Zimbabwean mbira master mixes rhythms with Zambezi

Ernest Brown, professor of music, performs on the mbira with virtuoso Forward Kwenda, who has spent the past few months teaching the Zimbabwean music of the Shona to the Zambezi Marimba Band.
Ernest Brown, professor of music, performs on the mbira with virtuoso Forward Kwenda, who has spent the past few months teaching the Zimbabwean music of the Shona to the Zambezi Marimba Band.

According to the Shona tradition of Zimbabwe, the music of the mbira is the portal to the spirits of the ancestors. The mesmerizing, cyclical songs Zimbabweans play on the mbira are an important part of the ritual to call the spirits, and the speed with which a musician can succeed in communicating with the ancestors is a chief mark of his skill and talent.

Each year, Ernest Brown, professor of music, brings a guest artist to the College to share a piece of this ancient musical rite, offering an adventure into a musical culture and an aesthetic very different from that of Western traditions.

This year, the visiting artist working with Brown’s Williams marimba and mbira group, Zambezi, is mbira virtuoso Forward Kwenda. Originally from rural Buhera in Zimbabwe, Kwenda has spent the past several months in Williamstown, practicing, teaching and rehearsing with Zambezi members, a collaboration that culminated in Saturday night’s concert in Brooks Rogers. The concert drew a modest crowd of students and a good turnout of community members, many of whom seemed familiar with the sounds and practices of mbira performance. For those unfamiliar with the instrument, Brown took his introduction of the group to explain that the mbira, a small finger keyboard on a wooden base, fits within a large, bowl-shaped resonator that creates a vibration and amplification effect in the music.

Opening the program were two pieces that are Zambezi favorites, as they work well in a large group and are songs that, when all parts coalesce, sound complex yet are simple enough to teach to a beginner. Zambezi members range from new recruits to weathered performers, but despite the variations in experience and skill, both Zambezi and Forward were successful in communicating to some degree with each other and with the audience.

Nhemamusasa, the second piece on the program, was an especially strong group song, imparting a festive air largely due to the comfort and communication between players and singers on stage. Brown and Forward sang in low voices, creating an undertone that complemented the clear melodic line of Satya Fereira, a longtime community member of Zambezi. The sweet, strong voice of Rumbidzai Ndoro ’13 supported Fereira’s lead role, an integral part in defining and elaborating upon the meaning behind mbira songs.

By the fourth piece, Shumba Yangwasha, the number of performers on stage had thinned out to three, creating an intimate ambiance that aptly reflected the communal nature of mbira music. Traditionally, this music is not performed in the Western sense on a stage for a non-participatory audience. Yet despite the artificial setting, Saturday’s audience was able to take a glimpse into the meditative, mesmerizing power mbira holds over even the performers.

Once again, the difference in performance style was evident amongst those on stage. Forward was infinitely calm, engrossed by his music but always creating the aura that this music, however difficult, came easily to him. Fereira and Dino Lattanzi, another longtime community member of Zambezi, differed markedly in their expressions. Fereira grinned widely throughout the show, nodding her head to the music even from the audience. Lattanzi’s quiet concentration and enjoyment of playing contrasted the ebullient Fereira, but the variety of the three performers’ personalities did nothing to prevent the coherence of the performance and indeed it emphasized the highly personal nature of mbira music.

Zambezi students had the chance to take weekly private lessons with Forward, and the product of these sessions was presented in two pieces that each showcased the mbira master with just one student. One such piece featured Sara Dwyer ’11, a three-year veteran of Zambezi, playing Kuzanga (“The Jealous Woman”). Dwyer’s experience was obvious in the steady tempo and perfect merging of the two traditional mbira parts, the kushaura and the kutsinhira. While untrained listeners can hear that mbira music requires the cohesion of several parts, they may not realize the complexity, particularly on a rhythmic level, required to put these parts, the kushaura’s principal melody and the kutsinhira’s contrasting melody and meter, together.

The program was crafted to acclimate the audience to mbira music through increasingly difficult pieces, allowing them to fully appreciate the virtuosity Kwenda exhibited when he took over in the second half of the show.

Mahororo (“Call of the Baboon”) featured a basic kushaura with impressive improvisatory elaboration on the kutsinhira’s highline melody. Forward’s singing accompaniment was a mélange of words and nonsense calls, reflecting the piece’s title.

The following piece was one of the most spectacular, a difficult, fast song titled Marenje (“In the Desert”). Halfway through the piece, Forward began to pluck harder on several high notes in the melodic cycle, creating an effect of reverberation that helped, along with a quickening tempo, to accelerate the momentum. A textural change near the end cut back the building tension, but the piece exhibited a sense of urgency perhaps indicative of the title.

When asked about working with Forward, Fereira, who also studied with the artist on his last visit to the College, said his technique is “more focused on improvisation . . . [which is] actually a more ancient way of playing.” She also commented that Kwenda is one of the most talented and skilled mbira masters with whom she has worked, as well as one of the most enjoyable to study with.