Religion, language and music are some of the key ingredients that make up most cultures in the world. It is easy for us to associate or identify cultures with any of these markers. A language can give you a window into the speaker’s culture in the same way that the music of the culture serves to market the culture to the rest of the world. Shona music was and is so much more than what Westerners associate with “music”. The “traditional” music of Zimbabwe reveals our forefather’s spiritual beliefs, their modes of expression, patterns of communication and forms of entertainment, in as much as present day contemporary music reveals a lot about our present lives and past experiences. For example, traditional Shona songs were a medium of instruction through which young boys and girls were taught the values and expectations of adulthood. All social relationships were sealed, bonded and regulated through songs. Through songs, a daughter-in-law would express her bitterness against a horrible mother-in-law, a bitter wife against a greedy husband, and the whole community would protest against an unjust chief, hence there is a tradition of Shona protest songs. There were songs to praise, urge, ridicule and reprimand. Most means of communication in the pre-literate and oral African societies were musical in one way or another.
When it comes to traditional Shona culture, the music most associated with the culture is Mbira music. Mbira music has been contemporarised by artists such Ambuya Stella Chiweshe and the late Chiwoniso Maraire. Both artists have travelled and toured the world playing the Mbira. Traditionally only men played the Mbira in Shona society. Women were not allowed to play the Mbira. It is a testament to the dynamic nature of culture then two of the more well known Mbira artists today are women. Some Zimbabwean electric bands also infuse the Mbira into their music. Today the Mbira is a positive symbol of cultural identity for most Zimbabweans.
Mbira refers to the name of both the instrument and the music. The Mbira instrument is a hand held piano like instrument with the keys being made of metal. Mbira the genre is mystical music which has been played for over a thousand years by certain tribes of the Shona people. The Shona form the vast majority of the population of Zimbabwe. Mbira pervades all aspects of Shona culture, both sacred and secular. Its most important function is as a “telephone to the spirits”, used to contact both deceased ancestors and tribal guardians, at all-night bira (pl. mapira) ceremonies. At these ceremonies, vadzimu, including midzimu (spirits of family ancestors), mhondoro (spirits of deceased chiefs) and makombwe (the most powerful guardian spirits of the Shona), give guidance on family and community matters and exert power over weather and health.
Mbira is required to bring rain during drought, stop rain during floods, and bring clouds when crops are burned by the sun. Mbira is used to chase away harmful spirits, and to cure illnesses with or without a n’anga (traditional diviner/herbalist). Mbira is included in celebrations of all kinds, including weddings, installation of new chiefs, and, more recently, government events such as independence day and international conferences.
Mbira is also required at death ceremonies, and is played for a week following a chief’s death before the community is informed of his passing. At the guva ceremony, approximately one year after a person’s physical death, mbira is used to welcome that individual’s spirit back to the community.
In previous centuries, court musicians played mbira for Shona kings and their diviners. Although the mbira was originally used in a limited number of Shona areas, today it is popular throughout Zimbabwe. Mbira is desired for the general qualities it imparts: peaceful mind and strong life force.
You can listen to Chiwoniso Maraire’s ‘Ancient Voices’ to understand what i am talking about here
During the colonial era the traditional role of music as a medium of instruction was replaced by the introduction of a formal education system which was closely linked to the new Christian religion. The introduction of the Christian religion on the other hand changed the people’s religious songs and ritual music. Recognising the close relationship between the people’s religion and music, Christian missionaries, ensured a fast decline in traditional culture and religion. Missionaries castigated the use of the Mbira instrument in church ceremonies and dismissed it as unholy and heathen. Christian converts were usually forbidden to play traditional musical instruments. The Mbira and the drum which had carried the tradition of the Shona people’s music for a long time were dismissed as unholy.
It is fitting then that in the fight for independence (known as the Chimurenga) music played an important part in the struggle. Popular and traditional songs with hidden meaning; helped galvanize mass opinion; spirit mediums were leaders in the war against white privilege. After decades of denigration by some Africans who had lost faith in traditional culture, The mbira becomes a positive symbol of cultural identity. And today it is enjoying a new lease of life at the forefront of Shona music and culture.
I will sign off with some beautiful words from Zimbababwean Mbira Queen Ambuya Stella Chiweshe as she plays the Mbira and shares her insights on the spirituality and materialism of the Shona in 21st century. Enjoy.