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

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    The Role of Mbira in Shona Culture

    Mbira (the name of both the instrument and the music) is mystical music which has been played for over a thousand years by certain tribes of the Shona people, a group which forms the vast majority of the population of Zimbabwe, and extends into Mozambique. Mbira pervades all aspects of Shona culture, both sacred and secular. Its most important function is as a "telephone to the spirits", used to contact both deceased ancestors and tribal guardians, at all-night bira (pl. mapira) ceremonies. At these ceremonies, vadzimu, including midzimu (spirits of family ancestors), mhondoro (spirits of deceased chiefs) and makombwe (the most powerful guardian spirits of the Shona), give guidance on family and community matters and exert power over weather and health.

    Mbira is required to bring rain during drought, stop rain during floods, and bring clouds when crops are burned by the sun. Mbira is used to chase away harmful spirits, and to cure illnesses with or without a n'anga (traditional diviner/herbalist). Mbira is included in celebrations of all kinds, including weddings, installation of new chiefs, and, more recently, government events such as independence day and international conferences.

    Mbira is also required at death ceremonies, and is played for a week following a chief's death before the community is informed of his passing. At the guva ceremony, approximately one year after a person's physical death, mbira is used to welcome that individual's spirit back to the community.

    In previous centuries, court musicians played mbira for Shona kings and their diviners. Although the mbira was originally used in a limited number of Shona areas, today it is popular throughout Zimbabwe. Mbira is desired for the general qualities it imparts: peaceful mind and strong life force. The Shona mbira is also rapidly becoming known around the world, due to tours by both traditional musicians and Zimbabwean electric bands which include the instrument.

    During Zimbabwe's colonial period (when it was known as Rhodesia), missionaries taught that mbira was evil, due to its association with ancestor spirits, and the popularity of mbira in Zimbabwe declined. Since independence in 1980, mbira has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, and is now considered the national instrument of Zimbabwe. Traditional musicians remind their communities that mbira is played to encourage the spirits which protect the land and people of Zimbabwe - neither mbira nor the spirits should be neglected if Zimbabweans wish to enjoy health and prosperity.

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