Growing out your thumbnails: an ode to mbira 

August 2016

Today at the University of Cape Town (UTC), we learned a song on mbira! The mbira (pictured above) is a traditional African musical instrument consisting of tuned metal tines that are attached to a wooden board. It’s sometimes called a finger piano. As you can see in the photo, there is a big bowl around the wooden board. This bowl is meant to serve as a megaphone for the mbira, amplifying and projecting the gentle, mellow sound.

You hold it as if you were texting on your phone, using your thumbs to pluck the tines to make a melody. It might be hard to see in this image, but there are little pieces of loose metal attached to the wooden board. When you play really low or  high tones on the mbira, vibrations from the wooden board set the little pieces of metal to vibrate. This sound adds another dimension to the mild, sweet melodies of the mbira.

Check out the video under this blog to see my friend Sky play an awesome Xhosa song on the mbira. If you watch her closely, note that Sky has her eyes closed most of the time. Just like anyone playing the piano or keyboards, you aim to avoid looking at your fingers when playing the mbira. It gives off a better vibe when your head isn’t looking down at the tines you are trying to strike!

I walk to the UCT campus every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to observe the Ibuyambo Orchestra rehearsals. Having recently graduated from the Shepherd School of Music, it’s fascinating being in another school of music,  one halfway across the globe and in the other hemisphere. My new friend Sky takes me on the grand tour of the music school. To all my Shepherd music friends out there, THEY HAVE THEIR OWN CAFE IN THE PRACTICE ROOM BUILDING! Yeah, this really is a big deal, I could live in there. Also, to all my percussion friends out there, they have a two story building dedicated solely to percussion. A place for the misfits of the orchestra- just kidding, we are the most fun part of any orchestra. They need an entire building for percussion because much of the first floor is dedicated to traditional African instruments.

And this is where class actually starts:

I’m in a medium sized room filled with native African instruments. There is barely enough room for ten of us, because there are so many instruments. It’s soooo cool, guys. It takes all my willpower not to jump up and touch every instrument in the room. The head traditional African music percussion professor, Paul, is down-to-earth, warmly welcoming me these past few weeks. This is Paul’s studio, where he teaches. Instead of chairs, we sit on tree stumps. We each have our own mbira (Paul let me play a little of the melody being taught on a borrowed mbira, but then one of the students arrives and needs the instrument). It is really awesome, 10 minutes of mbira-sized fun.
Sky, a fourth year undergraduate student in traditional African music, is teaching the melody to everyone aurally. When they are all playing this melody, I instantly envision rain. The ensemble is preparing the song for their next performance in October. They plan to play in a circle, in complete darkness (see, this is why you need to play without looking at your thumbs). The idea that the ensemble wants to convey is that the ensemble is a village of people in an African desert, and they are playing mbiras to create a song of prayer for rain.

Back to Sky’s lesson. She is in front of the class with her back facing us, showing us what to play with her mbira held over her head. As she plays a phrase, Paul shouts out the notes, and we follow playing the phrase. This is a simple call and answer exercise. Sky and Paul use this method so the piece can be fully memorized, reproduced without conscious thought to the notes.

This is one thing that I find difficult in any type of indigenous music: Everything is learned aurally and memorized. This is difficult for myself, especially because I’m a visual learner. When I play a rhythm, I see in my head as what it looks like on my written sheet score. That’s the way most of us learn to play music in the US and in countries with “westernized” music studies. It’s completely different here. Music is all learned aurally, without written scores. There are pros and cons to each. If you forget your written music score in a traditional orchestra, you are kind of screwed unless you have memorized your parts or can look over someone’s shoulder. If you forget the music in your head here, you need to ask someone what is your rhythm, and it can take up the entire rehearsal to refresh your memory. A cool thing about learning music aurally is that you embody the music the first time you learn it.

By the end of rehearsal, the ensemble has learned two different variations on the song for rain. They play it in cannons, switching from the first variation to the second. They play tones slow and soft, not loud and rushed, to evoke sounds of rain falling. They end up playing around with different variations, sounding like the video below! Pretty cool, eh?

I am so enthralled by the music of the mbira ensemble, that I’m having my very own mbira made for me! Dizu, the other traditional African music percussion professor, makes mbiras. So when I come back to the States and someone needs an mbira player, I got your back. I will do weddings and galas. I’ll make business cards.

FUN FACT: You might have heard mbira in pop culture! Any of you watch Avatar the Last Airbender on Nickelodeon? Yeah, the mbira is heard often in the background music. #uselessknowledge

That’s all for now, friends!



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