July 15, 2024

The Enchantment of Mbira

The Book Café––a legendary music venue in years gone by, a hot spot for culture in Harare, Zimbabwe. I sit at a table with Saki Mafundikwa, founder of ZIVA, the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts.

His companion is quiet, wearing a top hat above long dreadlocks, a black motorcycle jacket, and leather trousers. Then, without a word, this intriguing man disappears.

Suddenly the stage turns electric, a stream of performers snakes into the spotlight and a polyphonic otherworldly music begins, unlike anything I’ve ever heard. With a startle I recognise the lead player, even though he’s now outfitted in a minimalist leopard-skin draped around his hips; the black leather and top hat must be backstage in the dressing room. Ankle bracelets and armbands drip with multitudes of clacking shells; sticks and feathers adorn the musicians’ elaborate twirling hair; chest-high hollow-log drums reverberate in the floor under my shoes. A huge dried gourd shell hangs by a guitar strap from the neck of each musician, their hands inside. This is Maungira eNharira, Zimbabwe’s iconic mbira band, playing their plugged-in version of traditional Shona music. In this exhilarating moment I have no idea that the unusual instruments and entrancing sound will soon come to touch me in a deeply personal way.

The tallest and most animated of the dancers leaps onto floor and into the audience. Oh, no! Me? He grabs my hand and pulls me up from the chair. There is nothing to do but oblige, despite feeling hot and inhibited and apologetic for every non-dancing bone in my body. Hours later, my night dreams are perforated with snakes and waterfalls.

One week later, far from the city––six young men stand, swaying under a thatch shelter as I sit on the polished clay floor. Each has an enormous gourd shell, deze, with a handmade mbira inside—metal tines fixed on a wooden board. The young players pluck the tines; as they play, their sound articulates a doorway into the realm of trance. This is a Mbira Orchestra.

Yesterday, in another part of the world, my mother passed away, and Saki has offered this comforting balm, spiritual healing. As the young musicians play on and on, the spiraling streams of golden-honey sound reset my nervous system. I’m being unwrapped and tenderly held in an ocean of loving-kindness. The burnished, harp-like mbira melodies thread a stairway to heaven, opening the way for my mother to go––it seems that her presence, so palpable up till now, has dispersed.
Hours later, the svikiro, or spirit guide, fixes his attention on me. His instructions are very clear: wear black and white beads when working, whether writing or healing or horse whispering.

“I see you have some black and white beads on your wrist,” he says. The long strand of seed beads were given to me by a Shona friend the last time I was in the country.

“You will return to Zimbabwe,” he tells me. “The stories you are writing, they are not your stories but messages from the Ancestors that want to be heard.”

Excerpted from Oriane Lee’s forthcoming book.

Fast forward, to January this year, 2018. A visitor appears at the guesthouse where I stay in Harare––mbira-maker Lovemore Salari has three mbiras for me to deliver to a musician friend in Canada. He also brings along a carload of friends––a mbira orchestra! Startled, I recognise those long dreadlocks, leather pants and warm handshake––Wilfred Nyamasvisva Mafrika. All afternoon, the guesthouse garden is an oasis of blissful musical blessing.

A month later, I’m at the home of Musekiwa Chingodza, who shares stories of his family’s spiritual and musical lineage while teaching me a beginner’s tune on my new mbira. In the evening, he joins the esteemed mbira-playing Chigamba family in a performance with New York Jazz clarinet player Oren Etkin––as I listen, in the audience, the traditional and the contemporary weave an utterly enchanting tapestry of unity and love.

Want to read more from Oriane Lee Johnston, check out her past article Riding Into The Heart Of The Wilderness: Mavuradonha Mountains

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