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What’s Next for the Mbira: Zimbabwe Mbira Festival (Recap)

1. Introduction

September 29th marked the 11th annual Zimbabwe Mbira Festival. While the mbira has been a part of Zimbabwean culture for much longer, this particular celebration was started in 2012, and now run by Albert Chimedza.

Chimedza is a multi-passionate creative, mbira maker, and founder/director of The Mbira Centre. He also runs the Pan African Mbira Festival.

The celebration took place at ELA the Garden, a Greek fusion restaurant in Newlands, and featured performances from new-school mbira players, as well as a panel discussion* about "Exploring New Mbira Narratives".


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2. Perception of the Mbira: Then

The majority of the mbira's recorded history has been spent equating the instrument with traditional spiritual practices and the stereotypes that are attached to those who engage in these practices. The banning of the instrument by missionaries and colonial powers only made the stigma worse.

If you were not a man, learning to play the mbira was not for you. If you were not involved with vadzimu, interacting with the mbira was not for you.

Pictured (left-to-right): Dr. Ignatius Mabasa, Mary Anibal, Theresa Covini,

Rutendo Denise Mutsamwira, Albert Chimedza, and AneUnhu.

These were the perceptions that prevailed for decades amongst black Zimbabweans navigating their world post-colonisation. Perceptions have since changed, as they are prone to do, and you can now attend concerts where people from all sorts of backgrounds and identities play the mbira.

However, not everyone sees this as progress. During the panel discussion, multiple individuals shared their experiences of being looked down on by loved ones for playing this instrument.

In an exclusive interview, Tatenda Chioniso Rushwaya, a professional performing mbira artist, shared more about her experience learning the mbira. She described being introduced to the instrument while attending the Zimbabwe College of Music.

Pictured: Tatenda Chioniso Rushwaya
“There’s already a Beyoncé. There’s already a Lil Wayne. So who is me? I started searching for my identity.”

With time, she saw incorporating the mbira into her songs as a way to differentiate herself from existing R&B and hip hop artists. She then also described her church community seeing this introduction as the start of a troubled path, and producers not believing in the vision of using mbira in this way.


3. Perception of The Mbira: Now

In response to these stories, the panellists discussed whether or not separating the mbira from any spiritual connotation and stereotype is possible. The members of the panel* all agreed this could be done.

This desire to separate culture from stereotype seems to be a common trend across all spheres of African influence: creative, business, and otherwise, especially in the past 10 years.

Pictured: AneUnhu speaking on blending the mbira with various genres

You need to look no further than the mainstream acceptance of African music to see the outside world beginning to use their own platforms as a way of signalling their validation of African art and culture that has been celebrated in Africa for centuries.

Whether or not this noticing by outsiders, within Zimbabwe and abroad, matters was another topic of conversation during the event.

This rising demand for what is African has been met with an acknowledgement of the abundant supply of what is African that has been in existence since time immemorial.


4. Exploring New Narratives

The new narrative surrounding the mbira doesn't only have to do with spirituality and gender. Broadly, the question is, "How do we tell a story that can be understood and loved by members of our local community, and abroad?"

This story includes everything from how the instrument is manufactured, taught, and played to the genres of music the instrument is incorporated in, to how the musicians themselves present themselves.

If what makes the mbira special is not a spiritual practice, who is playing the instrument, the genre of music, or even its historically handmade nature, then what will keep the mbira's identity as this new narrative is crafted?

Understandably, no tidy resolution was reached in response to this question.

When interviewed after the event, Dr. Ignatius Mabasa expressed that foundations are important, but disruption of tradition is valuable and important.

"You have learned from the past. Don’t stay in the past. Have the freedom to experiment.”

Pictured (left-to-right): Clive Mono Mukundu, Dr. Ignatius Mabasa, Mary Anibal, Theresa Covini,

Rutendo Denise Mutsamwira, and Albert Chimedza.

During the discussion, one of the panellists mentioned that Zimbabweans have identity ingrained within themselves and did not need to go rediscovering or reclaiming this identity.

Perhaps the mbira is the same.


5. Special Thanks

Thank you to Albert Chimedza and Zimbabwe Mbira Festival for bringing this event together, and each of the panellists* for their insights.

Special thank you to Tatenda Chioniso Rushwaya and Dr. Ignatius Mabasa for providing #MNews with exclusive interviews at the event.


*Panellists: Rutendo Denise Mutsamwira (Moderator), Clive Mono Mukundu, Dr. Ignatius Mabasa, Theresa Covini, Mary Anibal, and Albert Chimedza. Their bios can be found on the Zimbabwe Mbira Festival Facebook page.

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