"Samaita" Vitalis Wilbert Botsa
"Samaita" Vitalis Wilbert Botsa grew up in a Zimbabwean village family of traditional singers and mbira players. An extremely accomplished mbira player and singer, he creates complex waves of sound seemingly impossible from the two thumbs and one finger used to play mbira. Very traditional in his relationship to the 'music of the ancestors', Botsa has performed at important ceremonies throughout Zimbabwe, and is featured on 5 CDs. Samaita wowed audiences and students with his first performances and workshops in the US during 2015.
Videos of "Samaita" Vitalis Wilbert Botsa
"Samaita" Vitalis Wilbert Botsa plays Tadzungaira amidst his tomato fields in 2010
Botsa plays Marenje in 2010
"Samaita" Vitalis Wilbert Botsa plays Mharapara Matende with his 90-year old mother on vocals, at his village home in 2014
Biography of Vitalis Wilbert Botsa
(written by Denver Banda based on a 2009 interview, edited and updated by Erica Azim, photos by Kaia Wong, Erica Azim, and Joseph Saine)
Learning to Play Mbira
"Samaita" Vitalis Wilbert Botsa was born the youngest child of a very musical village family. Both his father and mother were known as a great singers in traditional bira ceremonies, and his father was the medium of family ancestor spirit VaMushayi. Samaita's five older brothers all played mbira, and traditional music was part of his everyday life.
“You see, all my brothers played mbira and they were one of the most versatile mbira playing groups in the Muzanenhamo villages. They received invitations to play at ceremonies and at other important functions. I grew up seeing all my brothers playing mbira and I very much wanted to be like them. If I heard a song that I liked, I would commit the basic melody to mind. When one of my brothers rested or left his mbira, I would then steal the instrument and use it to practice outside.”
“I recall looking for the keys for the basic kushaura (first part) of Muka tiende on my brother’s gwariva (mbira) and the excitement I felt when I hit the right keys. It did not take me long to learn the song, because I loved and was serious about mbira. I did not want to get caught playing mbira without permission, so I had to work fast. I spent the better part of three days battling to get the right keys and to play them as well as my brothers did. By accident they saw me playing something clearly, and they were impressed since none of them had sat down with me for lessons.”
“I would tell them that I also had a shave (talent spirit) and it was fair to venerate my shave by sharing everything equally, since we were all brothers. They would brush me aside and dismiss my demands as the ranting of a schoolboy. My brother Markios made mbira instruments, but he didn't listen when I told him that I wanted an mbira of my own. It was much later when I was working that I managed to save enough to buy a gwariva (mbira).”
Playing Mbira as an Adult
Of the kushaura and kutsinhira mbira parts, Samaita prefers to play kushaura. He contends that if one knows the high lines well, and many styles to employ when playing kushaura, one can change the feel, texture and pace of a song.
Mid-1990, Botsa met Forward Kwenda in Mbare, Harare, at the house of traditional healer VaGushungo, and Kwenda became his main mbira partner for some time.
Samaita says that Kwenda influenced how he listened to, understood, played, and studied mbira, and that they were very thorough in the way they approached mbira music. It was no longer a matter of just playing, but of having the instrument tell you where the song was going and following what it dictated. During the time they played together, he gained a deeper understanding of how the two parts can interact.
“The mbira that I played with Mhofu (Kwenda) spoke a language of its own and all we had to do was listen, and listen some more. We could go to the bush with our gwarivas (mbiras) and bute (sacred snuff) and play all day with no concept of time. ”
“Playing with Forward was a rewarding and challenging experience especially when he got possessed in the middle of a song. At first I had difficulty understanding the virtuosity of his spirit's pieces, but over time I learned how to play well with him, because Kwenda had taught me how to listen deeply.”
Botsa and Kwenda were in high demand, playing for spirit mediums throughout the country, including important places such as Dzivaguru and Nyandoro. Unlike the unequal situation he faced when playing with his brothers, Botsa and Kwenda shared whatever they received equally. The mavembe, or gandanga, tuning that Samaita play ed with Kwenda was very popular; his family played only nyamaropa tuning. Botsa says that the tuning amazed him, and that he prefers it to nyamaropa tuning.
“Many gwenyambiras play nyamaropa tuning but it takes a great mbira player to play mavembe tuning well. That is my thought but I am not saying nyamaropa is bad because, whenever we went to play, we would start off the ceremony with nyamaropa tuning. When we reached the wee hours of the morning, we would change and play mavembe tuning because we felt it was the time that people really wanted to listen to deep mbira”
Botsa also began to sing seriously during the 1990's. Through huro and kudeketera singing styles accompanying the mbira, he talks to, prays to, consults, and venerates his spirits and forefathers.
Nhema musasa is Botsa’s favorite song and he especially enjoys it on the nyamaropa tuning with a good kutsinhira player backing his wild variations. On mavembe tuning, his favorite is Marenje, the first song he learned on the tuning.
Botsa is a strong advocate for the preservation of the ancient songs, and old ways of learning and playing mbira.
“I feel that mbira should not be mixed with other instruments, because the music loses its authenticity and purpose if we do that. The contemporary styles of mbira where you find five mbiras of different voices (tunings) collaborating to form a song is honestly a commercial ploy to make money. I see it as a handicap on the part of the mbira players who are not confident when two or three mbira with the same voice are interacting. My personal opinion is that I don’t like it and I don’t want to learn it, because I haven’t even exhausted the traditional ways of playing. To fix this problem, we need to have more airplay of the old mbira...so much that everyone can hear and understand the difference.”
For six years, Botsa played with nephew Campion Botsa and Lovemore Mutandwa in the Muzanenhamo Mbira Group. Currently, he spends a lot of time playing solo mbira and developing his solo playing, as well as playing with Erica Azim whenever they are in the same country. His 92-year old mother, Ambuya Christine Botsa, continues to add fabulous vocals when Samaita plays mbira, as heard on their 2014 album.
Samaita toured California and Oregon, USA with Erica Azim in 2015, to overwhelming acclaim.
Vitalis Wilbert Botsa of the “Mbizi yekwaMutasa/Samaita” totem was born in Muzanenhamo-Gavaza, Murehwa Communal Area, Zimbabwe, on 20 October 1963 to Merekiyo Tangai Botsa and Christine Majecha Chipere Botsa. He was the youngest child in a family of nine children six boys and three girls.
From 1971 to 1977, Vitalis attended the local Chidiya Primary School. But, the intensity of the liberation war led to the closure of many schools in the area, including his. After majority rule in 1980, Vitalis returned to school, and attended high school until 1986.
From 1987 through 1990, Botsa lived in Harare working for a detergent manufacturer, then as a security guard, then as a builder. During the 1990's he gradually became a successful 'market gardener' in his village, specializing in fresh vegetables that he grows with his wife and children. He uses public transportation to transport his produce from the village to markets in Harare and Marondera, where it is popular. He has used the royalties from his internationally popular CDs to buy a water pump and fertilizer, expanding his farming.
Vitalis is married to his high school sweetheart, Regina Muchenje Botsa, and they have five children.