Monday, June 11, 2012

The African Mbira: Music of the Shona People

The staggeringly diverse catalog of the Nonesuch Explorer records embraces many "folk" recordings of indigenous music from around the world.  Recently, YHB was fortunate to pick up a dozen discs formerly used in a bookstore kiosk and sold without artwork or cases.  While a couple of these were duplicates, ten of them were not and for ten bucks this was a whale of a bargain.

Of these ten, three concern the amazing mbira music from the Shona tribe of Zimbabwe.  This title was released in 1971 and features Dr. Abraham Dumisani Maraire, who was a professor of African literature and languages at the University of Zimbabwe in the capital city of Harare, but was also an ambassador for the beautiful and plaintive music of the mbira, a thumb piano, the richness and melodicism of whihc belies its small size and seemingly simple structure.

Dr. Maraire died in 1999, but this recording and others preserves the remarkable music of the Shona, in which the repetitive notes of the mbira lead to vocalizations that play off the simple melodies of the instrument, while rhythm is steadily maintained via the hosho, or gourd rattle with either seeds in it or a bead net around the outside of it.  Meanwhile, the hosho player performs a vocal accompaniment that is sound-based and which plays off the lyrics sung by the main vocalist and mbira player and there is often a third vocalist to further enrich the singing of the others.

Notably, there is not a passive audiences at performances conducted by the Shona.  Those present are either directly playing music or engaged in dancing.  There is also an improvisatory flavor to these pieces, as new sections are added according to the mood established by the piece and the players and what may appear to be monotonously repetitive is actually a subtle series of variations on the themes established in the early part of the songs.

The six pieces on this record are all uniformly excellent and the other recordings acquired at the same time are The Soul of Mbira: Traditions of the Shona People (1973) and Shona Mbira Music (1977), both featuring other well-regarded performers of the mbira and accompanying vocal music.

The African Mbira:  Music of the Shona People (Nonesuch Explorer, 1971)

1.  Kana Ndoda Kuramba Murume  5:48
2.  Tipe Tizwe  4:20
3.  Misorodzi  7:33
4.  Gumbukumbu  6:43
5.  Ndini Baba  6:22
6.  Urombo  6:22

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