To Hit

Key points / Lesson goals:
Timbre, Aesthetics of sound, 
Polyphony, Hocket, Choose your own listening adventure

Intro / Background -

Mbira DzaVadzimu (Za-va(d)-Zee-mu) which means "voice of the ancestors," is native to the Shona people of Southern Africa that are primarily located in modern day Zimbabwe. The instrument is made of prongs attached to a board and usually has some sort of buzzing mechanism like bottle caps, shells or beads. I have heard it said that the board represents the earth, the prongs, the people moving about and the buzzing the spiritual world. I have also heard that the three octaves of voices represent men, women and children. 

Timbre - 
Students may not initally like the buzzy timbre caused by the bottle caps. It was described to me by Erica Azim like this.  It is like the difference between silk and velvet.  Both are beautiful fabrics. Silk is very smooth and velvet has lots of texture to it.  The Western aesthetic of sound often favors the smooth silky sound (unless of course you are playing distorted electric guitar...) but the African aesthetic preferes all that extra texture to it.  Both are beautiful. Just different. 
Speaking of electric guitar. The mbira is usually amplified by being placed in a hollowed out gourd called a deze and wedged in place with a stick. This makes the instrument incredibly louder. Often times additional bottle caps are attached to the deze for even more buzzing

Polyphony, Hocket, Choose your own listening adventure -
Mbira music usually have multipal musical lines happening simoultaniously that are repeated in a cyclical fashion. There are typically two parts to a traditional mbira composition played on a pair of instruments, creating interlocking melodies. Sometimes they are different parts and sometime they are the same part but one player shifts what he is playing over an "8th" note from the pulse (or in the holes of the first part) to essentally double every note. This makes the already polyphonic lines even more complicated.  
One of the beauties of this is that performers and listeners can choose their own listening experience listening to the same repeated musical material. They can listen to the high line, or the bass line, or composite lines from the two parts. Or they could listen to the different rhythms that the buzzing makes depending on what variations are happening and what the player is accenting. Without changing the actual material that is being played a lot of different things can be heard as it evolves.  In a group setting people would sing and clap out some of the lines that they hear.

Mbira DzaVadzimu music is used in religious ceremonies called bira where music is played, people dance and drink beer in an effort to call on an ancestor to possess a medium so that they can pay tribute or ask questions of their ancestors. Because they want to play music that the ancestors know it is important in mbira music to keep an old repertoire alive an active opposed to creating new pieces.

Names to look for

Forward Kwenda

Comas Magaya

Ephat Mujuru

Fradreck Muguru

Tute Chigamba

Mhuri yekwaRwiz

Leonard Magaya

Simon Mashoko

Erica Azim

B. Michael Williams

Joel Laviolette

For a longer list check out N. Scott Robinson’s list

*This is by no means a complete list. Just some names to put into google if you are looking for more music.


Just music over a picture but you can see what the players look like in traditional garb and some great singing with it. The piece is Nhemamusasa which is a very famous piece. This may be good to play at the beginning of the lesson just to expose students to it without any background.

Here is the beauty of the internet! Perhaps students won't think this is a big deal but you can watch a house concert that happened in Zimbabwe! Even 10 years ago that just didn't happen. This group is called Mhuri Yekwa Magaya. It is a good example of singing, traditional garb, get a look around the house and some great playing.

This is a well produces video that starts with some playing and some good shots of the fingers.  It then follows the musicians to a sacred place showing the landscape and touching on the spirituality that goes with the traditional music.  

The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe by Paul Berliner.
This IS the ethnomusicology book on mbira.

Buy is ran by Erica Azim and is a "non-profit organization that celebrates and helps to sustain the ancient musical traditions of Zimbabwe.”  They do a great job getting money back to makers, musicians, and their families in a country that is not easy to make a living in. You can buy an mbira from them and they also have a lot of recordings and resources for learning. Erica has devoted her life to mbira and is a great advocate for the traditional art form.

Learning Mbira, A Beginning... By B. Michael Williams
A great book if you want to start to play mbira. Many standard tunes in a simple tablature notation system.  Also has additional pieces and parts sold separately on his website.