Nzira Ye Mbira : B Michael Williams


B Michael Williams

Many of our readers will be familiar with the work of Michael Williams. In this feature, we join him on a passionate journey that started almost thirty years ago. Let’s walk through time together and find out where it all began, what he has achieved with the instrument, and how his books and free resources are helping mbira players around the world.

If Michael’s is a new face to you, we definitely recommend taking the time to visit his popular Youtube channel (containing over forty inspirational videos that showcase his and his students’ mbira playing, and that of Zimbabwean artists).

Also, rest assured that you are in the presence of a trusted ambassador for our much-loved instrument. Michael’s story sees him rubbing shoulders with many of the leading figures of our world. Continue on to find out how Paul Berliner (Acclaimed author of ‘The Soul of Mbira’), Chartwell Dutiro (mbira player for ‘Thomas Mapfuno and the Blacks Unlimited’ / artistic director of ‘Mhararano Mbira Academy’), and Erica Azim (director of Mbira.Org) have each impacted upon him.

Michael with Erica Azim of Mbira.Org

A Close Encounter

Michael’s first close encounter with the instrument took place in 1977. At the time, he was studying classical percussion and had hopes of becoming a timpanist for the Chicago Symphony.

A ‘Jazz History’ class with Paul Berliner ignited a passion within him that continues to burn brightly today. Using the mbira to demonstrate improvisation, Michael recalls how Berliner’s combination of playing and singing stirred his rapture and fascination.

“He sang so beautifully and he played the instrument with such passion it stayed with me”.

Incredibly, it would be fifteen years before Michael came across the mbira again, and this time, learning the instrument became an obsession. He compares his attitude back then to

“Richard Dreyfus’ character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when he was carving the mountain out of his mashed potatoes”
Michael compares his early mbira obsession with that of Richard Dreyfus' character in the film 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'. 

Michael compares his early mbira obsession with that of Richard Dreyfus' character in the film 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'. 

 26 key Nyamaropa mbira by Andy Cox. Carved elephants in forest scene, spider monkey and embossed 'Bird of Zimbabwe' emblem. Michael refers to this as a "Stradivarius" mbira because of the quality workmanship. 

“It’s an instrument that my soul can speak through.”

Andy Cox, who has since made several more mbiras for Michael, constructed the first mbira dzavadzimu that he was able to play with any seriousness. It was at this time that Michael heard the music of Erica Azim. Inspired by her stunning singing, and now armed with his own mbira and a copy of ‘The Soul of Mbira’, he set upon his path...


“The more I play this instrument, the more I think I see God, not only in the instrument, but everywhere.”

Learning the Mbira

Without audio tracks to help him, Michael first went about learning Kariga Mombe (he provides notation for this and a few other songs below), and remembering back to the music he played at that time, recalls how it lacked the correct pulse, heard and felt by more experienced mbira players. It was Chartwell Dutiro who helped him to hear the songs differently, and after their meeting he realised

‘You can shift your perception and hear it in a totally different way - that opened up a whole new world for me’.

In this video he gives an example of playing or hearing two possible pulses within the same piece of music. We then hear an explanation that two parts with contrasting pulses of three and four can make the music “very complex, especially to a Western ear.”

“It’s a way for me to tap into a very powerful spiritual source”

Read our Nzira Ye Mbira feature with Chartwell Dutiro next month.

Michael’s understanding of timing and structure within mbira music has continued to deepen. In an interview with Kalimba Magic (December 2008), he explains that “there is a “one”, but it may not be in the same place for every person hearing or playing it”. He also shares in response to a question about chord progressions “that traditional Shona music is polyphonic, and what we hear as harmony is the result of coincidence of individual lines. In other words, the music is linear (actually circular) rather than vertical (and you thought “One” was controversial!), and the vertical sonorities appear when the lines (or circles) intersect.”

The idea of circular rhythms is animated for us in this great little video, where we see a number of parallels between rhythms and songs from around the world. 

Here, Michael is saying that while groups of notes are played together, our need to label them as chords can be suspended. Instead, we can experience the notes within these groups separately, each belonging to distinct musical lines.

By suggesting a number of intersecting lines, and offering a range of ‘ones’ and contrasting ‘pulses’ Michael tells us that mbira songs open up a universe of “multiple perspectives”.

Moving Ahead

Michael became Professor of Music and Director of Percussion Studies at Winthrop University in 1979. Under his leadership, 2012 saw the Winthrop University World Percussion Ensemble winning the title of PAS International World Percussion Ensemble. 

Specializing in Mbira, Djembe, Frame Drums, and Contemporary Percussion, it is clear that Michael has a combined respect for both tradition and progression. We see him combine two traditions in 2007 in collaboration with Michel Spiro (leader in the world of latin percussion, both as a player and educator), Jesus Diaz, Sylvain Leroux and Adam Snow during their first BataMbira rehearsal. The album they produced combined bata* and mbira music, and achieved high acclaim.    


Global Rhythm Magazine

“A heartfelt and beautiful collaboration between two percussion masters.”

*Bata drums originate from Nigeria and are used within spirit possession ceremonies in the Santeria religion. Note that their music also favours twelve beat cycles, a perfect foundation for playing contrasting pulses and exploring other multiple perspectives.   

Still looking to build bridges between other instruments and styles, in 2012 he published ‘Shona Spirit’ (mbira music translated for marimba - Audio) and performed ‘No Woman No Cry’ by Bob Marley at the PASIC Clinic, “Mbira Connections” (see video).

That year, he also brought his friend and collaborator Michael Spiro to Winthrop for a series of polyrhythmic masterclasses. Michael shares some of his profound knowledge of rhythm and improvisation in this book. Of particular interest to us are his exercises for dividing twelve beat cycles.

The following two years saw two of Williams’ earlier inspirations joining him, now on an equal platform. Erica Azim and Chartwell Dutiro both performed and taught with Michael at events organized by his department.

Sharing with the Community

Michael has been generous in his contributions to the mbira community. Aside from publishing videos on his Youtube channel, he has also written a number of books and free resources.

Download Getting Started with Mbira dzaVadzimu for eleven FREE song variations* and including the following sections:

Holding the instrument / Tuning systems / Shona musical style / Notation and songs / Glossary / Bibliography / Discography

*Songs include:

·      Kariga Mombe – Three right hand variations each with the same left hand part

·      Nyamaropa – Five right hand variations with a few small variations in the left hand

·      Nhemamusasa – Three right hand variations each with the same left hand part

Michael also offers sheets of free notation on his blog:

·      Taireva

·      Kariga Mombe

·      Chartwell Dutiro’s Shumba ya Ngwasha 

Finally, we move onto his books. The following publications are essential resources for every serious mbira student.

Sales of the first, Learning Mbira : A Beginning (103 pgs, 2cd’s) raise valuable funds for Erica Azim’s Mbira organisation. Ten sample pages can be viewed here.

“It has sold all over the US, in Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, China, the UK, Japan, and even Indonesia. I had a student tell me he had attended one of Erica Azim’s workshops in California and that my book had prepared him for that experience. I told him that was exactly what I had hoped for when I wrote it.”

MbiraTab – Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4 form his most recent offerings to us. All of the books contain four songs, with at least five variations each, and are fully supported by accompanying audio tracks. The promotional video for the first volume is shown below. The other four can be viewed here. 

Can we share our thanks to Michael for his time and generosity while we prepared this feature. Share your comments about this feature, and let us know how his work has influenced you in the comments box below.

Did you like Michael's special mbira, made by Andy Cox? Send pictures of your favourite mbira to along with your name and any other comments, and we will include it in a special gallery.