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It's winter in Zimbabwe, the sun warms you in the day, flaming Poinsettias and purple Bouganvillas bloomed in the dusty heat, but nights were colder, crisp. I arrived on a weekend and I went straight to the market. There were stalls selling second hand clothes, all colours of fruits and vegetables, and printed cloth.
You can tell who walks and who drives here by their shoes. Mine were already covered in the red dust that is the colour of the earth here. ....

I had a couple of contacts to help me to seek out Mbira players.

"Mhoroi" means "Hello" in Mashona.
I met Peter Muzane-Nhamo the friend of a friend.
His large teeth gave him a cheeky smile and with a twinkle in his eye he reminded me of an old school friend.
Peter himself played Mbira but only for a hobby.

Peter and I went for a drink in the star bar, his local beer hall after work, "This is where life is, it's cheap here, this is where the workers drink, "Are you going to see Great Zimbabwe, the ruins?" I told him I didn't have time. "I'll come back when they're more ruined, I want to meet the people more. I told him.
You'll get to see Zimbabwe in places like this." and we drank another couple of rounds sampling the different brands and chewing Bindi nuts like popcorn. Peter told me trained for Priesthood, then his father asked Peter if he was going to give him grandchildren, so Peter gave up priesthood.
Peter was to become my interpreter and guide.
It was home-time for the factory workers so the bus was very full we took a crowded bus to a township outside Harare called Domboramwari near Epworth.
The famous balancing stones are on the way here, you can see them on Zim bank notes. Also 'Gods footprints' are in solid rock here, it's a place of worship, apparently you can see a pair of toes and a footprint.
It was good to peel off from each other in the bus and stretch our legs.
We began asking villagers directions to the address I had written down to look for a man called 'Chinambiri Chidodo'.
There was no electricity in the village, so Peter was hoping we wouldn't stay too late.-"There can be dangers." He said. And being white (Khira) I attracted eyes and stares and unusual attention.
At Sunset, fires and candles were being lit in the village homes, Stars were shining in a big clear African sky . It was dark by the time we were finally directed to a small hut at the far end of a dusty street. It was here that I heard the first sounds of Mbira in Africa.
With the sun down It was colder now.
We sat crowded into a dark smoky hut, around a table only slightly smaller than the room itself. A fire burned with a pot of ground corn, called Sadza, bubbling over it. Chidodo was a gentle man with a big smile.

The Mbira, is made of flattened nails, shaped into steel tongues of different lengths to create different notes. These tongues pass between two metal bars which are stapled by wire onto a flat , square piece of hard wood called Mockwa. There's a hole in the wood for a finger to pass through and grip. While your other fingers and thumbs are free to pluck the steel tongues. Then they will thrum and vibrate, like a ruler did over my old school desk.
Shells or bottle tops nailed through a metal plate into the wood, buzz to give a percussive effect to the melody.
We played a tune called Bhukatiende which means "Let's get going. To the fields or to the Hunt.....don't dilly dally."
I whistled along with him. We talked about the old tunes, about how money changes music and how we use music to 'summon the spirits'. Over a cup of tea I told Chidodo about why I came to play the harmonica.

We left Chidodo and the following morning
back in Harare I strolled through a park where preachers were singing and screaming the gospel. backed by organ, drum , brass, the preachers voice and words distorted through a crackling megaphone.
People were out walking all dressed up for Saturday afternoon, some were part of the congregation, standing and listening in the sunshine under the shade of the trees. Jesuit Missionaries had come to Zimbabwe in the 1800s. I was not raised as a Christian myself, but I was still very surprised to see how much Christianity had taken hold. There is an almost organic mixture of Tribal religion and the bible here, Christians will sing hymns in church on Sunday then they might discreetly go to consult their Nyanga, or their tribal healers at night-time.

A young man asked if I wanted to change Money, I did, it was Sunday, and there were no banks open . He would meet me in ten minutes near the Cafe.
He showed up, we sat like secret agents meeting, casually sitting on a wall. I showed him my 50 pound sterling. Asked him to show me his money. He had a thick wad rolled up in a plastic bag. But I could only see the outside note a twenty dollar Zim note, It looked suspicious to me. I asked him to unroll the wad and show me the others, to prove they weren't just pieces of paper rolled. He was adamant, He wanted to scare me into parting with my money quickly. "The police might be watching, we must be discreet, lets swap now, give me your money and I'll give you mine" No, show me all first" You don't trust me? "No, I don't. I'm not stupid, either you've ironed every bank note or that is not all real money. I can't take the money out on the street. Why? There's no law that says you cannot. Show me. Look here's mine. He was reluctant. I told him OK I'm not interested in changing money now. Thanks.

Today I bought some AMAHLWAYI ankle rattles.
Within a park there, I came across a garden with stone sculptures made of hard veined, rock. Huge solid figurative shapes, honed down, streamlined figures, faces, hands, some, almost completely abstract, hands holding figures, faces distilled and so potent expressions of gods, serpents black shiny polished faces contrasted by the raw skin kept of the rock chiseled to show the hair or plumage. They were all timeless.
The sculptor I talked to, of course, preferred hard rock to soft work, it would keep its form longer.....in his answer was a wish for 'immortality'.

While I was in Harare I heard about a man who played an instrument older than the Mbira called the Chippendani, I found his address on the back of a tape.
Frank Gomba was a sprightly wiry old man in his late seventies. He wore a huge, bushy, Grey-white moustache -He told me his friends called him Broom.
Frank is a cook for a white music teacher.
(The Ngorbe is a mouth bow. Frank uses a reed as a pick. It looks bit like a bow and arrow I made as a little boy.)
He lives in a shed at the bottom of a huge well cultivated, garden.
His doorbell was on the end of a 60 yards stretch of wire that you tugged at the front gate, this rang a cow bell outside his hut. He uses the same wire to make another kind of mouth bow called "Chipendani".
He looked like a baker, his white floppy hat, and white overalls.

The 'chipendani' is more for the old people, for calling the spirits, its metal wire is plucked using both hands from either side of the string and the bow held across his mouth.
Frank told me that the more kids see him playing the bow, the more they'll take an interest.
I played a rhythm for Frank with the spoons and took out my harmonica to show him.

To really find out about how ancestors are contacted, I was told I should attend a ritual. Here the Mbira is played and through a medium the ancestors would be summoned, I had the name of a Nyanga, a healer, called Soko, he played Mbira, I would visit him next week.

Till then I decided to travel to the Victoria Falls.
"Mosi oa Tunya"." The smoke that Thunders,"
This "Steaming Thunder" foaming at every mouth, tangled quarrelling vines wrapping themselves around trees, living off them, taking over, eating. Birds of yellows, greens, rusty ochre, hopping around.
There's so much water vapour in the air, misty shower blown up from the roar below, boiling, as you look into the dark shadows into the sun, it looks like a steaming pot of pressure rising and circling. A bird catches the light as it wings its way up to the top. Even the rainbows are steaming and quivering with their colours. What a rush and tumble, sucking and dragging everything with it several hundred feet below, creates quite a blast of moving air. All the trees and grasses look happy, rain forest types here. The river Zambezi becomes thick and muscular as it gets closer to the falls, the sheer drop as water flies over, feathering away into misty spray, someone's Gods are running a huge bath. Zambia is on the other side.

Camping out in the National Park of Hwange.

An Elephant herd is eating from the trees and drinking in the water-hole, together, they walk so gracefully, lifting each foot carefully as they step, as if wearing carpet slippers. The giraffes are eating thorn bushes. All of the animals are so quiet and noiseless together, watchful, aware, nervous, the car engines are noisy. You can't hear peace for too long and you aren't allowed to walk without a guide here. Birds called Glassy green starlings, little egrets, glossy Ibis, reed cormorant, Cattle egrets are de-licing the giraffe, they hang on. There are Crowned guinea fowl, arrow marked babbler, bou-bou, orange-breasted-bush-shrike, yellow-billed-Ox-pecker.
I can sight Impala, Steenboks, warthogs, Gnu, wildebeest ostrich, baboons, zebra. I saw a crocodile basking on the banks of the water hole, some Kodu came very close, I expected them to be snapped up, but they were careful at keeping their distance. The sunset was glorious. Found Elephant and hippo droppings, and giraffe prints.
At night the sky is huge, no moon, all the beasts cry out together, hyena, elephant, a cat and some nocturnal birds.
Up at 5am to catch the sunrise I heard a bird as I left my tent. At first I thought the pulse-like tone was someone's electronic alarm clock. But then it became more hysterical and became more like a voice. It was freezing cold. The brush and grassland is feathered in twilight and dawn light, long shadows translucent.
I don't feel completely comfortable looking at animals.
I was told if I ever came across a lion, to stand still, walk slowly, don't run as they like a chase!
My mum said that if I saw a LION I should sing to them and put them in a trance-but luckily I never had to test it out.

I took a night train South from there to Bulawayo.
It was good to go to bed early for a change, the odd jolt of the engine, the stopping at signals to let rolling stock pass, rolling stock, screeching brakes, wheels and bells clanging and the jangles of heavy chains and bolts rocked me to sleep.
I arrived in Bulawayo early that morning.

Getting off the all night Train at Bulawayo I went to a recommended Tea room for breakfast.
I wonder about the wisdom of consulting guide books or even writing them. The travel writers might find a good place to drink or eat, they might recommend it and then later, as many thousands of readers come following their words or footsteps, those visitors change that place and trample it to dust. These places end up being places that tourists go to meet other tourists and avoid the natives. The only blacks there will be the waiters or cooks. After being among only black folks for so long, places like this can give you a cultural shock and you almost believe there are apartheid regulations taking place.

There's a Marimba school Kwanangoma which is part of the college its 50 minutes walk from Bulawayo. They manufacture Marimbas and Mbiras here.
Mbiras might be tuned in F. Marimbas are normally tuned in C or G. A group would consist of 3 Sopranos, 2 Tenor, 2 Baritones (my Favourite) and 2 Basses. These days they tune to Western tunings, they lower the pitch by shaving underneath the middle of the wooden note, or to sharpen by shaving the ends of the note. Instead of using Calabashes for amplifying the notes they mould the shapes using fibre glass from Calabashes, they look the same, they're much stronger, they also use plastic plumbing pipe, which they burn and char. melting it slightly to give an original rustic look. The resonator inside is plastic, not skin. Students make their own instruments, the Marimba music is percussion based and they play cross rhythms.

Walking around the Natural history museum, looking at stuffed versions of animals I might never see or get close enough to in the wild. Honey Badgers, Porcupine, jackals, Hyena, Cheetah, vultures, mice, wild cats, crocodiles, lizards, Black Widow spider......there were animals I hoped I wouldn't get close to or wouldn't get close to me.
There were precious stones, gems. Rock and crystal formations, gold.
In the unnatural History section there were histories of Tribal chiefs, their knives, snuff boxes, thrones or elaborate chairs carved with fertility gods, maces, spears.
Under one collection it said "Removed" by 'Sir Gregory someone' instead of "Stolen" or it said 'collected by' or 'In the Sir So-and-Sos' collection.'
I started to read between the lines of the colonialists language. There were copies of cave paintings found or discovered, given titles e.g. "Dancing for rain" or "Hunters with arrows" or "Climbing to Heaven".

Next day, I went to find a community theatre group in a Township of Bulawayo, walking across the railway tracks (through a town owned by the railway and where they house all their workers) and a soccer field, through agricultural gardens, through some common farming land.
I ended up in Mpopoma, in Nketa park there's been a stage that no one has used for some 6 7 years. It is 5.30pm and just as workers come home from work and before children go to bed. Theatre group Amakhosa are tuning up and adjusting the PA. sound system, preparing to perform their latest show called "HOYAYAHO". which is about AIDS.
Using song and dance to dramatize and to narrate the action there is quite a crowd waiting in anticipation here. The play has a moral message. It is that: You should stay with one partner and not sleep around. There were many seduction and temptation scenes, also AIDS is personified by a Devil like figure Red and white painted face, very skull like. 'Conti', Amakhosas director...('Nicholas, Continue-Loving, Mhlanga') explained that the play is in Sh'english or N'anglish a mixture of English and Shona or Ndebele.
Since independence changes haven't happened as fast as people expected, expectations were high, so now there are gaps, cultural isolation, and people think that they have to go back, to the way things were before they can start again. Also people are looking towards the West for new things not to themselves, they aren't confident or proud in their own culture, so that traditions here become weaker or lost, instead of stronger and richer.
Condoms are a taboo subject, also sex education....Conti said that the young people don't know where they want to go, but they know where they don't want to go.
"We began as a karate group" He told me. They found people preferred to watch Karate not theatre, then they started doing Kung-fu dramas, more people came, they started adding more dance instead of the Kung Fu and more content into their shows. "To catch young people you must entertain." Conti believes, they always have a fight scene in their play somewhere.
The group also covered other subjects about border jumping to South Africa, another about the misuse of Pesticides, disabled people, and Male domination.

Back in Harare, Tisa from the Glen-Norah Women's theatre group told me that their group created scenes around Marriage Laws and inheritance Laws and abuse and violence against women, these scenes were acted for women's groups and were used to lead to discussion groups among separate and mixed audiences. The group also performed in beer halls infront of men their show about Aids, challenging the men who used prostitutes and who might give their wives Aids, to use condoms. There is a traditional resistance to Condoms. I found the Glen-Norah group more challenging and less complacent than the other group I saw.
Another problem is that Nyangas, tribal healers, try to heal Aids victims in a ritual using razor blades and so spreading the disease instead.
The response to their plays was monitored, writing workshops were formed by women, excommunicated victims of Aids were comforted, families of victims were educated, and real life stories were developed.

I went walking again in Bulawayo I came across a Sorts field and heard some singing, I went to listen.
Many different performing groups were auditioning for the African games festival in 1995.
One boy, Ali Ndlovu, came and introduced himself, it turned out that he was a theatre director for another younger company called "Amazwi". He explained what was happening.

After jamming together I was asked to sing my song that evening in the community centre. All the other singers and performing groups were there. Old men and women had been up to sing wedding songs, dancing as they sang swaying stepping, stomping. Now I was singing for them. They made me feel at home.
They told me I was the first white person ever to sing in Stanley Hall......
Like at The Grand Old Opry in the United States, I reflected, that famous country music hall, but in reverse. I remembered that the first black man ever allowed to play there had been a Harmonica player too.
They asked me to return again one day.
I told them I had to catch my train back to Harare that night. They walked me to the station. We said goodbye.

A week had passed. I was returning to Harare for the ritual. I didn't know what to expect.
I planned to Re-unite with my old friend Peter to go in search of Soko, a Nyanga, or witch doctor who lived in the so called "High density" suburbs.

We left our dusty shoes on the door-step and were welcomed into the house. There were six of us in the small bedroom. Soko sat on the edge of his bed, barefoot, small beard, and T shirt. A piece of cotton tied around his wrist. Soko had a clear, open face.
On the concrete floor was a straw mat, there were snuff canisters made from tiny gourds, A leopard skin hung on the wall and various spears. there were hammers, files, and pliers scattered on the floor to tune and repair the Mbira. Under Sokos bed there were a few very ancient Mbiras.

We were offered snuff. I tried it, and I sneezed, it burned like pepper at first, my nose ran, but later after a few more snorts, it cleared my sinuses.
At first Soko was preaching to me, Peter was our interpreter, translating each sentence.
Soko said. "I come to give you the truth......The world is coming to an end."

I was told that the first prayer sung with the Mbira was to chase away the lions and wild animals, this was an initiation into the healing powers of the Mbira as played by a Nyanga.
Sokos voice was dramatic and musical, using a mixture of imagery from both the Old Testament bible and tribal religion. His sounded like a voice that was used to telling predictions, visions and apocalyptic stories.
I was told how prophesying came from slavery.

At first I thought Soko seemed a little aloof, but I know I was just feeling stiff and uncomfortable because he was preaching to me so much. He had talked relentlessly for over two hours. I started to realise that it wasn't aloofness but it was dignity that he spoke with.
Sokos brothers and friends were also part of our congregation. They and Soko began to chant, greeting the ancestors.
Soko heaped snuff onto a plate, then placed his spear point down into the snuff. We all took our watches off and emptied our pockets of money and silver. The lights were turned off and everyone held onto the shaft of the spear. We were calling the spirits to heal us and to bring us our wishes. The ritual had begun. The leopard skin was taken from the wall and wrapped around him. His body seemed to shiver and become possessed by the ancient spirits who were speaking through him.

Soko said The voice came from the trees and the rocks and light came from the stars. The voice is in the sound of the Mbira. Soko learned Mbira from his grandfather. Sometimes, in translation, the words were hard to follow and seemed disjointed

Soko enjoyed listening to the translations each time as he waited for Peter to explain his words to me in English. Soko did however understand English very well and corrected small lost details of Peters translation from his own Mashona language.
I wondered if they expected me to be a convert.
Volcanoes erupt,
It was my ancestors have pushed me to drift this far. I will ask the ancestors to stabilize the power in you. You must respect the gift that is within you. Your ancestors are in your palms. It is the truth I'm telling you". We breathe the same air...we can't afford to come to your land but tell your people there that love is here.

At one point I was asked to select a page from the bible with my 3 index fingers, Soko was acting like a magician saying, "choose a card from the pack then read it to me". Peter read the bible selection aloud.
Soko and his partner plucked a tune for me "Amaropa" the basis of all Mbira tunes. Peter joined in singing and playing Hosho, (Rattles). creating hypnotic circular rhythms, mellifluous melodies, we clapped along cross rhythms here and there.
We drank tea with lots of local sugar, sugar cane grows here. Peter sent out for some beers, though Soko didn't drink beer.

Two sister/women arrived for the first ritual.
and took off his bead necklace and put it onto the plate and
The spirits were in the room and welcomed me, guttural noises like resonant burps, and sibilant sounds of air whistled through Sokos teeth in breaths. He was now possessed, the ancient spirits were speaking through him, spells were being cast, more snuff was shared.

I had kept very quiet all evening,
I remembered what Chidodo and I had talked about together a few weeks before. That sometimes you can't talk, you would rather sing. So I let fly my tune. I was bursting with all kinds of wordless feelings, bursting, I would play for them and their ancestors. I knew our souls had no borders or colour and would recognize each others passions.
They were very surprised, I was a stranger to them. They smiled and watched, it was like being recognized somehow and they blessed me. Soko told me that the ancestors were tongue-tied.

"Tatende" Soko told me, "The golden gift you have comes from God".
"Your tunes will stop the storms, the spirit comes through you. Your voice will be heard.
You will receive a gift from someone who is poor, from under the soil....it will be your heritage for eternity. You can't do anything but love. So I won't forget you. Tatende. Love came before money. Thank you for your song. The player was an old man with a silver beard".
I was given a blessing and my harmonica was also blessed in another ritual that was performed.
I was bursting with all kinds of wordless feelings.....
Maybe I had also been possessed.

Before I left Zimbabwe Peter threw a party, a drunken night spent at his house with his cousins, uncles, wife, and kids, their freezer was full of Zambezi beers. "I'm counting all your empty bottles to make sure you drink enough."

On reflection. I was flying back to my own country to work that evening,
arriving in London 7am next morning to drive to Leicester, perform and sing that night
....as I returned I felt a stronger commitment to my own music and traditions, as well as my role as a community artist, I felt proud, I had been asked to return to Zimbabwe and sing. Now I would travel around my own country, there's so much to struggle for, I think you have to-do it in your own country where your language is spoken, unless you're driven out as a refugee, then you'll always be a foreigner wherever you go.

A Bedouin woman was asked one day which of her children she loved the most. She replied:

'The sick one until he is cured,
the smallest one until he grows up
and the traveler until he returns.'

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