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Singing plays an important role in the musical life of Shona communities. Singing to the mbira is central to the communal experience of mbira (and the bira ceremony). Paul Berliner cites comments about
...the similarity of the structure of mbira music to that of Shona singing. Musicians sometimes represent the three parts of their mbira keyboards, each of which produces a different layer of mbira music’s texture, as “old men’s voices,” “young men’s voices,” and “women’s and children’s voices.”Paul Berliner — The Soul of Mbira
Many mbira players sing while they play mbira. Dumisani Maraire described the interaction of the mbira player’s voice with the mbira in the following way:
The mbira player “gives his vocal melodies or vocal sounds to the mbira, and at the same time lets the mbira vary the melodies in a way the voice cannot do. He listens to it, following it vocally, commenting with different sounds, cheering it.”Paul Berliner — The Soul of Mbira
Because playing mbira and singing the more complex singing styles is extremely difficult, you often will hear mbira players singing simplified vocals as they play as well vocals performed by someone other than the mbira players. (And there are some who are really good playing and singing complex vocals.)
Mushawapara Mbira Group describes the various mbira singing styles:
There are basically three types of leading vocals.
- The first type of vocal is the ordinary song with a straight tune, basic singing.
- The second type is the recitation of poetry in a semi-singing, semi-talking, undulating tone. This is usually used when the song is meant to be a parody, poking fun at some social ill or vice, or when it is meant to be a humorous joke just to amuse the audience. Catchy phrases, clever anecdotes and deep vocabulary are characteristic of this type of vocal.
- The third type of vocal is one in which, instead of singing, there is plain story telling, where the vocalist is narrating a story. This can also be a humorous story, a sad story, but still a story to entertain listeners or a story to teach certain morals.
Then there are also three basic types of backing vocals.
- One is that in which the backing vocalists echo or repeat a verse or verses of lyric in some sequence. In most instances, they will be answering or repeating what the leading vocalist would have said. This is simply known as “Kubvumira”, which simply means to concur.
- The second type of backing vocal is the one known as “mahonyera” (growling). No words or lyrics are uttered by the backing vocalists.. Instead, these are just growling and / or droning sounds made by the closed throat at a certain pitch and in a certain sequence and tune. Usually, mahororo or mahonyera are used when the lead vocalist does his own backing. In that case, he alternates the leading and the backing roles.
- The third type of backing vocal is known as “huro” (the neck, the throat) or “magure.” Huro is the same as mahonyera, the only difference being that the vocalist in the huro will be singing with an “open” throat. The sounds are sharper and louder. But as in mahororo, the vocalist is usually alternating by himself the leading and the backing vocals.
Note: Although Mushawapara describe huro as a backing style, many lead singers sing in huro (i.e. In the range of the high notes of the mbira, with no words).
Most non-Shona speaking people never get to appreciate the depth, creativity and poetry of Shona vocals. This is such a shame.
Mbira.org briefly describes Shona mbira singing texts:
Mbira song texts vary in length from a few words to lengthy poems. Texts may include both lyrics specific to a certain mbira piece and lyrics which may be sung with any mbira piece. Some texts are ancient wisdom in "deep Shona," while others may be contemporary personal commentary on current events. Non-musical Shona oral literature such as tsumo (proverbs) and nhetembo (praise poetry) may be included in mbira singing. Singing during the course of an mbira piece may be a collection of "one-liners," a cohesive text, or both. Meaning of mbira lyrics is often symbolic, and listeners interpret it in a variety of ways - which may or may not include the meaning intended by the singer.www.mbira.org
One reason it is difficult to generalize about the lyrics of songs is that, although there are "traditional" lyric phrases that are often sung with a song, much of what is sung is improvised. So different performances of Taireva may all contain a chorus line something like "Taisireva mukoma." ("We told you so") but all have different lyrics–different interpretations or approaches.
For an in depth look at song lyrics and meanings, including translations of some mbira vocal performances, see Paul Berliner's The Soul of Mbira, particularly the "The Poetry of Mbira" chapter.
Mbira players and singers often pick out and sing parts that they hear in the mbira—using their voice as an instrument. As the three manuals of the mbira are played (or six when two mbiras play), it can be a rewarding challenge to pick out various melodic lines from the dense texture of music. Lines appear (and then disappear) that are made of notes from the right and left hands, or of notes from the two mbiras, or of overtones from left hand keys. As the mbira player(s) play (or listen to) the mbira, they listen for these lines and sing them, using vocables (as well as yodeling) rather than lyrics.