My first mbira lesson, in Zimbabwe, when I was 20 years old in 1974, was on a steam train. Until then, I was a self-taught mbira player, although I had studied karimba/nyunganyunga mbira with Dumi Maraire (back when he was still called Abraham) at the University of Washington. Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia (to picture that, think of whatever you have heard about apartheid South Africa, it was very similar), and I was the only white person riding in 4th class on that train. I had heard Dumi say that music happened in 4th class, but nothing was happening, and the train was very VERY slow. It took an entire day to go the distance of a 3 hour drive.
I took out my mbira and played softly. The man across the aisle from me asked, “What are you playing?” At that moment, I was playing my attempt at learning Taireva from a tape of a Zimbabwean 45 rpm record of an mbira group. After I answered, “Taireva,” he said, “Come sit next to me and I’ll show you how to play Taireva.” He taught me the basic kushaura part for Taireva, and I was thrilled, playing it the rest of the day on the train. He was a textile mill worker, traveling home on vacation to visit his family. I never saw him again, and am sad to say I no longer remember his name.
Although I had failed to learn Taireva correctly from the record, I believe that my attempts to learn mbira by ear, and constant listening to recordings of mbira, have been the most important elements of my development as an mbira player. I highly recommend that mbira students do lots of listening to many musicians playing each piece they are learning, or want to learn. That is easy to do now, with MBIRA’s Mbira Piece Intensive Listening albums.