Albert Chimedza

Albert Chimedza. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"The Propaganda Helps a Lot"

Albert Chimedza was born on 30 September 1955 in Harare . He is a filmmaker, musician, mbira maker, and promoter of mbira through his Gonanombe Mbira Centre in Harare.

Tell me what the ideas are behind this Gonanombe Mbira Centre.
I'm trying to see how far you can push mbira as an instrument and to see if Zimbabwe can, maybe, be instrumental in propagating this instrument. Because normally what happens is that Europe or America comes here, discovers something, takes it back and then takes it over.

What is amazing for me is that it requires a lot of skill to make an mbira and to be an mbira player requires a lot of skill, perhaps fifteen years experience. But all this knowledge is not in the formal educational sector. Now if you had an equivalent kind of skill in the formal sector where somebody has fifteen years experience that would be a very highly qualified and probably highly paid person. So we are doing our little part in trying to formalize, become like a mbira academy in the country. Basically we use this place as a contact point as well. We try to be in touch with a lot of mbira players, mbira makers and we are building an archive of mbiras; we collect mbiras, keep a list of mbira makers, musicians. We are going to start building a CD catalogue, so it is like a real resource centre. We also make mbiras and resonators as a way of earning an income to run the Centre (From the 2002 interview).

I have returned to learn more about mbira music and its role in this specific time in Zimbabwe . But first I have to ask you to help me clarify what really is «mbira music'? *
The same way you define guitar music, or piano music, or harmonica music or flute music – mbira is an instrument. So the instrument plays whatever the musician plays. Maybe a few years ago I would have said something different, but today I think mbira is an instrument. OK, it is also a genre of music, if you are referring to traditional mbira music. But even this has so many influences. If you say mbira music, generally at least in Zimbabwe we understand a certain repertoire of music, with the mbira played in a certain way. But an accurate definition to me is that it is an instrument. If you have a guitar it can play jazz, it can plays classical music, it can play flamenco, and it can play Latin, whatever.

And because mbira as an instrument that has not been much in the communication circuit we still associate the repertoire with the instrument. But nobody stops if they hear Indian music played on the guitar, and says what is this Indian song doing on guitar? You just say: Oh, that is a nice Indian song played on guitar, that is a nice Spanish song played on guitar, that is nice rock music played on guitar, that is New Age music played on guitar. The definition of the mbira will just change with the level of influence it can attain in the music world.

The your interpretation is made by somebody who is really into the mbira as an instrument and in that sense you are a specialist, and we should take our definition from you. Now how do people who are not in the music industry, who are part of the audience, how do they perceive it?
Well, how they think and what it is are two different things, right. How they think depends on who they are and what their social experiences are.

As a musician, a way to answer the question would be to ask what kind of audiences you get and ask why they come to the concert.

There are some people, usually middle class, who like mbira music a lot, but they do not have enough venues of their social class to go. So although they like mbira music they are not going to drive to the village to listen to mbira music, they would prefer if they had the mbira music in the Meikles Hotel, where they can have their chocolate, use the cell phones and continue their business. There are urban people who like mbira music, are culturally loyal to the music, who go because it is mbira music. And generally those want to hear how close it is to the classical way to play.

Then there are young people who are looking for a cultural identity, and they think that to enjoy mbira music is one way for them to say for them to say it is OK for them to be a Zimbabwean.

Then you got what I call “tourists”, both black and white, both Zimbabweans and non-Zimbabweans, who have heard so much about the music in its social context and they come because they want to find out what it is about.

And then you also get people who like a particular mbira band. For example, there are people, I am sure, who would follow Mbira Dzenharira wherever they play. So they are loyal to the music, but specifically also to the band.

Somebody said to me that if you see somebody in the street who has dreadlocks, then they are likely to play mbira.
No, but they are also likely to play reggae.

I am sure you have taken a lot of photographs, actually except for Dzenharira most mbira players you have met do not have dreadlocks, true or not?

But there is also the image, and the reality. The image I suppose depends on whom. But when I say mbira I do not think dreadlocks, no. I think music.

Let me put it the other way: Are there people who don't like mbira?
There are people who don't like jazz, there are people who don't like rock n'roll, and there are people who hate classical music. Mainly in this country the biggest opposition to mbira comes from some segments of the Christian community.

There has been a history of demonisation of the mbira, because of its non-secular activities, if you like, and there are generations of people who grew up at the time when it was in the interest of both the missionaries and the colonial administration to demonise African things. It was not just mbira, but also drums, African religious beliefs, traditional medicine, they were all stigmatised. And many of the people who grew up in those formative years, grew up believing that mbira is an evil thing to do, that it is unchristian.

My aunt, my father's elder sister, was married to one of the first black missionaries in this country. And part of his job was to go around to places where people played mbira and try to make converts. I believe it was because the church thought this was where they had the biggest competition. Ironically I now spend my time trying to persuade people that to love the mbira is a good thing.

I think mbira is just such a powerful icon in Shona culture that if you can break that you can break everything. And for some time it looked as if they were going to succeed, but the music is so beautiful, so people said that how can something so sweet be considered demonic and backward? And people are also now more sophisticated and they begin to understand the beauty of the mbira as an instrument.

So perhaps in the end the most objective definition is to define mbira as an instrument, but also as a genre of music. The mbira music as we know it now, would be a genre of music played by Shona people in Zimbabwe.

So the mbira has been an icon also in resistance against colonialism?
There has always been a trend in this country for mbira music to be associated with political struggle. Even now, with the present political climate, there is a lot of use of mbira music in propaganda.

Is there any use of the mbira in counter-propaganda?
Well they have to figure it out. If they are not doing it they are stupid. If they are not tapping into the cultural icon of the people they work with, if they have not even thought to use it, they should sit down and ask some serious questions about who they are and what they want to do and where they are going.

I was mainly thinking of people who are musicians, using the mbira since long.
One of the most outspoken critics of this government is Thomas Mapfumo. He is a mbira player, although he does not play mbira himself, but it is prominent in his band.

Mbira is an instrument, and an instrument can be used by anybody, to cut bread, and to cut people.

But when mbira is played as an instrument it is often accompanying songs in Shona, so I cannot understand the lyrics unfortunately. But what would you say, do the mbira musicians relate directly to the present situation?
Yes, the song you hear all the time on the radio, is about the present situation, it is about land, so . . . Thomas [Mapfumo] is singing about it all this stuff. A lot of the mbira singers are poets, so most poets write about things that affect them. We, in my band Gonamombe Mbira Orchestra also sing about it, we just did a CD now that says that people who are too lazy to farm should not get farmland, and people who are too dishonest should not be allowed to run the country...

I think there has been a romanticization of the mbira, a view of it as an anthropological phenomenon under threat of extinction. It is projected in terms of preserving culture, but you only preserve something that is dead.

But mbira is quite alive; it is as contemporary as any other instrument. I have heard kids playing western classical music, reggae, and Zairian music on mbira. This is healthy. I have a student from Japan now who is classically trained pianist, and we are trying to find people who can play Japanese songs on mbira. So it is vibrant, it is not dead. In fact, in December 2003 we recorded an Mbira/Piano CD with Japanese classical pianist Ms Akari Shimada of Tokyo , Japan . The sound was new and vibrant but clearly mbira. The CD is currently being mixed and mastered.

If the mbira is an important identity marker for Zimbabwean culture . . .
Some people say it is; I do not see mbira as an identity marker; I do not make mbira because I think it identifies me as a Zimbabwean, not at all. I make mbira because I like the sound. I really do like the sound. I hear it in my sleep; I hear it if I am walking on the street; I hear it if I am driving. It has nothing to do with culture. If I like something I like something. It does not matter where it comes from. If I like sushi I like sushi, it doesn't matter if I am Puerto Rican or from Brazil , or from Nigeria or wherever. Even the ones who think they are doing it for the culture, if they did it for the culture and they hated the instrument, they would not do it. Their body would say stop.

I forward the hypothesis that your view is fairly unusual. You seem to want to strip the mbira of any social meaning or connotation.
I am saying that all those things are relevant, but they are not the essence of the instrument. I am not in this for mbira as an instrument, really. If that were all I was into it would be much cheaper for me to just play in a band. I am interested in it because it is something that is very unique to this country, that people here have a unique knowledge of, and therefore should be able to move the instrument to greater heights, and hopefully get a reward for doing so. Because if we don't other people will do it and we will be sorry.

But now it sounds that you also do then take a national pride in the instrument.
Of course I do, I am Zimbabwean. What do you think? Why would I spend all this money on something foreign?

Well, you have gone full circle now. If the mbira apart from it being a beautiful instrument being able to produce very special music, which is a good thing in itself, and is unique to Zimbabwe in the way it is played and in the form it has taken, would it not be natural to expect that the government spends a lot of effort trying to make the mbira music something that every Zimbabwean should know?
Yes.

And have they done it?
We at the centre have been advocating this, most people, in sentiment, would agree with you, but in practice it does not happen. I think nobody, as yet, in power has an idea of how important it is to do. Because the attitude and philosophy of the education system here was that art is recreation. So when I was at school, if you were a bright kid, or if you did well at school, you did not do art, you did not do music. If you were a problem kid, the school out of desperation said: OK, we allow you to paint or make some noise with music... So in the way we view education or we perceive education in this country, there was never a premium on being an artist. Musicianship has always been considered something lowly. Which is strange to me because most Zimbabweans love music.

Up to today most artists only become known if somebody from outside comes and says that we are important… They have to start to think that you can make money with music, you can make money with art, you can promote your country with art and music, and it is cheaper than to promote your country with embassies.

In a healthier country, and this country is not healthy at the moment, it would be so obvious, they would not even have to have a meeting about it, it would just happen.

Can you imagine in Europe , if they did not teach violin and piano in school. If they just stopped tomorrow, you tell me what would happen. Because the educational system values creativity, values self-exploration and all this stuff.

And this was not in our educational system because it was not designed to create people who are curious. It was designed to create people who follow instructions very well, and you can tell them what to do and you go away on holiday and they do what you tell them. Well, you cannot do this in band, because if they all sound like you the music becomes boring.

Perhaps one can say that Jonathan Moyo's use of mbira is government propaganda . . .
It has helped a lot, a lot. Because a kid that did not listen to this music, now he hears it every day on the radio. If he does not like it, he is gonna say: well enough of this, let me try to do something better. If he likes it, he is gonna say, let me see what else has been done, and let me see if I can do better. Just being exposed to something helps you. OK, there will be some who hate the music for the rest of their life, because he heard it maybe ten maybe a hundred times. But out of a hundred there will be one who really discovered mbira music from hearing all this propaganda.

[Interviews held on 5 November 2002 and 4 August 2003 at the Gonamombe Mbira Centre, Highlands, Harare]

To the top