Paul Brickhill

"They are the first generation in our country to think globally"

Paul Brickhill was born on 8 July 1958 in Harare . He is a musician, and organiser of music and other cultural events in Harare. He is also a publisher, bookseller and writer.

You are one of the initiators of the Book Cafe where quite a few mbira artists are performing. Now what is mbira music in this context really?
OK, obviously we are in Harare , in the capital city. It is a big city and a long way from the rural areas in lots of senses. When I started in music in the early eighties, mbira playing with its songs was very much associated with rural, traditional music.

The Book Cafe, which started about six years ago, immediately started to hire mbira artists. At that time there was virtually no mbira being played by any music venue in Harare . Most music venues were concentrating on Kwasa-Kwasa, what we call Rumba, Sungura, Jiti and otherwise on modern music, American music, hip-hop, rap, ragga, some reggae, most of them. There was no jazz club or anything like that. So we started to bring in mbira and to begin with people took it like a folk instrument. It is very noticeable how young urban people became interested in developing Zimbabwean music.

What kind of music?
You see these young people, they are very experimental, and they are very free in the way they think. They are not so bound by categories as we older musicians are. You would see them looking towards the cutting edge for them of contemporary music internationally. So they would be into rap and there is in fact a version of Shona rap developing. Or they'd be looking into Hip-Hop and all this kind of thing. It was very noticeable how increasingly they put away their electric guitars and other electric instruments and started to pick up mbira and percussion because mbira always goes together with percussion, but then they mix it with other stuff.

Mbira has started to be associated with trendy, to use a trendy term, happening music. It could be debated why, because as I say mbira is very rural and in fact it developed in this way. It was rural mbira tunes that were picked up and put onto electric guitar and it was how musicians like Thomas Mapfumo achieved fame. Now the new generation are composing new patterns and new ways of playing it.

Some mbira purists will tell you that what some of these younger mbira players are performing is not mbira . It is like all folk music, when you change, say if you were to take Irish music, when you change it, is it still traditional Irish music?

But the young people will hear nothing of it. They do see themselves as the inheritors of a centuries old musical legacy in this country. If you talk to the young musicians, they may tell you straight away that they are mbira players because they had a dream or because of some other spiritual connection and that they have every right to play mbira. These are kids who have grown up in townships and they are tracing it direct from ancestors to the modern age and of course they are re-inventing it. It is that kind of a reflection of people, maybe I would try to put it this way, people searching for their identity and that is not such an easy thing in this country, because it is a new country and things are not cut and dry. Young people are more willing to maybe undertake that search with a fresh mind.

The thing about mbira as an instrument that is so ancient and so unchanged over centuries, it is at least a thousand years old. For people in this country, mbira has never just been removed from its cultural and social context. It was used for all kinds of ceremonies where people rejoice or if it is bereavement, or a get-together, or a harvest. It has a long history and profound history socially in the rural areas going back I do not know how long.

But what about now? When some of these young mbira players are reforming it and making it into something a little different with other inferences, would they ever be invited to play in a village or something in the rural areas?
Maybe not. Maybe, to some extent.

The thing about young people in Harare, — OK, this is a generalisation so it is quite dangerous — but I think they do not by and large see themselves in terms of rural, traditional, they do not want to be put in an ethnic category. They are individuals in their own rights. They see themselves as modern, urban people, well educated, equal or equivalent to any young person, let us say in United States . These are young people, probably the first such new generation in our country, who think globally. You know, they are international.

They are urban people who will have e-mail and Internet and know what is going on, and tell each other: "Oh, but you can, try this. But it is still mbira music you know, very much so.

So if mbira music historically is mainly Shona, would it not be at least theoretically possible that young people say in Bulawayo would also pick up mbira?
Yeah, but by and large it is not common. Bulawayo has it is own traditions and, for example, we are waiting for something to happen maybe with Penny Whistle Kwela music which is regarded as the music of the older generation. We are waiting for young people to pick it up and reinvent that.

The other day we had an English mbira group in Book Cafe visiting called Mutamba. And a lot of people came. We advertised it, and just said: "Look there are these English people who have come to play mbira". They had learnt from Zimbabwean people over there. It was really amazing to people here, but, and I am not trying to say a bad thing but it was not mbira.

How do you mean?
It's hard to explain. It was well played, it was played in the tradition of the instrument, the singing was certainly in Shona. But whatever indefinable quality you would put with mbira was not part of this group. A lot of people were talking afterwards about this question: What is mbira and to what extent is it rooted in the sense of Shona culture and to what extent can it travel?

A mbira player would say this thing has very powerful, spiritual connotations, and that you cannot even begin to think you can play mbira unless you are somehow in connection with the spirits, unless ancestors have shown the way or opened the door.

[Interview held on 21 October 2002 in the Book Café in Harare]

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