Mbira of Our Ancestors
Mbira (pronounced “mmm-bee-rah) is a mystical form of music conceptualized by the Shona people of Zimbabwe who refer to it as mbira dzavadzimu, or “mbira of our ancestors”. The instrument and its repertoire can be traced back well over 1000 years.
Mbira-like instruments are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa in various shapes, sizes and configurations, but the mbira dzavadzimu is quite unique, with its own exclusive canon of songs which are offered as prayers. The mbira can be played as a solo performance or in two or three parts. The “lead” part, called kushaura, conveys the melodic signature of a given song. The kutsinhira responds to and supports the lead, providing an interlocking polyrhythm which is at once complex, hypnotic and majestic. The songs are cyclical; the ending of one cycle is the beginning of the next. In this way a single song can be played over and over again for however long is desired.
The buzzing sound, which is produced by shells, rocks or bottle caps, adds texture to the music and is thought to be pleasing to the spirits.
Every part of the mbira is highly symbolic:
- The sound board for all mbira are carved out of a tree called mubvamaropa (blood wood). The sap of this tree looks like blood. It signifies the blood of animals, and the wood repesents shelter.
- The keys are made out of metal, and personifies the presence of the ancestors as it is extracted from mountains where ancestors are buried. Each key produces an aggregate of sound due to vibrating with other keys tuned to it.
- Its buzzers are made out of sea and land animals, and signify the relationship between the ancestors and the water spirits. They contribute to the overall complexity of the sound by vibrating in sympathy with the pitch, producing a kind of drone.
- The natural amplifier (deze) is made from the pumkin gourd, which symbolizes the strong relationship between the ancestors and natural resources. It sustains the lifetime of each pitch in addition to making the pitches louder.
Although the mbira can and is played for sheer enjoyment, it is the only instrument of its kind associated with ceremonies of ancestor worship, personal healing and meditation.
Iyanifa Mahea has studied mbira at the feet of master teachers both in the US and in Zimbabwe for over a decade. She approaches the healing nature of this music as a powerful manifestation of African Spiritual practice. She is also an associate of MBIRA.org, a non-profit organization that celebrates and helps to sustain the ancient musical traditions of Zimbabwe. MBIRA supports Zimbabwean musicians and instrument makers, and their families, through worldwide Zimbabwean music education, recordings, and performance.
Mbira Recordings by Mahealani Uchiyama
“I am because we are and because we are, you are.” This statement encapsulates the concept of Ubuntu, a uniquely African world view which holds that an individualʻs identity is tied to the community, and the well being of the community is tied to that of the individual. This understanding of profound interconnectivity is the inspiration for The Sky That Covers Us All, the latest recording by Mahealani Uchiyama. It features the music of the mbira, an ancient instrument that has the power to comfort and protect those who experience it.
I would like to gratefully and humbly acknowledge my primary instructor Erica Azim, as well as generous gwenyambira (master musicians) who I have been fortunate enough to study with both here and in Zimbabwe: Patience Chaitezvi, Irene Chigamba, and Tute Chigamba, Leonard “Museyamwa” Chiyanike, Forward Kwenda, the late Jenny Muchumi, Fradreck Mujuru, Fungai “Zhanje” Mujuru, Caution Shonhai, and Renold Shonhai.
Speaking of community, this project was largely sponsored by generous contributions by pledged by supporters through a Kickstarter campaign. Though the goal of the campaign fell a bit short, most of the pledges were still honored. The list of sponsors appears below. Thank you all!
Kudos to Ashley Waiʻolu Moore of Amor Productions who, in addition to being a key supporter, engineered, mixed and mastered the CD. Ashley, Iʻm blessed to have you in my life.
The beautiful CD art is the work of the talented and versatile young artist, Aaron Sencil. It incorporates the image of the baobab, a tree indigenous to southern Africa that is often referred to as the “Tree of Life” superimposed with the colors of an African sunset, symbolic of the realm of the ancestors.
Have you heard of the practice among quilters to put a deliberate mistake in their work to demonstrate humility? Well, it was not deliberate, but there is a mistake in the order of the songs as listed on the CD jacket. The title of two of the songs are transposed. We will rectify this with the next printing, but for now please note that the correct order appears below:
1. Bangidza (Literally “to show”.) Nyamaropa tuning.
A song dating back to the days of Great Zimbabwe.
2. Mbavarira (Determination.)
Mavembe tuning. Rendition by “Samaita” Vitalis Botsa.
3. Nyama Musango (There is meat in the forest.) Nyamaropa tuning.
This is a hunting song encouraging all those who head out into the world to gain the resources we need to take care of our loved ones.
4. Karigamombe (Undefeatable, as one who can throw a bull to the ground.)
Muchenje Dongonda tuning.
5. Masangano (The gathering song.)
Dambatsoko tuning. A song to bring disparate people together.
7. Taireva Yekare (“I told you so”)
The Instruments Used In This Recording
Nyamaropa Created by F. H Mantengwa
Muchenje Dongonda Created by
Mavembe Created by Samson Bvure
with carving by Collins Bvukubwe
Dambatsoko custom created by Fradreck Mujuru.
Deepest Appreciation to the Sponsors of
The Sky That Covers Us All
Suzanne La’akea Briley
The Dang – Campbell Family
Grace Kaʻimiloa Kang and Jim Goring
Keigo and Kristin Lihau Kiyohara
Seibi Lee and Joel Schoolnik
Ashley Waiolu Moore
Oluwo Philip Neimark and Iyanifa Vassa Neimark
Marina Kahili Nims
Lynne Manawakolu Ogawa
The Robles Family
Sondra Haumea Reinman
Lynda Kamalie Roti
Judith and Norm Sohl
The Soria Family
Gabriela Noeʻula Soria
Mariko Maunakahu Soto
Photography by Charlie Ray