MBIRA MAGIC'S 'NZIRA YE MBIRA' (PATH OF MBIRA) FEATURE SERIES INTRODUCES:
I was part of a group in Cape Town that began working with African musicians and dancers in 1986 during the apartheid years. Suddenly our frustration and despair with the condition in South Africa shifted into a highly charged creative activism.
Mbira was my companion all the way. I helped many people build their own and learn to play. If caught in the townships illegally, a white, I would say I am a sales representative for the new African wire brush, showing them my mbira which was a perfect pot scrubber especially for the big African pot made famous for cooking colonial missionaries.
In those times it was difficult to earn even a pittance from mbira because the public became annoyed by the noise of the bottle-tops. They would cover their ears and cross the street. I saw some of Cape Town’s best players quit and take up employment with the banks. Mbira players were highly sought after by banks because of the incredible speed with which they could count bank notes. Some banks in South Africa I believe still bag the cash in bundles of 24 and 48. In the early days it was a real battle. We were up against grand pianos and all we had were rusty tourist shop kalimbas. We were dealing with apartheid architecture that had been constructed so as to make traditional African music inaudible. In order to be heard buskers were forced to adopt classical western tempered tuning and remove their buzzing bottle-tops. With these changes the musicians were able to position themselves audibly in the city in strategic positions.
The Pope had agreed that everyone could practice their own beliefs and the churches in the townships of Cape Town became rife with marimbas. White priests were seen to be tapping their feet during prayers and even sangomas entered the congregation occasionally.
Joy in creative expression
Eventually marimbas and the African drum infiltrated all the streets of the city and began to loosen people up. Some marimba groups learnt jazz and penetrated hotel foyers and tourist restaurants, thereby expanding the territory. For every body, ear, hand and foot trapped in 4/4 musical travel, the revelation of a dance and clapped 2/3 polyrhythm came as a cathartic release. This phenomenon along with the flat fifth were banned by the government. We had all been taught at school that “…these will raise your tail-end indecently and cause knobs to grow on your forehead.”
Cultural groups funded from abroad sent ranks of upbeat poly-players through communities and schools to free people from the all-conquering Viking down-stomp. Finally enough people became convinced. The music made them feel so good and want to move their bodies in such a nice way. And so, from the ground up, an inside job, the apartheid concrete block was demolished.
Marimba and mbira music, dance and theatre and opening to African culture was all about an incredible positive interaction of people that certainly helped change things.
It was with Pedro Espi Sanchez that my training in African music began. He taught a part-time course in the basement of the UCT College of Music. We blew horn parts, danced pipes, played amadinda, drums, mbira and more. Pedro gained his knowledge from Andrew Tracey. When I heard the enlivening sound of Venancio Mbande’s chopi xylophone orchestra it made me want to rush off to Mozambique and train. Andrew said, “There is a war there, rather go to Zimbabwe. Here is Keith Goddard’s phone and address in Harare.”
Keith took me to many players and builders of mbira including Chris Mhlanga, Chaka Chawasarira, Mondrek Muchena and Ephat Mujuru, and to Bira at Mbare and Hurungwe. I also visited the Kwanangoma instrument workshop near Bulawayo and learnt from the old men building karimba there. I spent time with Tswana people learning segankore and at Mambo Arts Commune in Gaberone I heard the music of Qwii, a Bushman orchestra of segankore and dingo mbira from the wide space of the desert, the tuning of which for me is the most beautiful.
Mbira is magical, the right sound at the right time can do wonders.
The music is kaleidophonic and your ears are the turning tubes. It is not uncommon for an unturned ear to hear only a single riff and to then declare “mbira music sounds all the same, it is so repetitive!”
A good player will twist your ear.
One can know a piece of mbira music for years and then suddenly hear it as a totally new tune without being able to recognize it. This is because the ear decides one day to hear a new pattern that begins at another position in the cycle and in a different rhythmic pulse. So with mbira there is never a dull moment.
It is possible that while playing you hear another tune than what you had learned and then your fingers try to play it and everything collapses because you were already playing it! You can’t work a tune to death; they just keep growing.
I play njari and karimba (nyunga-nyunga) 19 reeds with the 4th notes added and the deep 2. This allows me to develop and arrange bigger mbira pieces from other instruments onto karimba. I use a vertical line mbira music notation starting from the bottom of the page and moving upwards. About 1997 Stephen Golovnin visited me in Cape Town to see the traditional violin (segankore) that I build and play. During his visit he wrote out many tunes for me and helped me realise the benefit with mbira notation in using the numbers to denote the reeds that are the actual numbers of the notes in the scale. Stephen also gave me an overtone tuning lesson and now I tune my overtones on my mbira to double-octave and a third. Strangely, yet not unexpectedly, my first exposure to traditional African music instruments happened in London round 1984 at an African Music Village series of performances at Green Park. What stood out the most for me was a small orchestra of Southern African musicians in exile who combined mbira, marimba, a gourd resonated bow and a reed wind instrument. This set the course for my musical direction from then on.
So I have built a variety of Southern African instruments which are played together. I have explored notation forms as artwork by carving woodblock patterns for the pitches of different scales and printing the music onto circular and vertical grids. This has developed into a free notation expression in painting using a brush in each hand as thumbs or mallets on the canvas. This is great fun, as good as playing music!
Mbira Magic - Check back to Phillip's first picture to see how this 'music in free notation' emerges.
Because his 'woodblock art notation' (above) represented kora music, we asked Phillip if he might suggest an appropriate song that we could share with the mbira community. We're really grateful that he signposted us to the music of his friend, Derek Gripper, who revoices this beautiful instrument's music onto guitar - impeccably. The first video we arrived at (below) shows Derek playing 'Jarabi', the bassline of which is revoiced onto mbira for the final song example in our recently released book 'Unlocking Mbira'. The version Derek plays is is taken from Toumani Diabate. Recommended listening.
Storytelling started with my kids and then the neighborhood kids. At any moment they could demand a story so I was forced to develop the ability to create a complete package, beginning, middle and end as it unfolded. I took this method to schools and groups of people and turned it around in a way that they were inspired to create and then perform their story. Mbira music comes with a social commentary attached. The challenge stands for mbira players worldwide to speak and sing their story with the music in their own language. Imagine in a concert hall in Tokyo Takemiso performs on dza va dzimu and sings: “私たちは、福岡正信を忘れてはなりません oh ye-i-eh-i-ehh! 彼の無プラウ農業は地球を保存することができます oohoh-ye oh-ye oh-ye-i-e-i-ehh シードボールと oh yeh-oh yehシードボールと oh-yeh oh-yeh.” He would certainly be understood! There is a vast wealth of types of mbira all over Africa and many incredible tunings. The abundantly energetic and high speed playing of mbira with dance and song at it’s source in Zimbabwe has become an inspiration globally. The instrument mbira is a vehicle of mass instruction partially obscured by bush.
Phillip takes on commissions. You will have seen that he makes beautiful marimba and njari, and is a leading ambassador for these instruments. If you are interested in his offer (various note layouts available), learning music, or arranging for him to lead a workshop, please visit his website and enquire directly.
Instrument Guide prices (September 2015) in £/UK :
Karimba 15 reed £80, 19 reed £100, 22 reed (3octaves) £180
Njari 36 reed £350
Phillip has released a number of albums that you can enjoy here. We are also in discussion about releasing a book of his notation. Details about this, and any new projects will be announced in our Newsletter.
Please share your comments, and any messages of support for Phillip's creativity and musical journey. We will pass them on to him.