Saturday, December 4, 2021

Marimbas, Mbiras, and the Love of Music

Story by | Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor
Pictures by | Mpiwa Gwindi (she/her)

Mpiwa Gwindi '24 smiles as she poses with the mbira. The mbira is a circular, brown, wooden instrument with silver, metal keys in the center.
Mpiwa Gwindi ’24 smiles as she poses with the mbira. The mbira is a circular, brown, wooden instrument with silver, metal keys in the center.

Chemutengure, chemutengure,” Mpiwa Gwindi ‘24 sings a traditional call and response song in the Shona language, swaying from side to side as she plays on the mbira. Soft, metallic musical notes fill the air in accompaniment. 

The mbira is a musical instrument from Zimbabwe, sometimes called a “thumb piano.”  It is small enough to fit inside Mpiwa’s luggage, yet large enough to hold incredible stories.

Mpiwa has now shared her music all over the world, performing in international events, releasing original songs, and even breaking a world record along the way.

Mpiwa demonstrates the sound of the mbira by playing the song Chemutengure.
Mpiwa demonstrates the sound of the hosho.

Besides the mbira, Mpiwa plays a few other instruments. “The first instrument I picked up [in 2010] was the marimba, a wooden xylophone from Zimbabwe,” she describes. “There are different types of marimbas, depending on what sounds you want to achieve.”

Other instruments in Mpiwa’s repertoire include the hosho (Zimbabwe’s version of the maracas), the djembe (a traditional African drum), and the guitar.

While the mbira and marimba are now big parts of Mpiwa’s life, things might have turned out very differently. When ten-year-old Mpiwa first started learning the mbira, she had to do it behind her mother’s back.

“I told her: ‘Mom, I’m playing the marimba,’” Mpiwa recalls, “and she said, ‘okay!’” 

“And then I said, ‘I’m thinking of also playing the mbira.’ And she was, like, no!

Alt text: The marimba is a large, wooden xylophone with wooden pipes protruding out the bottom. It is as tall as Mpiwa's waist and longer than her arm span.

Old Traditions

Though Mpiwa did not know it at the time, the mbira is customarily associated with spirit mediums, used to communicate with the dead. 

In some African villages, there would traditionally be a religious ritual called the bira, an all-night ceremony where a connection is sought with one’s ancestral spirits. “In the bira, you had a designated mbira player,” Mpiwa explains. “Playing the mbira was seen as a specific calling.”

A group of six Shona people dressed in white shirts and black cloaks. They are dancing, singing, and playing on their mbira and hosho in front of a straw hut.
The bira, a religious ritual ceremony to communicate with ancestors. Photo: Zim Legends.

“They would do the kushaura, which is to lead a song or sing a melody. Then, they would communicate with the dead through the words that they sing. That was part of their religion: They believed that the way to receive healing or clarity was to get advice from people who were gone.”

The ceremony would then proceed to kusvikirwa, which occurs when the mbira players invite the dead spirits into their bodies. The spirits take over and communicate through the living.

Mpiwa was not deterred from learning the mbira despite its associations with spirit mediums. Instead, she firmly believes that the mbira’s music should be appreciated for its own beauty.

“At that time when my mom said I shouldn’t play the mbira, I was very disappointed, because I really enjoyed the instrument,” Mpiwa recounts. “I did stop for a while in obedience. However, I picked it up again, two years later, and I kept on playing by myself at school.”

Mpiwa performing the mbira at the Miss University of Zimbabwe Beauty Pageant in 2017. Photo: Mpiwa Gwindi.
Mpiwa performing the mbira at the Miss University of Zimbabwe Beauty Pageant in 2017. Photo: Mpiwa Gwindi.

New Directions

“When I was 14, my mom saw me perform with the mbira for the first time ever,” Mpiwa continues. “That’s when she realized that it’s not about what the instrument is associated with. This is about the child and her passion.”

In modern-day Zimbabwe, where Christianity is the dominant religion, summoning dead spirits is considered taboo by many. Mpiwa describes having had to explain to many people, including Zimbabwean national television broadcasters, that playing the mbira is no longer about its traditional associations for her.

“I don’t want to summon dead people using this instrument,” she says firmly. “It goes against my own beliefs, and it’s also not really practiced today. I don’t do that, even if there are artists who have done it before me.”

“This instrument is beautiful. When I play it for anyone, they go: Wow, this sounds amazing. They don’t hear dead people; they hear peaceful sounds from metal keys being produced, and it’s beautiful.”

“I think that’s what the instrument should continue to be.”

Like Mpiwa, many young mbira players are also championing the instrument independently from its age-old traditions . She explains that several modern Zimbabwean musicians like Hope Masike, Stella Chiweshe, and Thomas Mapfumo also incorporate the mbira into their music, alongside other traditional Zimbabwean instruments like the marimba, the hosho, and the ngoma (another traditional African drum).

Despite her initial disapproval, Mpiwa’s mother became extremely supportive after witnessing her performance. “I think it takes a lot for parents to see the world from their child’s eyes instead of their own,” she says sincerely. “For me personally, considering my protective nature, I don’t know if I would ever allow my daughter to do something culturally associated with spirit mediums.”

“But my mom let me do it, and she supported me from then on. I didn’t feel the need to explain to her, and I didn’t feel like I was fighting her. I would tell her about my performances, and she would just take me there. I’m very grateful, because I wouldn’t have been able to do all the things that I do without her.”

Breaking Records

Another instrument that has left its mark on Mpiwa’s life is the marimba. The marimba has brought Mpiwa to the world stage: first for Guinness World Records, and later for the World Championships of Performing Arts. 

It was an ordinary, unassuming Friday afternoon in 2018 when Mpiwa’s aunt approached her with an absurd proposition: why not attempt to set the world record for the largest ensemble of marimba players?

Mpiwa smiles. “I remember the place where I was when I read the message. I was in between this passageway and my parents’ bedroom.”

“I’m on my phone, worrying about my battery, and my aunt was like, why don’t we break the Guinness World Record?” Mpiwa laughs again as she re-enacts a disbelieving scoff. “I’m like, okay, sure…”

Mpiwa realized her aunt was serious when she saw what the current record at the time was. “My aunt showed me, and it was 108. One hundred and eight! I was, like, who holds this record? I personally know more than 108 players!” Mpiwa grins. “I could just call them and say: ‘Let’s go play and set this record!’”

“So, Australia owned the record. And I was, like, what? They don’t even own marimbas! What are they doing, setting the Guinness World Record for an instrument that we own?”

Mpiwa playing the soprano marimba at the ZiMarimba Fest in 2018.
Mpiwa playing the soprano marimba at the ZiMarimba Fest in 2018.

That was all the convincing Mpiwa needed. Over the next two months, she and her family set out to assemble the largest marimba ensemble the world had ever seen. 

They planned for the event to be held on May 25—Africa Day, the annual commemoration of the foundation of the Organization of African Unity. “Over the next two months of planning, we invited so many schools!” Mpiwa recounts.

“This was never done before, so we had to do a lot of convincing. We had to convince them that it was not going to be a flop; we had to get a lot of support and sponsorships because we didn’t have the money and the services to carry out the event.”

Marimbas come in different types, including the soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass, each producing music of different pitches and qualities. One challenge for Mpiwa and her team, especially given the unprecedented size of the ensemble, was to arrange these marimbas to harmoniously play a song together.

Fortunately, Mpiwa received immense support from Prince Edward School, whose marimba band and coach assisted her in arranging the song for the marimba players. Prince Edward School’s principal and music director also agreed to open up their school’s facilities to host the record-breaking event.

There were also logistical challenges to handle, as marimbas are bulky and not easily transported. “We had people coming from outside the city, transporting their marimbas on a public holiday,” Mpiwa says. “There was so much commitment and devotion.” 

“It took a lot from me,” she admits. “I’m really grateful, because even on the days when I felt very unmotivated and bogged down by people saying no and people questioning me, my mom would just wake me up every morning and say: ‘Go draft this letter; go speak to this person; go plan what you’re going to say to the press.’”

When the day finally arrived, it was a storming success. “With the help of my mom and my aunt, we managed to pass the record by 101 players,” Mpiwa smiles. “That’s double the previous record!”

The ZiMarimba Fest. Photos: The Herald and Mpiwa Gwindi.
The ZiMarimba Fest. Photos: The Herald and Mpiwa Gwindi.

The record-breaking event, named the ZiMarimba Fest, played host to 209 marimba players from all over Zimbabwe. Together, the ensemble played the song Manhanga Kutapira, a Shona song whose title translates to “Sweet Pumpkin.”

“It’s a classic marimba song, the first song I ever learned on the marimba,” Mpiwa says fondly. “There’s a melody that accompanies it. Come and see, come and taste how sweet these pumpkins are,” she sings in Shona.

For the Love of Music

Mpiwa plays the mbira in a dynamic crouching pose, with the stage full of bright blue lights.
Mpiwa performing the mbira during the World Championships of Performing Arts in California, USA in 2018.

Reflecting on the success of ZiMarimba Fest, Mpiwa says: “I feel very, very humbled and grateful for everyone who has supported it from the beginning. I still can’t believe I’m the same person who did that three years ago.”

“The marimba is my mother instrument. It’s the first instrument I started playing, and I love it so much. I hope I can do more—this is just the beginning. Imagine if we have way more people of different fields, all together in one place. What else could happen?”

True to her word, Mpiwa’s work to spread her love for music did not stop there. Two months later, she travelled to California to perform the mbira and marimba in the finals of the World Championships of Performing Arts.

Mpiwa performs the mbira in the preliminary round of the World Championship of Performing Arts 2018.
Mpiwa performs the marimba in the final round of the World Championship of Performing Arts 2018.

Since then, Mpiwa has been taking professional classes in songwriting and music production. “The biggest thing that I’ve learned,” she says, “is that sometimes, when you come up with a song, you don’t have to love it instantly. There’s a Shona proverb that says: ‘Even an elephant, as big as it is, has been raised from a small size.’”

Mpiwa has since produced and released her own song in August this year, titled Tichengete (Keep Us Safe). Currently, Mpiwa is working on producing the finale song for the student-written musical Tiwala. She is also working remotely with a professional music producer in Zimbabwe on her next song, which she hopes to release this year. 

“Music, for me, started off as a hobby,” she reflects. “Over the years, it is no longer just that. It’s become a lifestyle. I have been able to find the music in everything in my life. It’s a conversation with myself; the way I understand myself.”

“It’s my eternal child, you know? It never grows. It’s stayed with me, and I’m very grateful that I’ve managed to go far with it.”

When asked if she had any concluding thoughts, Mpiwa’s reply was firm and passionate. “If anyone has an artistic interest, they should always let that part of themselves run free,” she says. “Don’t put it off when you get paid, or when you get a stable career.”

“Just do it. You never know where it might take you.”

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