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Sun, 17 Nov 2019 12:19 GMT

Mbira - Zimbabwe’s Traditional Spiritual Musical Instrument

Media & Culture

Fazila Mohamed

Fri, 08 Nov 2019 08:15 GMT

For thousands of years, the mbira has been played among the Shona to appease their ancestors into speaking through spirit mediums during traditional ceremonies. Only found among the Shona people of Zimbabwe, the instrument consists of staggered metal tines or prongs, on a wooden board which is sometimes fitted into a huge hand-held decorated gourd.

The Mujuru clan is one of the most famous mbira families in Zimbabwe, well-known for forging tines and making the instrument. The Mujuru’s are direct descendants of a man called Muchatera, who was the last known Chaminuka spirit medium. Over time, the family became the spiritual custodians of the sacred mbira instrument. Many years after Muchatera’s death, his descendants have become the largest extended family of mbira players in Zimbabwe.

7Dnews spoke exclusively to university lecturer Munyaradzi Mujuru, who said, “My great grandfather Muchatera without a conventional education built a huge Banya ( a specially designed roundhouse with a long roof intended to echo Mbira sounds during traditional ceremonies) to capture all the mbira and hosho (a rattle-type percussion instrument) acoustics to appease ancestors and at the same time mesmerise audiences through the unmistakable soulful mbira sounds.”

“We have recently started the Mujuru Trust to ensure that all these details about the great spirit medium Chaminuka and the mbira instrument are preserved for future generations,” he said.

His brother Fradreck Mujuru who makes mbira instruments for a living at his home in Budiriro, a high-density suburb south west of the capital Harare said, “Mbira was used from time immemorial to create that connection between the living and our ancestors for thousands of years. It was my great grandfather through whom the spirit Chaminuka gave direction during the last phase of our liberation struggle from British rule.

“Muchatera had a vision in which he was instructed by the great spirit Chaminuka on how to make the mbira instrument. He was even taught the songs that we play today during ceremonies and entertainment,” Mujuru’s brother Fradreck said.

The mbira instrument consists of 22 to 28 iron keys mounted on a hard-wood soundboard which is sometimes decorated with a gourd to resonate and amplify the melody. Mbira is usually played in groups at traditional ceremonies that are called ‘bira’ which is where the name mbira comes from. It is the Shona who named it mbira and other ethnic groups took the name from them.

The seashells decorating the gourd create a buzzing sound when the instrument is being played and it is believed that it attracts ancestral spirits. It is these same shells that are used to denote nobility among the Shona, just as a crown is to a prince.

Mbira keys produce complex overtones and each instrument has its own unique sound. The most common tunes played throughout Zimbabwe are ‘Nyamaropa’, ‘Nhemamusasa’ and ‘Mahororo’. ‘Nyamaropa’ is considered the oldest and most representative in Shona culture. It emphasises togetherness by creating a symphony through having more than one player. A single mbira player is considered incomplete for a performance.

Benjamin Burumbo is a well-known and highly respected healer, traditionalist who was spiritual adviser to late President Robert Mugabe and is the son of the late Liberation Struggle nationalist leader Benjamin Burombo senior.

“There is mbira for the ancestors and also for ordinary entertainment. You can’t play ‘Mahororo’ just for fun, it’s only for the great legend Chaminuka.

“Muchatera during his rainmaking days played ‘Katsanzaira’, meaning gentle rain before the storm hits. It was the highest pitch of the traditional mbira tunings, while the ‘Nhare’ tune was used for rituals of communicating with Musikavanhu or the Creator. That’s how sophisticated it is,” said Burumbo, spiritual adviser to the traditional Chiefs Council.

Internationally acclaimed artists from Zimbabwe like Thomas Mapfumo, Ephert Mujuru, Stella Chiweshe and Dumisani Mararire made their international debuts through mbira music.

A growing number of musicians throughout Zimbabwe are now creating their own distinctive mbira sound and composing music that is influencing the imagination of global listeners. Often accompanied by the hosho, the distinct mbira instrument stands out to capture and enchant the audience.


Africa