(written by Denver Banda)
A voice rings out loudly under the star-studded sky of an August night in Mhondoro. Its familiar energy and clarity seem to be taunting the spirits of the ancestors to rejoin the living, and moving the living to a wild crescendo… Suddenly, she ululates, ululates again as the high notes on the mbira ring out complementing her ululation. She cries:
“Mbira, Hosho, Mbira, Hosho, Mbira, Hosho, Mbira, Manja, Hosho, Manja, Mbira!!”
She urges everyone on, and in response all present go wild with excitement. This is a glimpse of how Ambuya Jenny Muchumi got participants involved in a ceremony, with her explosive energy and drive.
Recordings Available From MBIRA
Use the links and listen to samples of her albums.
- 3459 Vakaranga Venharetare — Live Concert in Berkeley, CA on 13 August 2008
- 3406 Alois Mutinhiri Solo 2002 — Nyamaropa Tuning Mbira and Vocals (Jenny Muchumi on hosho)
- 3404 Jenny Muchumi, Simon Hoto & Mudavanhu Magaya 2002
- 3306 Simon Hoto, Mudavanhu Magaya & Jenny Muchumi 2000
(written by Denver Banda based on a 2007 interview, edited and updated by Erica Azim)
Jenny Muchumi was born on 9 June 1950 during the kurova guva (ceremony to bring a new ancestral spirit back to the community) season. Njuma Kraal in Seke Communal Area celebrated when Tangwara Chingwaru and Esnath Mandizvidza welcomed their first child into a family that would grow to two boys and five girls of the VaSeke clan. Jenny grew up at Njuma Kraal under the watchful eye of her grandmother Ambuya Hurugumi, who was the medium of a mhepo spirit called Chingumira. Jenny lived with her grandmother because her parents worked as farm laborers in the Dewedzo area of Rusape, and it was not a good place for a young child. Also, as the first child, and first grandchild, she was the pride and joy of her parents and grandmother.
Ambuya Harugumi had a banya (ceremonial hut) called Zvakapindwa, which she used for rituals and for holding court with other great spirits. It is in this banya, and at her grandmother’s home, that Jenny learned about traditional music. Music was a key component to the activities that went on in the banya and in the healing sessions that took place at home.
It was the late Canaan Jirira, a cousin who played for her grandmother, who taught Jenny her first mbira songs. She was taught the kushaura (lead) parts of the traditional mbira repertoire. In 1964, Jenny was good enough to play for her grandmother in the banya, as well as when her grandmother healed people. Ambuya Harugumi noted that Jenny was the first woman in the clan to play mbira, and she instructed Canaan Jira and Elias Mhizha (her aunt’s son) to teach Jenny as much as they could. The teaching method was that Canaan and Elias would play mbira, and Jenny would observe their hand movements and the keys they hit. She would then replicate the same keys on a different instrument.
Jenny Muchumi attended school up to Standard Five, which is the equivalent of five or six years of primary education. It was expensive, and neither her parents nor her grandmother could afford to keep sending her to school.
“My parents lived far from home, and the failure to finish school made me love the mbira more, because it was an outlet that compensated for the education that I did not receive. My parents and grandmother understood why I had so much love for the mbira.”
Problems of Being a Spirit Medium
In 1970, when Jenny was married and had two children, it was discovered that she had a great male spirit of the clan. This was not received well by some of the men, both elderly and young, in her clan. They were not happy about the fact that such an important spirit would choose a woman for a medium. For the spirit to come out properly, there had to be a bira ceremony where all family members attended. Ambuya bitterly remembers 1970,
“In 1970, there was supposed to have been a bira to welcome the spirit and have it revealed to everyone. But, as it turned out, many of the men wanted to hijack the spirits for their own selfish ends. The bira was delayed and up to now nothing tangible has been done.”
Jenny was bitter that the tateguru (ancient spirit) she had was angry, and that people were disrespecting its wishes. She tried to appease her spirit, but it was not enough without the cooperation of the men in the family. Jenny was worried that, in the patriarchal Shona society, the spirit would never be allowed to come through her, because the men were adamant about not empowering her in such a manner.
Muchumi enjoyed playing mbira with others in bira ceremonies and at dandaros (daytime gatherings) more than playing solo. She chuckled before she speaking animatedly, “I love playing mbira in the bira more because the true barometer of my prowess is the participants’ response to my singing, and their dancing.”
Jenny’s favorite song was Mahororo, and she attributed this to the fact that it is an ancient piece that fixes everything in ceremonies. Her second favorite was Vamuroro/Ndodzungaira/Tadzungaira, and she loved the song for the interlocking patterns that emerge as one plays. On singing styles, Jenny Muchumi loved the huro and magure (yodeling) and kudeketera (poetry and commentary). She said loved these singing styles because they afforded her the freedom to weave in and out of the mbira notes, and her voice would fill in the notes that the mbira missed, especially at the beginning and end of melodies. Jenny also whistled when playing mbira,
“The whistling came about as a result of the male spirit that is in me, it is in the background waiting to break free. The ululation is the perfect and powerful complement to the whistle because it cancels out the male and balance is maintained.”
When Jenny helped her ambuya (grandmother) in the banya, she was not compensated in any way. She played so that her grandmother would work with svikiros (spirit mediums) and midzimu (spirits) who came to Njuma Kraal. Canaan Jirira usually played the kutsinhira (intertwining part) and Jenny played the kushaura (lead part).
“I never learnt to play kutsinhira, that is my handicap. But, the fact that I sing, whistle, play ngoma (drums), hosho (gourd rattles) and dance all make up for this in the long run, for they are my kutsinhira parts.”
In performance, Jenny danced unique old style steps. Approniah Makate, a follower of bira ceremony trends in the Mhondoro rural area, noted that when Jenny danced, “Her feet become the hands that drum the floor in steady rhythms that all prop up the mbira musicians’ playing. Her feet become the bass drum to the music, I do not know how she does it but I think she gets help from somewhere (implying spirits).”
When asked where the dance steps come from, Jenny simply said she started dancing at her grandmother’s banya at ceremonies, and she does not know how the actual movements started.
Ambuya (“Grandmother”) Jenny Muchumi was very good at kukuza mbira (encouraging musicians and participants in the ceremony). She used the words “Mbira”, “Hosho” (rattles), “Manja” (clap) and “Ngoma” (drums) to encourage people. When she called these out, the mbira players were reenergized, the hosho players increased their tempo, the handclappers increased the volume and the crispness of their clapping, and the ngoma player rolled his mutumba (type of drum). The resulting effect was the true experience of a traditional mbira ceremony in Zimbabwe.
On the new styles of playing Jenny had this to say,
“We should put our authentic culture on the forefront. Personally, I prefer the old mbira pieces. The new ways are sweet to the ear and to the pocket, but they do not have depth and they aren’t for our traditional orientation. I hear that some are singing Christian hymns on the mbira. I have nothing against diversity and creativity but mixing religions is not my thing.”
In this respect, Muchumi was echoing the sentiments of many mbira players who prefer the old ways of doing things. As much as the music is dynamic, all mbira players acknowledge that the old songs are powerful.
Born Jane Chingodza, Jenny married Musekiwa Muchumi in 1967; together they had seven children, two girls and five boys. Musekiwa was a n’anga (traditional healer), and Jenny’s mbira playing was helpful to his practice. She helped him with his practice in the Mufakose area of Harare. When he retired from work, they moved with the family to what was then Mhondoro Tribal Trust Lands. Jenny continued to play mbira in Mhondoro, and she had the advantage of being a female mbira player.
“There were no lady mbira players in Mhondoro. but it was a hub of male mbira players. It was to my benefit that, for a change, they had a woman playing, and this was how I gained the upper hand over the men.”
Starting in the early 1990s, Jenny’s husband suffered from mental illness, thought to be a result of a family vendetta. Her husband’s relatives did deal with the problem, but it persisted. With her husband incapacitated, Jenny turned to both music and subsistence farming to support her family. As the main breadwinner for the family, the proceeds from her MBIRA recordings, and from her performances, helped to support her and her family.
Jenny teamed up at various times with the late young Simon Hoto, Crispen Mashayamombe, Alois Mutinhiri, Rodwell Muturikwa and Friday Chamunorwa over the years she lived in Mhondoro. Her most consistent partner was Simon Hoto, who taught her more kushaura (starting part) variations to various songs, and his singing added variety to Jenny’s huge repertoire of singing styles. Jenny and Simon’s performances were always packed because they had an undeniable attachment with the music, and the fact that they worked together for a long time rendered their music polished and powerful. The proceeds from their performances were shared equally despite the fact that she was the leader of the group.
When Simon Hoto died, Jenny stopped playing mbira much for a while. She eventually started playing again, teaming up with Simon’s friends Mudavanhu Magaya and Denver Banda, and Mudavanhu’s father, Cosmas Magaya. Jenny’s vocals, mbira and dance made her a key member of their group, Mhuri yekwaMagaya, for 11 years. She performed at important functions, including the installation of Chief Mashayamombe.
Jenny believed that the most important thing when it comes to mbira music is,
“Doing the right thing always, be it singing, playing, dancing or drumming. Authenticity sets us apart from the commercial and tourist mbira that is on the radio.”
To pass the knowledge on, Jenny taught her grandson Alan Chashaya, and son Stanley, to play mbira.
Since her passing in 2011, Ambuya Jenny Muchumi is greatly missed by her family, community, and friends around the world.