It is impossible to talk about music in Zimbabwe over the past 40 years or so without recognizing the major demographic change that took place with the industrialization of what is now Zimbabwe by the Rhodesians. Zimbabwe, with its predominant Shona groups, was a rural, agricultural society structured around family-centered villages. With the colonial regime came a mass movement of people to the cities, the centers of Rhodesian manufacturing and commerce. With this urbanization came disconnection from the traditions of the village—especially for the generations growing up in the townships (or "high-density suburbs", as the Rhodesians euphemistically called them)—and an exposure to Western culture and mores, including Western music.
By the time the European-dominated institutions of religion and education had come to be more tolerant of traditional African forms of expression a huge cultural change had taken place. Christianity had become a prominent faith and with that a came a disconnection with the traditions which are at the heart and soul of mbira. As well the urban dwellers were exposed to the music of the West, on the state-run radio (which played lip service to traditional music), in recordings, and in nightclubs and beer halls. And as Zimbabweans moved back and forth between their rural areas and their urban homes, Western music and musical instruments made their way to the village.
It is very difficult for someone not from Zimbabwe to accurately relate the path that mbira has taken in Zimbabwe in the past half century. Much has been said about the disappearance of mbira from its central role in Shona culture. Certainly a visitor to the new urban Zimbabwe will be struck by the absence of mbira from the visible landscape. But visitors rarely see the true landscape.
In this section I hope in the near future to report on the life of mbira over the past decades as well as what appears to be a resurgence of interest in mbira.
Urban life and exposure to Western music led to many Zimbabweans imitating Western rock and jazz bands. In fact, Thomas Mapfumo, who is now identified with the merging of Western instruments and traditional music, began his career playing "covers" in English. Without opening the can of worms over who was first, as early as the 1960s Thomas and others searching for a sound that resonated both with themselves and their audience, began incorporating traditional musical styles in their music. As Tom Turino reports:
So these groups—Beatsters, Zebrons, Springfields—they were taking lots of different elements from indigenous music making, sounds, pieces. And each group, on various songs, either used a high-hat in imitation of a hosho Shaker, or in another song the guitarist came up with the idea to rest his hand against the strings, to get the damped guitar technique that sounds like the mbira, or in another song really almost use this indigenous style of huro singing, that high, yodeling singing that John Nkomo used to do. But these were all bits and pieces that were later put together.Tom Turino, interviewed by Banning Eyre — www.afropop.org
The recently released Hallelujah Chicken Run Band documents the time in the 1970s when Thomas Mapfumo and others began exploring incorporating traditional music, including transcribing mbira lines to guitar, developing the staccato style of guitar for which Zimbabwe is known today, and singing in Shona. <<link>>
The Hallelujah Chicken Run Band includes what may be the first instance of a traditional mbira piece being played in an electric band format—Ngoma Yarira.
Here Josh Dube has transcribed the mbira's lines to guitar and the the new rendition follows the same harmonic progression, is played in the traditional rhythmic 12/8 meter, and is sung in the traditional vocal style.
With the band he has led since the 1970s, The Blacks Unlimited, Thomas has developed his signature melding of traditional mbira music with electric instruments. In the late 1980s Thomas moved from playing mbira music on guitars to including first one, then two, then three mbiras into the band lineup.
... and he came to think of them as core of the Blacks Unlimited sound. He challenged his guitarists, horn players and keyboard players to accommodate themselves to the mbiras, and he challenged his mbira players to learn the African jazz, and "jit" songs that were also key elements in the chimurenga sound.Banning Eyre — article on Thomas Mapfumo — www.afropop.org
The recording Thomas Mapfumo: Live in New York captures the band at a time (1991) when half the songs they were playing were traditional mbira songs presented with hosho and muted electric instruments.
In 1995 Thomas toured the US with an mbira-based small group.
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Although Thomas Mapfumo may have had the largest mbira audience outside Zimbabwe, he was hardly alone in playing traditional mbira music with contemporary instruments and presenting this music in non-traditional settings such as nightclubs and auditoriums. Several notable mbira players have formed electric mbira-based bands while at the same time continuing to perform in traditional contexts.
Ambuya Beauler Dyoko has for many years had both an acoustic mbira group
and an electric group, the latter performing traditional songs with mbira
and guitar, bass, drums and dancers.
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Beauler Dyoko, Harare, Zimbabwe — 1999
In the 1990s Ephat Mujuru put out several successful albums with an electric version of his mbira group, Spirit of the People. In 1992, Ephat's first electric album Hapana Mutorwa made its way to the top of the charts in Zimbabwe, ahead of even the rumba kings Leonard Dembo and John Chibadura.
Greatly respected singer and mbira player Newton Gwara (Matemai) led an electric mbira and marimba group, Nheravauya Brothers, which recorded in the 1990s.
Stella Chiweshe has long presented mbira in its acoustic context and in a variety of electric contexts, including bands which include marimbas as well as western instruments.