'Mbira should be taught in schools'

HARARE - It is mbira month and I am at the mbira centre with its founder and director Albert Chimedza. Amidst his busy schedule he has kindly agreed to have a quick chat about his work at the centre.

When I ask him to start by sharing what this sacred instrument means to him, he is very quick to correct me: “Let me be clear; I don’t consider the mbira to be sacred. I see it as an instrument.”

He believes that sacredness comes out of function. Anything can be sacred for various reasons.

But when I ask him if he agrees that the mbira has been historically associated with sacredness he says:

“Yes, but that was partly because of the stigmatisation it received during colonialism. As a result of this it then sought refuge in “sacred settings” which were usually traditional and ritualistic.”

He goes on to remind me that our history was written by other people and so at that time that was the definition it got.

“I’m concerned that this label has made a lot of people today to shy away from the mbira as they now only associate it with traditional music and ritualistic ceremonies,” he continues.

As a born and bred Zimbabwean, Chimedza says when he came across the Mbira for the first time he instinctively realised that it was something special.

“I also recognised that it was a very valuable national asset and was surprised why people were not treating it in such a way. It is a wonderful instrument and for it to regain the respect it deserves and recognition amongst its own people, we have to go back to how it was treated originally, which was as an instrument first”

Albert does not deny that there are people who consider it sacred and play it in sacred spaces. He just thinks it is larger than that.

Interestingly his journey with the Mbira started when he worked in films. A commission to work on a short mbira film took him around different parts of Zimbabwe where he learnt how different types of tribal communities played and interpreted the instrument. This was an enriching experience, he says.

But a pivotal time came when working on another Zimbabwean film.

“I thought it natural to incorporate mbira music. When I approached mbira musicians we didn’t seem to understand each other.”

It was at that point that he decided to study the mbira instrument himself.

He laughs when he recalls how what had been intended as an intense week course to “get a rough idea” ended up lasting three years. Look, not only did I get a really good teacher (the late Mondrek Muchena), I really enjoyed playing it too!”

Later on, he formed mbira orchestra band which included mbira heavy weights like Sekuru Gora and Mashoko.

“This was truly incredible as they were more experienced than me,” he recalls. “But I’m not so sure I would have had the courage to ask them again!”

The band worked together for six years, but from the beginning he was never happy with the quality of the sound produced by the mbiras they used.

“When I met my teacher he gave me his personal mbira which had been made by the great John Kunaka in the seventies, also a fine mbira player. The mbira gave off a crystal clear matured sound. I assumed all instruments sounded like this, how wrong I was!”

It was on this realisation that he decided to set up a mbira-making workshop, which initially made mbiras for the Orchestra. This was done with the help of Mashoko and Sekuru Gora. The workshop still runs today and continues to sell mbira instruments on commission.

Other projects he works on are the Mbira Month, which he started three years ago and runs during the month of September.

“Its main function is to raise awareness about the mbira instrument by teaching society to appreciate it. “It is part of our heritage and we (at the Mbira centre) thought it our responsibility to create a platform where people could come and learn,” says the mbira guru.

Another one causing much excitement is the Mbira In Schools Project. The Mbira centre was recently commissioned by the Culture Fund and EU to make one hundred mbiras which will be distributed to schools around Zimbabwe. This is clearly a topic very close to his heart.

“I believe that the best way to maintain and develop our culture is by making sure that future generations are exposed to it in a formal educational environment,” he says.

I ask if he wants the mbira to be entrenched in our social and educational system. “Why Not? It is a national asset. Why would one want to learn how to play the keyboard before learning about the mbira when you can go to Chihota or Mhondoro to learn from the best mbira teachers in the world?”

He emphasises that we should get our house in order first, exploit the knowledge we have and then add it on to the knowledge we get from other cultures.

“If you have something that is about a thousand years old and other cultures all over the world are saying this is special, but you’re not putting it in schools, not investing in it, not studying it, then you have a problem within your society,” he adds emphatically.

Finally, he pleads with us to move our kids from thinking that anything that is Zimbabwean is inferior, that in order for them to be respected they have to learn something foreign.

“Let them learn about the mbira along with their History, Biology and Mathematics,” concludes the mbira master.

*Tendai Gambe is a media specialist,  Afrocentric Interior Designer and Writer.

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