Zimbabwe : Using the mbira to create a Zambuko - Shona of Zimbabwe

dustyelbow

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Song of Solomon
With mbira in hand, he helps bridge African and American cultures

By Vanessa E. Jones, Globe Staff | August 15, 2006

Solomon Murungu has just finished giving a presentation on the mbira, a musical instrument of the Shona people in his home country of Zimbabwe. During the hourlong event, he'd explained to the group of about 20 people gathered in a conference room at the Cambridge Citywide Senior Center on Massachusetts Avenue that the instrument made of wood and iron is used by the Shona to communicate with their ancestors. He described the significance of different parts of the instrument. Then he used his fingers to pluck a few traditional songs, which lilted in the air in soothing, dulcet tones, giving listeners a taste of the music.

Now the audience is asking questions. Do the instrumental songs he played have words? They do, Murungu answers, but he doesn't sing. What parts of his hands are used to play the instrument? A combination of nails and the fleshy parts of his fingers. In fact, the instrument is so hard on his hands, he tells them, that Murungu regularly gets a manicurist to apply acrylic nails on his thumbs and right index finger to protect them.

Elena Lindor , 73 , a Cambridge resident who visited Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls last November, wonders if the mbira is taught in schools in Zimbabwe. No, says Murungu, it is not. Zimbabwe's indigenous people suffered under British colonial rule from the 1890s to the 1970s in a system similar to apartheid in South Africa. Under the British, the Shona people had to reject their traditional ancestor worship and embrace the Church of England. Today indigenous Africans remain reluctant to embrace this part of their culture.

Murungu offers this presentation under Zambuko Projects Unlimited , an organization he started in 1994 to educate Americans about Zimbabwe an culture, particularly the mbira. Under the auspices of Zambuko, Murungu offers educational talks for students from elementary school to college; mbira demonstrations and workshops; and spiritual services that allow Westerners to experience ancestor worship. Murungu created the business, which he operates when he's not at his day job as a computer engineer at Upromise Inc. in Needham, after giving several talks to students at the Charlotte Dunning Elementary School in Framingham, as a part of parent/student presentations when his two daughters, Pepukai , 19, and Simukai , 17, and son, Shingira , 15, attended the school.

As he spoke to his children's peers and to his own acquaintances , Murungu discovered that Americans had many misconceptions about Africa.

``A lot of people . . . still have that sort of Tarzan mentality about the continent," says Murungu, 51, who lives in Bolton. ``They think that people live in trees and huts. When you tell them there are cities in Africa, they actually get very surprised."

In Murungu's mind, Zambuko can help break the barriers and show how many things the American and African cultures have in common. He calls his organization Zambuko because the word means ``bridge" in the Shona language.

``My own experience with people [in the US is] they were very American-centric," says Murungu. ``No experience with the outside world. I felt that by exposing them to another culture, being able to appreciate another culture, they'll be more likely to open up not just to me but to other Africans and other non-Americans."

`Sense of pride'
In the past few years, he's played the mbira at the Museum of Fine Arts, the DeCordova museum, and the Cathedral Church of St. Paul . He's given talks about the instrument at the University of Connecticut and Rhode Island College. He calculates that he makes more than 100 appearances a year.

Murungu visited Rhode Island College last October and March to give two-hour presentations to the school's music, anthropology and African/Afro-American studies students. As with his performance at the senior center, Murungu used a video camera so the audience could watch his fingers up close as he played the instrument.

``It's difficult sometimes," says Julie Raimondi , a former adjunct professor of music at Rhode Island College, who invited Murungu to appear at her ``Music in Non-Western Worlds" class, ``to teach classes like that to students who are not familiar with different kinds of music from around the world. It's one thing to read about it in textbooks and listen to recordings. It's another thing entirely to have someone come in and perform in the classroom and talk from a first hand perspective."

Clients often hear of Murungu's business through word of mouth. Emma Watkins , the director of the Cambridge Citywide Senior Center who requested his services, discovered Murungu after a friend of hers saw him performing during a reception at the Cambridge Art Association in December.

``What my friend told me was she went expecting the traditional African music with the drums," says Watkins. ``But she said, `It was the most beautiful music I'd ever heard.' "

Raimondi's students were surprised by the feelings the music elicited. ``The best way they could express it," says Raimondi, ``is they felt calm and soothed."

Watkins first brought in Murungu in February, but because of time constraints he could only spend five minutes answering questions, which left the audience unsatisfied. As a result, Watkins decided to invite Murungu for a second appearance.

Although the center often welcomes a multicultural array of guests, Watkins found Murungu's performance educational, particularly since schools don't often offer much education about African-American history.

``As an African-American," says Watkins, who's in her 60s, ``[I found it] quite fascinating, because growing up you would not have believed that we had any history. . . . I'm fascinated when people present something so wonderful that we did. I would like for young kids, especially kids of color, to be exposed to this because it instills a sense of pride."

A 1,500-year-old tradition
The history of the mbira goes back 1,500 years, says Murungu. The instrument's keys were first made using reeds, which were replaced by iron during the industrial age .

Growing up in Makoni , a rural district about 120 miles south west of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare , Murungu says he never learned much about the mbira or his own culture. His mother feared that if he became mesmerized by music he would abandon school. Colonial Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia , didn't allow African students to learn about their culture.

``It was sort of like apartheid," says Murungu, ``an extension of the system that was in South Africa. . . . In the school, it was strictly Western education."

When Murungu left his country in 1973 to go to school in the United States -- he earned a master's degree in computer science from Boston University in 1980 -- his musical taste ran toward the Western music of Creedence Clearwater Revival and, later, disco. It took reggae singer Bob Marley and his comments about Rastafarianism in the late '70s and early '80s to make Murungu reconsider his Shona roots.

``It really inspired me to think deeply about my own identity as a person, my own spiritual identity," says Murungu. ``So I started to think about what it meant to be a Shona person and where I was coming from."

In 1994, he began taking mbira lessons with Ephat Mujuru , a well-known mbira player and pop star who was doing an extended residency at Williams College . After Mujuru left, Murungu learned the mbira the traditional way, by finding people who could help him learn new songs.

``Mbira music is basically an oral tradition," says Murungu. ``You always learn something from somebody who already knows [about it] . Once you get into that circle, you begin to learn who knows what. You are able to increase your repertoire."

Once Murungu became proficient enough to play at events, he began getting requests for CDs of his music after performances. A friend suggested he sell the CDs of famous mbira players, but people preferred the music as he played it. In January, Murungu went to Muse Lodge Studios in Brookfield to record ``Liturgy & Reflections of Mbira ," a CD of him playing six traditional songs.

On Aug. 8, Murungu returned to Zimbabwe for a monthlong visit. It is a three-day journey along sometimes unpaved roads to his home village in the Makoni district. Before leaving, he planned to play the mbira and ask his ancestors for safe passage to Africa. His mother, the family member in Zimbabwe designated to talk to the ancestors, would do the same. Similar prayers will be offered when Murungu returns to Bolton.

During the visit, the family will welcome the return of the spirit of Murungu's oldest brother, who died in a car accident two years ago. In Shona culture, after death a person's spirit is allowed to roam for at least a year before the family welcomes it back and asks for its protection.

...The rest is here
 
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