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
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.
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
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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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.
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.
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.
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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