Renold & Caution Shonhai
Renold and Caution Shonhai are brothers who play the ancient Shona mbira in traditional Zimbabwean ceremonies. Older brother Caution is the medium of their great-grandfather's spirit, who was a great mbira player. When this spirit comes to Caution, he plays mbira in this ancestor's wonderful style, and younger brother Renold learns it. When the ancestor leaves, Caution does not know what he has played, and Caution now learns it from Renold. The beauty of this mbira style has led their MBIRA CDs to among the most popular.
The Shonhai brothers respect and follow the Shona traditions that their family has followed, generation after generation. They are also fluent in English, and enjoy sharing their music (mbira, singing, drumming, hosho), dance and culture with foreigners as well as Zimbabweans. Caution is a n'anga, a Shona traditional healer and herbalist, and we will post more about that to this page soon.
(based on a 2009 interview, written by Denver Banda and edited by Erica Azim, photos by Erica Azim and Kaia Wong)
Nyamweda is a rural area of Zimbabwe renowned for its mbira players and makers, including the late John Kunaka and Mondrek and Erick Muchena. In the Shonhai family, the mbira tradition has been passed from generation to generation. Cautions Shonhai’s great-grandfather was a famed mbira player called VaNyawo who played both njari and mbira dzavadzimu. Of those in his generation, Caution’s older brother Clyde was the first one to play mbira. Their father loved mbira music and was well known for singing - doing the mbira variations to songs vocally without actually playing the instrument. This thrilled Caution as a child, and he also joined in the singing.
The elders in the Shonhai family did not want children close to the banya (ceremonial hut). However, since the banya was where traditional rituals occurred and mbira was played, Caution refused to leave the vicinity of the banya...he was so drawn to the music.
By seeing his father correct local musician Langton Bapiro, Caution began to understand the depth and complexity of mbira music. Caution employed his father’s critical ear and singing of mbira melodies as a guideline for learning the mbira. At the age of eleven, the first songs that Caution learned from Langton Bapiro were the kushaura parts for Nhema musasa and Kariga mombe.
“I could clearly hear the tune in my head but I couldn’t place it onto the instrument. Langton would then tell me to strike the keys one after the other until I got it. It was hard at first but with the help that I got from my father’s comments and corrections, Clyde and I managed to improve our playing and repertoire rapidly.”
Caution learned the pieces Dande and Muzoriwa/Chigamba through vocal instructions from their father, who always listened closely to them when his sons played mbira. Having learned the kushaura parts to songs, their father would teach them the kutsinhira parts using the same method. When it came to combining the interlocking patterns, Caution took his father’s singing cue and followed his vocal mbira imitations to place parts within the piece’s structure. Part of the reason why Caution mainly learned from his father’s singing was that his teacher Langton Bapiro moved away from Nyamweda during Zimbabwe’s liberation war.
“Usually we would get it after a few cycles and, with the experience of playing with Bapiro, we learned parts after 20 minutes. When father saw that we were good enough, he would then play hosho for us”
Caution’s parents welcomed having two sons playing mbira in the family. When the boys started to play in important ceremonies, the parents asked their eldest son (the main breadwinner of the family) to purchase four instruments for the two to use. Before that, they borrowed instruments from Bapiro, who was sometimes away playing at other ceremonies. The four instruments were bought from Steady Shokoni in 1986. The mbiras had two different tunings for the main seasons. Two of the new instruments were officially earmarked for use for spiritual and ancestral purposes in a special ceremony to mark them as the bridge between world of the living and that of the ancestors. When it came to the season of kurova guva ceremonies (held to bring a person who has died back to the family/community as a spirit), the Shonhai brothers received many invitations because of their unique style.
Caution says mbira players Lazarus Njenda, Murawo Tembedza and Langton Bapiro were his main influences.
“We took full advantage of having these great musicians among us and learned the best from them at all times, taking all constructive criticism as a learning process.”
Caution Shonhai loves all mbira songs that he plays, but he has favorites... especially when he plays with someone who understands and complements his style. He most enjoys playing mbira with his younger brother Renold and his son Lasson. Bangidza, Dande and Nhema musasa are the pieces he is most excited about.
Caution reflects on the problems that he has faced over the years in relation to mbira music being disrespected and misunderstood. There have been differences with some neighbors and family members who saw themselves as advanced and worldly. Caution remembers some saying to his parents:
"This mbira business that your kids are involved in will make them get the mashave (spirits) of vagrants. If you see them hold that instrument at that age, they will die destitute and you will be laughing stock of the community.”
Others in the family were envious and jealous of the talents of the young Shonhai boys:
“How come that these spirits come and work through these little people? They should not be part of our ceremonies because their age is not yet ripe to be accepted in ceremonies and ceremonial huts, let alone play mbira in them.”
Caution’s resolve to keep playing was reinforced by his parents, who encouraged the boys to keep practicing and playing, and to ignore those who saw the music as backward and unclean. Over the years, perspectives have changed, but the part of his community that was critical in the past is even more vocal than ever, mainly due to their variety of Christian beliefs.
According to Caution, there is a distinction between different churches in their approach towards mbira and traditional customs. There are churches that praise mbira and traditional ways, and others that see the instrument and the culture as heathen and unacceptable in the kingdom of God. Caution shares his opinion by lamenting that:
“My perspective as one who loves and plays mbira, I think it’s OK for me to play as long as I know that my playing and veneration of the spirits does not in any way harm or get in the way of other people’s beliefs. I feel content playing for the spirits and their mediums, because it is through playing for them that I will also be playing for God.”
The Shonhai family uses nyamaropa tuning, and their style is local to the Nyamweda area. On visits to Harare, Caution met mbira players from other parts of the country and learned new material. He recalls meeting other mbira players in Harare who had strange tunings and differently constructed instruments. He enjoyed playing these instruments as a pastime because they had a different voice and structure than what he was used to. However, he made it clear that he only played theses instruments for fun, and not as something that he could do in ceremonies or be serious about.
“When it comes to serious ceremonial and ritual work, my heart does not feel for or accept anything else than the traditional way of playing and the traditional tunings that we grew up using. When I play using the traditional tuning I feel the soul of the music.”
Because mbira music is sacred, mbira players have specific behavior that they follow when they are invited to be part of a ceremony, whether a kurova guva (ceremony to bring a person who has died back to the family/community as a spirit), mukwerera (rain-making ceremony) or bira (usual ceremony for the ancestors). Caution says he learnt from his father that one has to ask for guidance from the spirits of the clan a few days before the ceremony. One cannot ask for guidance on the day he is departing for a ceremony because the spirits also have to prepare you for the ceremony, so doing it on short notice is not acceptable. When asking for guidance in advance, he will do the prayers on the day he departs and will be guided all the way to and from the ceremony. He maintains that he has been following this strict code of conduct ever since he started playing mbira, and has refused to play in ceremonies when asked to go without advance notice.
“I remember a close friend who came to get me for a ceremony and I politely explained to him that I could not go with him because I didn’t want to disrespect my ancestors, since they are the ones who gave me the strength to play. I may help you, but I will be the one with a case to answer for not having told my spirits and ancestors. It is the same as what happened today when coming here Renold and I have been asking for guidance from the ancestors for the past few days so that our journey here will be blessed.”
Caution says his singing is inspired by what is going on in the mbira playing. The melodies and interlocking patterns on the mbira are a beacon that he follows when he sings. As he sings, some of the vocals he incorporates just come, and he may not remember them after he finishes playing. However, Caution explains that certain songs have a set way of singing from long ago, and he cannot change that, since changing it may affect how the song is accepted by the spirits that he is playing for. An example he gave was the way he sang on the piece Dangurangu (MBIRA CD 3466). Shonhai made it clear that when he sings with mbira, he does not arrange or structure his singing, as is done in other forms of music.
“It all comes naturally and I do not force my voice to do things that it cannot do because every song has its own style and life...I might weave in and out of the melodies but everything I do is governed by the mbira. On some songs, I find it easy to do huro (high-pitched lead singing), on others I will be fine doing mahon’era (low-pitched singing of bass lines) and kudeketera (Shona sung poetry) and on other renditions I will be comfortable doing all three styles or none.”
Shonhai states that when and his mbira partners play at ceremonies, they are servants of the spirits, and will follow what that family wants them to play. Once they discover the pieces and variations that this family’s spirits enjoy, they play these all night. “We know that amongst the spirits there are different preferences and during the course of the night we try by all means to play what the spirits request or enjoy the most.” Shonhai also made it clear that some of the renditions are dictated by the type of ceremony, and the type of spirits, that they are playing for.
For many years, Caution played mbira with older brother Clyde. At first, younger brother Renold joined them mainly as a hosho (rattles) player. When a close friend who was their regular hosho player died in 1993, Renold became a permanent member of the group. Gradually Renold became one of the mbira players, and then Caution’s permanent mbira partner after the death of older brother Clyde. When Caution and Renold play mbira, the two brothers interchange playing roles on different songs because they don’t want to be handicapped in either kushaura or kutsinhira. The Shonhai brothers often ask Langton Bapiro and Murawo Tembedza to join them when they play in ceremonies; and, when these senior local mbira players have ceremonies, they also invite the Shonhai brothers to help them out.
Caution had this to say about the phenomenon of new styles of mbira playing:
“Eh, 'what is eaten by others should not be disrespected' because I do have some weird mbira just for entertainment. But, when it comes to the mutsa (soul, root) of mbira I prefer the old ways of playing and arrangement. For those who mix the instrument with guitars and other instruments, I see it as shavo or kushava (ways of sustaining oneself) that does not have hwaro (history and depth). By saying so, I do not mean to disrespect what it is that they are doing, but there has to be hwaro in the music. The mutsa of mbira is not found when you mix the instrument with western ones like guitars, or when you have magada (different mbira tunings making an orchestra) like other mbira groups that are coming onto the scene. I am not saying...that their music is not entertaining but the mix will not be able to bring the ancestral spirits since the mutsa won’t be there. In some respects it may be a difference in the regions where we come from as mbira players. Where they come from, it may be acceptable to play in such a manner.”
Caution says the most important thing about the mbira is that the instrument is a munyai (intermediary) between the world of vadzimu (ancestors) and that of the living. “I am content that by working for the vadzimu through playing mbira, they always provide for those who play their music.” Sometimes, while possessed by his great-grandfather's spirit, Caution plays complex variations on the mbira that he did not know, and would not know after playing. Renold will then tell him about these variations and teach them to him later. The reason for this is that Caution is the medium of his great-grandfather’s spirit, who was a great mbira player. For one to be a success in mbira playing, Caution says he or she has to follow the muko and mutemo (codes and ethics) that the ancestors and the spirits prescribe for those who play their music.
On 24 February 1967, Caution Tichakunda (“we will conquer”) Shonhai of the Moyo Sinyoro totem was born in Kadoma, Zimbabwe, to parents Tinaapi Cuthbert Nyawo (Moyo Sinyoro totem), a textile factory clerk, and Bernadette Mavhunga (Mhofu Mutenhesanwa totem). He is the third in a family of seven children, including his current mbira partner, youngest sibling Renold Shonhai.
Caution attended Chimatira Primary School in the Nyamweda region of rural Mhondoro Communal Area, but could not stay in school because his father had lost his job, and could not pay school fees. When Caution returned to school two years later, he skipped a grade at school - thanks to the efforts of his father, who valued education so highly that he home-schooled his children. Caution’s education was disrupted again by Zimbabwe’s liberation war at its peak between 1978 and 1980. The coming of independence saw him return to school once more.
Caution attended Mutukwa High School in his rural area. After he finished school in 1990, he worked for two companies as a clerk and then a food packer. He left work as a result of illnesses related to his shave rembira spirit (spirit causing one to be an mbira player). His eldest brother, the head of the family after the death of their father in 1987, ensured that all the appropriate rituals and rites were conducted to appease and venerate Caution’s shave and mudzimu wedzinza (family ancestor) spirits. When Caution recovered, he went to work as a mechanic-in-training. However, because Caution’s spirits preferred that he live in a rural area, he left work and moved back to Nyamweda in 1995 to begin farming full-time. Caution, with the help of his wife, is a successful market gardener and trades at the biggest vegetable market in Zimbabwe.
Caution is married to Susan Nyakusendwa of the Mbizi/Samaita clan and they have four children. The oldest is Lasson, followed by Nancy, Prince and Milton. Caution taught Lasson how to play mbira, after hearing him trying out some of the songs the family usually played. Caution says that most male members of his extended family play mbira. It is expected that all males in the family will learn mbira from the older players.
Since 1995, Caution has been a full-time farmer and mbira player. When asked to elaborate, he says that life as an mbira player is sustainable:
“There is indeed prosperity in playing mbira in that, for me, it is more of a prayer from which I get material, emotional and spiritual returns. I see the playing as more rewarding even where I play for free and the spirits come, that is very crucial for me to achieve when I play.”
The financial returns from his MBIRA CDs have helped Caution to purchase a number of cattle and goats. He has also used some of the money to help his cousin’s son to pay the brideprice required to marry in Shona culture.
(based on a 2009 interview, written by Denver Banda and edited by Erica Azim, photos by Erica Azim and Kaia Wong)
Renold Shonhai is the youngest of his generation in a family of mbira players. At the age of six, Renold was able to play the basic kushaura part of Mahororo he knew the melody of the song first, and learned its name later when his brothers formally taught him.
“I was fortunate enough to have three older brothers who were good mbira players Lloyd (late), Clyde (late) and Caution who grew up playing mbira and attending important ceremonies. Close family relatives like Langton Bapiro and Murawo Tembedza were also an influence in the way that I grew to appreciate and understand the music better. My upbringing was one where mbira was played almost on a daily basis. There were no two ways about how I was going to turn out, since the music was an important part of the Shonhai household.”
As a boy, Renold had to wait for his older brothers to finish playing and then try to look for the melody on the mbira keys while they were resting. They did not want their instruments to get out of tune, but would grudgingly leave Renold to his whims on the mbira because he was the gotwe (youngest child) of the family, therefore he could get away with anything. When his brothers saw that Renold was serious about learning mbira, they taught him to hit each key separately and distinctly, emphasizing the importance of the melody and the strength with which a key must be played. Renold also had a passion for traditional drumming, and learned that as well.
With older brothers who were much more advanced mbira players, Renold was first asked to play only hosho (rattles) and ngoma (traditional drums) for the family group when they played at ceremonies. In 1995, Renold graduated to playing mbira in the group. Renold had been perfecting his playing skills by watching, listening and learning from his brothers.
“Caution was staying in Nyamweda and when I was home there, I would partner with him at functions we got invited to. When I went to stay in Harare, I would partner with mukoma (big brother) Clyde for he was the one who got invitations to play mbira at dandaros and biras (ceremonies) in the city."
Renold observes that for him to be well versed in the playing styles of his two brothers, he played kushaura for most of the songs that they played and he was told to keep playing that part until he fully understood where the song was headed and how to take it further. Happily for him, because his brothers now lived in two different places, Renold no longer had to play hosho for them, since they each wanted to play with someone who could play the family mbira style. Thirdly, the Shonhai family had two sets of gwarivas (mbiras) in different tunings, and they did not want to change the original tunings. When other mbira players changed their tunings to one of the Shonhai tunings, they could all play together. If not, musicians had to take turns on the mbira and the hosho.
Since all the Shonhai brothers were good at mbira, hosho and ngoma, their parents (and later on their widowed mother) were very supportive, particularly because the boys were very traditional as their father had taught them. Renold clearly remembers the ceremony at which two of the familiy’s four gwarivas (mbiras) made by Steady Shokoni were given to the spirits:
“I was very young at the time and I was on the hosho. I really wanted to also play those instruments (mbiras) that were very important to the family but I was not good enough at the time.”
Asked how they shared the proceeds from functions they performed at. Renold chuckles saying;
“Unlike other gwenyambira (mbira players) who got goats and chickens where they played, we always got money and since we would be four or five people working as a unit, the mbira players got more than the hosho and ngoma players. Later this changed because we realized that, since everyone played an important role in helping the mediums get possessed and also to entertain the participants, no one was more important than the other. We decided to share whatever we got equally.”
Shonhai says that when the brothers discussed the issue, they realized that every musician in the ensemble was important. The interdependence amongst the musicians and their collaboration was what made the group good. This was especially true because each of the Shonhais was good at everything that they did during the course of the night, and each of them had had a turn on each of the instruments.
“It was a great observation make that each of us was able to add something to the ceremonies that we attended. We soon knew that everything had to be equal, because if I play ngoma, hosho or mbira to everyone and the spirits’ liking, my shave (talent spirit) for that particular instrument had to be venerated. My shave had to receive what was equal to the effort put in, because it was not me alone playing, but I was simply being used by the shave to show its prowess.”
Renold Shonhai’s favorite song is Nhema musasa, and he loves it especially if it is “well played.” He could not elaborate further on what he meant by “well-played” but the far away look on his face showed his deep attachment to the song. When mbira is played, Renold mainly loves to back the lead singer with mahon’era (low-pitched response singing) and he openly admits that he is better as a backing vocalist because his brothers were very good singers.
Renold enjoys the nyamaropa tuning he grew up listening to. In 1995, while looking for a job, he met mbira musicians playing different tunings such as vembe (also known as mavembe or gandanga), dongonda and other tunings. At first, Renold had trouble understanding how these other tunings were played. But, his passion for the music led him to learn how to play the different tunings and their styles, and he is now confident on any tuning. Shonhai sees nothing bad about the new tunings and ways of playing, but he says his heart is with the nyamaropa tuning. He explains his conviction as follows,
“The nyamaropa tuning mbiras usually move in a pair, and it is their relationship when one mixes the kushaura and kutsinhira parts that one truly understands, and leads to the variations. This is unlike when one plays a dongonda mbira where the whole gwariva’s (mbira's) upper left manual and the right hand manual are identical and one can take advantage of this fact and just hit a single key on both sides. I love to preserve the nyamaropa tuning because it offers one a chance to listen to two instruments replying to each other.”
In school, Renold had problems with people who labeled him as a traditionalist because the family played mbira at home. He was jeered at, but that was not a deterrent because he knew he had the support of his whole family and the spirits. Over the years, he has tried to educate people who look down upon the mbira as an evil and heathen instrument, by using historical facts that the mbira was played for religious purposes and for great Shona spirits like Chaminuka. Shonhai was vehement about safeguarding the history and traditional way of playing mbira, observing that it would be difficult for future generations to understand Shona culture and religion without the mbira and the ceremonies associated with traditional music.
Renold was very frank about places he has played mbira when struggling financially. He played for an upcoming band that mixed mbira and marimba in 2004. He left the group after he saw that, when he played with rural traditional gwenyambiras (mbira players), he was losing his way...since some of the notes he was supposed to play, he had become used to hearing from the other instruments in the band.
Renold, like his brother Caution, also has rules that he follows with his mbira and its music.
“In the matare (consultations with spirits) we go to as mbira players, we are taught by the spirits not to touch our instruments after having sexual relations with women. This is because this instrument is used for religious purposes and purity of the player is highly valued. If ...(not), he will be unclean, for the mbira is for very important spirits. ”
Shonhai was particularly emphatic about this, noting that the mbira player is the catalytic agent that facilitates communication between the living and the ancestors.
He went on to share how important it was for him to be pure at all times whenever the mbira is involved, since his brother Caution has a revered family spirit (mudzimu wedzinza). The spirit, of their great-grandfather VaDzuwa, has favorite songs Muka tiende, Dande and more, and the spirit has a different style of playing these songs. Renold feels that he has an important role in helping to bring the spirit of their great-grandfather. Renold educates the young Shonhais about the importance of maintaining the tradition, for it is through the family spirits that they get to know their family history, and where they are headed as a family. He had this to say about his brother Caution, and how he changes when VaDzuwa possesses him:
“Caution does play great mbira, but when Vesekuru VaDzuwa comes and takes over, the mbira that Caution plays as a medium is far more complex than most of the songs we usually play. On most occasions, the mbira styles that the medium plays are new to me and Caution. When the spirit leaves, I have the task of explaining the different variations that were played and I try to teach Caution what I grasped of them. I have come to notice that over a period of time, the songs that I do not get, Caution will still end up playing when we play long enough. When the spirit is with us, we usually consult him about family problems and this is very helpful for the whole family.”
Renold says that the most important thing about mbira for him is that it’s an instrument that he uses to forward his prayers to Musikavanhu (God). To send these prayers he says that he has to first pass through his ancestors and for him to pass through the ancestors (vadzimu), he has to play mbira for them as it has been done by his forefathers (matateguru) and it’s a tradition he says he will keep.
Renold Terrance Shonhai of the “Moyo Sinyoro” totem was born on 7 January 1977 at Nyamweda Clinic in Mhondoro, a rural area of Zimbabwe.
“Very humble, soft-spoken and well-grounded” is how one mbira listener described Renold Shonhai. It is hard to believe, after knowing that he is the last-born child or gotwe, who in Shona families is usually spoiled and attention-seeking. Renold Shonhai was born at a time when Zimbabwe’s liberation war was at its peak. Renold jokes, calling himself a child of sevens, since he is the seventh child in the family, born on seventh day of the month in the seventh decade of the century, and he went on to note that some of the defining moments in his life had sevens (for instance the death of his father in 1987).
In 1984, Renold attended pre-school and then primary school at Chimatira Primary School, within close walking distance from his village. The death of his father, Tinaapi Shonhai, in 1987 changed the financial fortunes of the family. Now Renold’s school requirements fees, books and other educational accessories were the responsibility of his older brothers. Since the eldest brother in the family was in the army, and the others working for industries in town or market gardening at home in Nyamweda, they could spare a few dollars for him. Renold finished primary school in 1990 and enrolled at Mutukwa High School, about four miles away from home.
High school was a very trying time for Renold, because his older brothers and sisters were getting married and needed to take care of their own families. At this time, the country was going through economic changes that resulted in extensive job layoffs, the end of some benefits for government employees, and the reduction of free stationery and other services in the school system. In this economic climate, it was difficult for Renold’s brothers to support their families along with Renold and their aging sick mother in Nyamweda. Renold managed to pay fees for two terms on his own in1994.
“I had mostly worked in other people’s fields, and with a little savings from playing mbira I managed to pay for school fees and the exam fee. I remember having to write the exam coming from home, without attending school in the last term, because things were very tight for everyone back then.”
After 1994, Renold was nto able to go on to Advanced secondary level classes because of his limited financial resources.
“Kumusha (home at the village) there were a lot of very good mbira players and the mbira related functions were few, far between and mainly seasonal. I think it had to do with the area having too many Gwenyambira and too few ceremonies... issues of supply and demand. When there were indeed functions the money was usually too little to do anything really meaningful with it. Often...the times I got to play were at functions like biras and kurova guva ceremonies of members of the extended family, which was...a family duty (unpaid).”
During 1995 and early 1996, Renold helped take care of the family homestead and his mother, since Caution had built his own home, and their other brothers were living and working in Harare. Renold left for the city in mid-1996 to look for employment, with his mother now under the care of one of his brothers’ wives. He spent all of 1997 looking for a job.
In 1998, Renold got a job at ZESA, the national power company, as a contract general hand; he later worked from 2001 to 2003 as a packer of finished clothes; and worked at a food facory from 2004 through January 2008.
Renold married Victoria Mukwisha of the Soko Murehwa totem in late 2001. They have two children, a boy and a girl. Victoria is from Mhondoro and grew up in a family that accepts mbira tradition. She also attends the Roman Catholic Church, which Renold says accepts and is not critical of Shona traditional customs. Renold spent some of his CD royalties from MBIRA to buy a bull, goats and farming input over the years, and some of the money was used for food for his wife and children.