Brenna von den Benken
Assistant Professor of Music Tony Perman led the Pomona College Mbira Ensemble in presented classical mbira music of the Shona in Zimbabwe Wednesday in Lyman Hall in Claremont.
The mbira is a hand-held instrument unique to Zimbabwe with 22 to 28 metal keys played with the thumbs and right index finger. It is sometimes known as the “thumb piano,” although most mbira players reject this and suggest it should be called a “finger mbira.”
“Mbira music in Zimbabwe is primarily played during spirit possession ceremonies in which communities play songs for their ancestors all night long, but we’ll try not to play quite that long,” Perman said. “You can also get up and dance if you want to.”
The ensemble opened the night with the song “Kariga Mombe,” typically the first song every mbira player learns.
For this song, the lyrics “Dongi Mombe Mbudzi” literally translates to “donkey, cow, goat,” which is a mnemonic device more than a poetic phrase to help beginners remember the notes and melody to the piece they are learning.
After the opening song, audience members were invited to gather on stage behind the performers to watch their fingers flick the encased stringed-instrument in carefully coordinated harmony.
The mbira songs that were performed each included two separate parts, a leading “kushaura” part and the following “kutsinhira” part.
The length of each piece varied and the singing was highly improvised.
Traditionally, during ceremonies, the mbira is always accompanied by “hosho” rattles that keep the beat for both musicians and dancers, multiple singing parts from both the players themselves and other attendees, and dancing.
Each song on the program’s track list for the night, including “Dande,” “Shumba,” “Nhema Musasa” and “Bukatiende,” represented multipurpose meanings, according to Perman.
The songs touched on traditional subjects such as specific regions in Zimbabwe, important spirits, hunting, wild animals, shelter and ancestors.
“Nyamaropa” is possibly the oldest mbira piece, although it’s hard to determine since the mbira has been played for at least 600 years.
Literally meaning “bloody meat,” this song was most likely performed initially as a hunting song.
Another mbira classic, “Nhema Musasa” means “to build a temporary shelter.”
Like all mbira songs, the meaning can vary depending on the circumstances of its performance.
The temporary shelter in question can refer to the new home a young married couple builds, a hunter’s hide away in a bush or a guerrilla soldier’s shelter, much like the shelter soldiers would take from the Colonial army during the 1970s.
“We just want people to enjoy something different,” senior mbira ensemble cast Vincent Chan said.
“I felt a sense of union with the rest of the audience while they were performing,” program attendee Alyssa Reyes said.
“Everybody was just humming along and moving to the rhythms like brothers and sisters.”
Brenna von den Benken can be reached at email@example.com.