MBIRA - the non-profit organization devoted to Shona mbria music


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Erica Azim
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Mbira Music
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        in Shona Culture
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    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 mbiras are played together, the interlocking parts result in a compact yet overflowing richness of polyphony and polyrhythm. 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, but the interlock of the two parts is fixed and must be correct. 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 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 ancient and powerful mhondoro and makombwe spirits may require the most ancient 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.

    Mbira - the Instrument

    The Role of Mbira in Shona Culture

    Mbira Singing

    MBIRA, Box 7863, Berkeley, CA 94707-0863, USA, tel (510) 548-6053, email info@mbira.org