonstrating that the Key-HIT programme may improve verbal memory and neural efficiency in older adults.

“Moreover, these results demonstrate that such instrumental training related to neuroplasticity is not restricted to children or younger adults, but rather extends across an individual’s lifespan,” read a report by a team of Japanese researchers.

In the UK and the US, various mbira music enthusiasts have opened schools specialising in mbira music training as part of efforts to promote children’s intellectual development.

One such arrangement is the “Mbira Thumb Piano 10 Keys by Pollax,” which advertises its institution as a major centre: “to enhance children’s musical talent, improve cognitive ability, enhance practical ability and body coordination, promote children’s intellectual development.”

Another major centre is the Kutsinhira Repertoire which was started with renowned mbira music legend Dumisani Maraire’s compositions and arrangements.

“Over our 30-year history, we’ve learned songs from an ever expanding group of teachers and musicians. We recently attempted to catalogue this repertoire into a simple spreadsheet database. It is meant both as a resource and historical record of how this music came to Kutsinhira,” read some remarks on the Kutsinhira Repertoire website.

Gary Spalter, executive director of Kutsinhira Arts Cultural Centre in the US, has been popularising the genre which revolutionised Zimbabwean music, conducting lessons and mbira musical shows involving Zimbabwean artists.

Read an advertisement for Marimba and Mbira Classes: “Learn about Zimbabwe music and culture while having fun! Marimba classes are offered to adults and children for a 32-week period over three quarters beginning in September. Mbira lessons are offered on a class by class basis.”

The marimba and mbira music is generating income and employment for Spalter who charges a yearly membership of about US$40 for an individual and US$$65 for a family.

“The mbira is a fascinating instrument. The way it is being used is so interesting since it is being used in the medical field and as an instrument for religious reasons is fascinating,” commented Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida in the US.

Says Nithya Venkat from Dubai: “Mbira, an instrument that I never knew about until I read about it. It is interesting to note that a musical instrument from way back is helping modern day science. It has a unique sound, thank you for sharing.”

Mbira music’s irresistible style and its fundamental simplicity, originality and essentiality goes back to Zimbabwean roots.

Even up to today, mbira has both spiritual and national significance for the people of Zimbabwe.

The instrument has been incorporated into popular music in the country and its rebellious appearance has influenced musical genres, cultures and societies throughout the world, contributing to the development of new counterculture movements.

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.

It is now quite critical for the country now to encourage the widespread use of the instrument in our schools to fight drug abuse and improve the children’s intellectual development as researchers in Japan, UK, US and Europe are increasingly discovering what our ancestors discovered in ancient times.

The mbira music instrument can also be a great tool for marketing Zimbabwe and its cultural heritage.

Providing support to a renewed promotion of the mbira music instrument will make the mbira become recognised as masterpieces and highly valued as cultural expression that showcases our “Zimbabweaness” to the world.

Albert Chimedza, who runs a Mbira Centre, has often led a lone battle to save mbira music whose unprecedented explosion around the world remains a mystery that is yet to be unexplained.

His centre, 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.

It’s an island that 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.

Mbira music itself has a variety of levels that is unique and different from other music.

One thing, which makes the mbira music inimitable is the way how researchers in the west are finding out that mbira playing can make one relax and help people to escape from their everyday life and to feel better and happier.

Mbira lyrics are fast becoming a health or wellness component to fill people with hope and happiness and not worries or stress. In simpler ways, mbira music helps people in distress to overcome or escape their problems and for young children to develop their intellectual capacities.

Support from the 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 Hope Masike, the late Chiwoniso Maraire, her late father Dumisani Maraire, Ephat Mujuru, Musekiwa Chingodza, Stella Chiweshe, Sekuru Cosmos Magaya, Beaular Dyoko and Thomas Mapfumo.

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.

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