Zimbabwean ensemble Mbira dzeMuninga honors the past, inspires the future
Remember concerts before artists teamed up with Ticketmaster and Live Nation? Mbira dzeMuninga sure does. Band members of the Zimbabwean ensemble recreate the mbira and hosho-laden music of their Shona ancestors: inhabitants of southern Mozambique and northeastern Botswana, who once performed in the most intimate and dimly lit of venues—caves.
Although no longer performing “in the cave,” as the second half of their name, “dzeMuninga,” suggests—the well-sought-after act journeyed as far as Oregon, for the 2011 Zimbabwean Music Festival, Zimfest, in August—the five gwenyambiras, or “master mbira players,” make their own instruments, wear clothes made of cheetah, goat, and cow skins combined with buckskin leather, and mesmerize audiences with their musical narratives, inspired by the experiences of their ancestors.
“When we play this music, we will be singing songs for joy and people will be dancing,” says Tonderai Ndava, from Harare. The youngest member of the group, Ndava is renowned for his hweva (rhythm) mbira playing and outrageous dancing. The joy he refers to belongs to the Zimbabwe of the past, a country that wasn’t in the midst of economic turmoil, unlike present-day Zimbabwe—still tremendously downcast from the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the demise of the Zimbabwean dollar.
“The songs are about suffering,” says Ndava. “People who understand the language start crying.” But you don’t have to speak Zimbabwean to feel moved by the distinct, yet cohesive blend of chant-like voices, plucking of the mbira/kalimba (thumb piano), rattling of several pairs of hosho (gourd shakers) and the rhythmic drumbeats created by Ndava and his bandmates: Peacheson Ngoshi on nhovapasi (bass) mbira; Jacob Mafuleni on ngoma (drums); Micah Munhemo—the sekuru or “elder”—on nheketo (high lead) mbira; and dancer Martha Thom.
The dynamic five-piece formed surprisingly recently—January of 2009—although most of the members played mbira and other conventional African instruments in the group, Mawungira Enharira, for several years before. Mbira dzeMuninga released its debut album, Muninga—recorded in the ensemble’s homeland and mastered in Washington—that same year, containing seven tracks, including standouts “Shanje” and “Zbovanepi,” with calming chimes of mbiras and distressed, yet hopeful-sounding vocals.
The group members’ desire to remain positive, despite their country’s hardships, shines through in all aspects of their musical careers. Besides putting on large-scale performances on tour, the members—who are unanimously inspired by “all types of music in the world,” according to Mafuleni—teach individual and group singing, dancing and instrument lessons, in addition to conducting small workshops on mbira making.
“We like to teach because we get to meet new people who are really into the music, and [that] inspires us to be good teachers and share our music,” says Peacheson Ngoshi, affectionately called “Peaches.”
Ndava chimes in, “This instrument that I play is amazing … when you listen to mbira, you really feel something spiritual—we want to teach others this music.”
For the first time since 2009, Mbira dzeMuninga—with the exception of Munhemo and the addition of Thom—returns to Don Quixote’s Sunday, before heading back to their homeland. So don’t miss out on this rare opportunity to experience world music at its finest—“This music changes people,” says Ndava. “It can change you.”
Mbira dzeMuninga plays at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4, at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy 9, Felton. Tickets are $12. 603-2294.