The Mbira | a story of appropriation and dilution

On the 37th anniversary of Zimbabwean independence, MR SIBUSISO MNYANDA charts the history of the colonial capture and appropriation of the Mbira, arguably the Shona nation’s most spiritual musical instrument.  

Cultural performance, music and rhythm have always been vehicles that transport (even teleport) humanity through the highways of spiritual linkage. Whether it is travelling to the past, communicating with the dead or the spiritual rejuvenation and strengthening/ protection of a people; song, dance and sensual concentration are strong mediums of this communication and linkage. And so are the tools/instruments that are utilised in this universal ancient human ritual. Africa is no exception in this regard, one could in fact argue that Africa has a strong relationship with this ritual. The drum is the most obvious instrument. Its beat is highly communicative, spiritual and strengthening, but there are yet other instruments that awaken transcendent states, like the mbira of Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe has a majestic history. By the 11th century (1070s to be precise), while Europe was preoccupied with war and pillaging through the Crusades, the earliest important trading centre in the sub-Sahara was at Mapungubwe, on the bank of the Limpopo river. AmaShona’s ever-increasing prosperity led the emergence of a sophisticated judicial system and ruling elite with a kingdom stretching over the whole region between the Limpopo and the Zambezi rivers, a people who had been working gold mines in at least four areas before 1000 AD. All credit to the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and its chief instigators who fashioned themselves as explorers and prospectors, by the early 1900s the region was swamped with colonial settlers from Britain. Previously, Portuguese explorers and missionaries had made contact with the region, but it is the British settler community from the then Union of South Africa that made real impact culturally. Just as it was the case in South Africa, the British were seeking to acquire land and resources for colonial economic expansion, a daunting task, given amaShona’s closely knit and grounded community. That is, until the seeds planted by mineral mogul Mr Cecil John Rhodes – a continuous strip of the British Empire from the Cape to the mouth of the Nile – started germinating.
AmaShona were more socially and culturally dominant than amaNdebele – who were led by King Mzilikazi in earlier years – but it was amaNdebele who engaged the British socially and diplomatically. AmaNdebele destroyed the Chaangamire Rozvi State in the 1830s upon their arrival from kwaZulu, fleeing Shaka, and the Portuguese slowly eroded the Mutapa State, which had extended to the coast of Mozambique after the state’s success in providing valued exports for the Swahili, Arab and East Asian traders, especially in the mining of gold, known by the pre-colonisation miners as kuchera dyutswa (meaning gold miners). Mzilikazi’s son, Prince Lobengula, had settled in what today is Botswana (Bechuanaland) by 1830. Before the turn of that decade, South African Boers had managed to push Prince Lobengula back towards his father’s kraal in Bulawayo. He would in time enter into friendly treaties with Mr Rhodes, as the colonial lord had planned to springboard his expansion north from Southern Africa through that region and Prince Lobengula hoped to regain lost land. He granted Mr Rhodes mining rights in 1888. By 1891 Bechuanaland had become a British Protectorate and Mr Rhodes’ company men had settled in Harare, prospecting gold and being oblivious to the ‘docile’ Shona in close proximity.

“All credit to the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and its chief instigators who fashioned themselves as explorers and prospectors, by the early 1900s the region was swamped with colonial settlers from Britain.”

As transport and infrastructural development hit the region due to Mr Rhodes’ wealth and vision, together with the British mercantile rule strategy, more settlers populated the Harare region. Conflict was inevitable as the conditions were tense and ripe for blood to spill, in defence of what was traditionally established, against a new wave of ‘civilisation’. Mining was the draw card, but soon social scientists would also be interested in the region. Signs of cultural misappropriation had already emerged by 1892. Reports of local culture and customs were intriguing to the anthropologically curious. There was also the mystery of the sophisticated remains of Mapungubwe, that had to be investigated and nullified rather than be obviously attributed to amaShona. The country would soon be dubbed Rhodesia, given the name of its chief colonial pioneer. Mr David Livingstone had already ‘discovered’ and named the Mosi-oa-tunya the Victoria Falls after the Queen of England 1855. War broke out in 1893.
Led by Mr Rhodes’ British South Africa Company, the aggression was initially against amaNdebele now led by King Lobengula. This is known as the first Chimurenga. The British made a swift and calculated move into amaShona territory to establish Fort Salisbury (now Harare). King Lobengula would approve a raid into the region in an attempt to bind amaShona into showing allegiance, but led to them clashing with the company. The earlier treaties with Mr Rhodes had come back to haunt the king. AmaShona eventually joined the rebellion on 17 June 1896 at Mazowe.
The manner in which they approached resistance is stuff of legendary African glory and heroism. Cultural and traditional religious leaders of amaShona took the frontlines with all their might. The spirit medium of the Zezuru Shona people, Ms. Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, provided inspiration for the revolt against the British South Africa Company’s colonisation of Mashonaland and Matabeleland. As a diviner, cultural performance and chanting were characteristic tools of her spiritual inspiration. Connecting with the ancestors, asking for protection and guidance was pivotal. Strengthening the warriors in battle and instilling fear in the British were high on the agenda. Unfortunately, she and her ally Kaguvi were eventually captured and executed by the British.
It is chiefly the aforementioned tactics and actions of rebellion that attracted ethnomusicologist Mr Hugh Tracey and other socio-religious settlers to Zimbabwe in 1920. Exaggerated tales of the witchcraft-like mysterious ways of amaShona were too intriguing to be left alone. Stories of strange drumming, chanting and exotic instruments used to produce trance-based melodies were the unknown, but were seen as the heart of the people’s rebellion. The most important instrument in traditional Shona music, besides the drum, was the Mbira . When Mr Tracey arrived in the 1920s, it was of no surprise that he and his wife immediately became fascinated with the local culture, the Mbira to be precise.
An instrument found nowhere else in the world, its full name is the mbira dza vadzimu (voice of the ancestors), very significant and sacred in Shona religion and culture. It is usually played to facilitate communication with ancestral spirits, bringing the spirit of the dead back on its homestead. One could argue that this ‘puny’ instrument was a fundamental part (if not primary) of Shona nationalism and identity. Destroy it, you destroy amaShona. Arrest it, you arrest amaShona. Capture it, you capture the voice of the ancestors that binds these people like mortar on rock.

“One could argue that this ‘puny’ instrument was a fundamental part (if not primary) of Shona nationalism and identity. Destroy it, you destroy amaShona. Arrest it, you arrest amaShona. Capture it, you capture the voice of the ancestors that binds these people like mortar on rock.”

Mr Tracey went ahead with efforts to ‘spread awareness’, or dilute the might of amaShonas’ vast musical heritage. An adaptation of the mbira known as the kalimba, meaning ’little music’ emerged, from his ethnographic studies. He claimed he wanted it to be universal and accessible to the west, an extremely mischievous reason to dilute the instrument. Was the west going to use this dilution to link with ancestors? Whose ancestors?
Tracey went on to record and mix sounds of the mbira for the world to marvel at, right through the early 1920s to the mid-1970s. During that time, the people of Zimbabwe were engaged in a political liberation struggle against the colony. With no mothers and fathers in the homesteads as they were engaged in bush guerrilla warfare or exiled to the colonial masters’ lecture halls in London to seek an education and Christian religious salvation, the mbira and its spirit slowly but surely ceased to exist in amaShona homes. The voice of the ancestors was muted. In similar fashion to the dethroning of the last King of amaZulu, Cetshwayo, son of Dinizulu, was told by Queen Victoria in 1879 on his forced visit to London: The spirit of your ancestor, King Shaka, lives in you and your people. The spirit of Zulu and its glory must be killed or it will rise again to take its place. The colonial government cannot allow that. So it would be too for the amaShona and the mbira. The mhondoro, the royal mudzimu (ancestral spirit) or ‘lion spirit’ carried by the mbira dza vadzimu, must be captured and arrested eternally. Today, the majority of amaShona are Christian, but their traditional beliefs are still vivid among them.
Today, kalimbas are mass produced for the world in Grahamstown, South Africa. Mr Tracey founded the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in 1954, ironically at Rhodes University. The mbira is now his family legacy to the world and academic music oligarchy, through so-called ethnomusicology publications such as the African Music Society Journal. The reality is that in Zimbabwe the instrument is no longer manufactured for specific cultural use, if anything, it’s a leisure gadget that seems to be a traveler’s collector’s item, sort of like visiting the zoo and bringing back a stuffed animal of your favourite beast. For cultural-tourism, it’s a great economic boost I’m sure. Local artists playing it at small gatherings and weddings is as commercial as it gets, but for the spirit of identity and spiritual resistance against colonialism, I think not.
Today, on the occasion of Zimbabwe’s 37th independence celebrations, the mbira lives in total captivity and out of reach of its people, only accessible through a diluted, inauthentic voice in a South African university town.

References and further reading
David N. Beach: The Shona and Zimbabwe 900–1850. Heinemann, London 1980 
Kabvu, Sharon: The Irony of the Mbira, Southern Times, 29 February 2016,



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