Silver Linings 2 : A Summer Of Mbira Workshops

In this second post, I reflect on my workshop content, method and the feedback I received.

To read the earlier post, click here.

As soon as I knew that I was going to be providing mbira workshops this summer, I had a beautiful song in mind. For me it was a simple choice that embraced the settings I would be in, the heritage of the instrument and my own discoveries while writing Unlocking Mbira.

The setting

Festivals are fickle environments. With so many distractions, it can be hard to capture and hold the interest of individuals/groups, especially when a workshop has a drop-in format. 

I decided that it was important to offer an initial task (more on this below) that would be accessible and rewarding.

My intention was guided by the idea that a successful 'taste' of the instrument would either provide a short and positive experience of mbira, or whet each participant's appetite for deeper, challenging and more rewarding learning. 



In The Soul of Mbira, Paul Berliner tells us that the Kushaura part for Karigamombe is often the first variation a new player learns. This approach is reported elsewhere, and I make a positive argument for it in the Mbira Song Book that I worked on with my teacher, Fungai. The variation ticks a number of theoretical and practical boxes, acting as a kind of starter template for the learning and/or understanding of many other traditional songs.

In contrast, Fungai learnt the Kushaura part for Nhemamusasa from his grandfather in their first lessons together, and maintained this tradition by teaching it to me at the beginning of my studies. I remember leaving Fungai's home that day, full of enthusiasm and excitement, with a burst blister on my left thumb, a short video recording of him playing, one of his personal instruments and a thumb pick that he had kindly lent me.

Although I chose not to teach either of these parts in my workshops. I was aware of both their benefits. My final choice (below) made a great 'starter template' and shared many elements with Fungai's choice. It was also shorter and gave me a platform to discuss important material from my own research.


In my book Unlocking Mbira, I discuss the fascinating family of song structures that are so heavily present within traditional mbira music, and provide answers to many questions that had intrigued me (click the link for full product details).  

One idea that I explore is that of the cascading treble notes we often hear in traditional songs matching up with, suggesting or imitating an underlying 'chord progression' (in this instance, 'chord' refers to the note options during a period of time rather than a group of notes played at once - more on this here). Because of my own excitement for the subject, this was something that I wanted to convey, or at least provide an experience of in my workshops.

Bringing it all together

The accessible 'initial task' that I offered (Part A in the handout graphic below) is the left hand from Mabharabhara (see Linos Wengara Magaya and Tim Lloyd's Zimbaremabwe mbira books). I call it a 'half song' because it repeats the first half of our traditional structure (in this instance, corresponding well with the Nhemamusasa that Fungai's grandfather taught). 

I first gave participants some time to find and practice playing the green and purple notes. It was then easy to add the red and orange notes (conveniently found at either end of the left hand registers). Without much effort, they had quickly learned four of the seven note pairs in the left hand!

Click to expand.

Many participants were quickly combining cascades of treble notes with Part A, and some learners were able to play the whole song in both hands while exploring top/bottom/mixed left hand variations. What a great achievement!

Watch Moyo and Jeannine play through some variations of Phumvu that are extremely similar to Linos' version of Mabharabhara and the song I taught. For more ideas, download my free guide to composing for mbira here.

Teaching mbira is very different to my regular work with West African percussion groups and Circus Skills clubs (yes, I teach circus skills!). I found it so much more important to listen and to provide space for each individual, respecting their different learning styles and speeds.

One lovely piece of feedback was left for me by Miriam. She came to the festival with a group of Zimbabweans that hadn't played mbira before. Completely lifting the experience with clapping and singing while I played, they transformed the weekend and left me buzzing! 

Sarah kindly sent over an email message:

"The workshop was loads of fun. It didn't feel as serious and intense as some other music workshops I've been to - which was a great vibe to have! I love those alternative little things you get at festivals that you probably wouldn't get to experience otherwise." 

And Martina from Switzerland too:

"The mystical sound of the mbira immediately enchanted me and thanks to Andy's teaching, I was able to play a basic song in no time. Together with his knowledge about the roots of the mbira and the theory of the traditional mbira music, this truly was an amazing workshop."

I'm grateful to have been able to share my enthusiasm with such a lovely group of people this summer, and to you for taking the time now to read about my mbira journey. I hope you've got something from it. Show your support by posting a comment, liking and/or sharing. Maybe say if you have an event in mind that you'd like to see me at too...

Thanks + catch you soon - Andy