Zimbabwean percussionist lends spirituality to song

For what seemed like a long time in the reddish dimness of Brooks-Rogers on Saturday night, we quietly anticipated the beginning of a rhythmic musical evening with Forward Kwenda, a native of Zimbabwe. As the notes of the first piece, “Victory,” gained speed and momentum, it became clear that a little music will travel a long way. 

It may be that a little music ennobles and elevates people. In Kwenda – who sings and also plays the mbira, an African thumb piano  – there is a fine synthesis of sensibility and strength. He smiled as he invited us to cry or dance as we felt, and with a kindness we were unused to, he made us feel at ease, opened our minds and prepared us to receive the music. The streaming notes of “Victory” consisted of resonant low tones amplified by the hollow calabash gourd, velvety middle tones and delicately tinny high tones accompanied by the rattling of bottle caps and shells; these notes had an easy appeal with their flowing character as we calmly listened to their progression through time.

Shortly after, Kwenda joined his voice to the river of sound. His raspy, deep tenor invoked the spirit of nature, sometimes humming along with the bass notes of the mbira, sometimes bounding off into steadily rising, otherworldly arpeggios, half sighing and half singing, perhaps questioning and invoking the ancestral spirits. Kwenda imbued the gravelly, primeval arpeggios with such life that one can hear them echoing now of their own accord, accompanied by the twinkling of the instrument. Disappearing and blending into the lowest notes of the mbira, Kwenda’s voice would suddenly reappear with an abrupt and loud cry, descending lyrically from far above as if alternating between a spirit reiterating a truth of life and the lament of a matriarch. His expressive features engaged in creating this magical music captivated us, and his illuminated complexion stood out to us, his forehead glistening with the reflections of his listeners.

After the first piece, Kwenda switched the larger mbira, called nyamaropa, with a smaller one called natzanzaira. If you listened to the lowest sound in the first half of the concert and then compared it to the lowest in the second, you would notice that the second was significantly higher, affecting the character of the pieces that followed. Both instruments had a darker and a lighter variety of sound. The darker variety of the nyamaropa was heard in “Victory,” whereas the lighter was exhibited in the piece called “Lion.” The second half, then, presented a festive song of baboons welcoming a newborn, followed by a piece that expressed the troubles of a family.

Perhaps affected by the evocative mood established at the beginning of the second piece, in “Lion,” we were transported to another land – to a vast and bright expanse of nature – and asked to pay respect to the noble and powerful animal spirit. At this point, we could see this spirit standing on the stage facing Kwenda, silently acknowledging his presence with a look in his direction before calmly walking along the isle past us and drifting out of thought with the passing of the music.

It is to no surprise that, even as a teenager, Kwenda had an outstanding ability to conjure the rain-making spirits while performing on his mbira at ceremonies. Whether or not the rain-making spirits were noticed by each listener last Friday evening, we were all touched by his sincere music-making. We were attracted to his performance because he and the music were at harmony with one another. Naturally, we wished to participate in this harmony, and when he stopped playing after one hour, we wanted to hear more of his music.

By attentively following and admiring his rhythmic nodding as he sang, and noticing the motion of his forearm betraying a hint of how his hard-working, calloused thumbs danced across the metallic keys of the “finger-xylophone,” we could see that his mind was looking at a distant place, at blurry faces and fascinating stories of ancestors. And, with effortless ease, he was connecting them to us.

We can only wonder what it was that caught Kwenda’s eyes when he turned to look above our heads towards the far corner of the concert hall. We will never know the spirits he encountered that evening, only that he certainly raised our spirits and gave us pause as we contemplated the origin, nature and inspiration of the music.

Iva nikolau/Staff photographer Kwenda combined vocal tones with notes from the mbira.