What is the Zimbabwean musical instrument called the mbira? It’s a wooden resonator box with metal keys, called kalimba in Cameroon and thumb piano in the West, although “chime-box” offers a better description of the instrument’s sound. Its pristine voice is perfectly suited to cathedrals, ancient caves, and modern concert halls. But the origins of the mbira are lost in the mists of time.
Westerners who know mbira most likely do so from the work of Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo, a fusion musician who helped resurrect the mbira which the British colonial dictatorship had banned because of its religious and cultural gravity. Mapfumo’s chimurenga (struggle) style was a cultural-nationalist concoction that changed modern Zimbabwean music, seizing it back from its own Euro-American aesthetic occupation.
But today’s guest has a different path to and with the mbira. It’s not often a musician tells you an origin story that sounds like a quest straight out of the pages of an Africentric epic fantasy novel. But that’s the scenario that Edmonton’s Chaka Zinyemba unfurled about how he discovered and later learned to play the mbira, the leading instrument of Zimbabwe’s classical music. I’ll let him tell you that story, and about his royal lineage, in just a moment.
In 2012, Chaka Zinyemba released his debut album Tariro with his cousin Freemantle Nhembo playing bass mbira and hosho (or maracas). Both provided vocals. Zinyemba played traditional songs using mbirahuru (great mbira), also called mbirahurudzavadzimu (the great mbira of the ancestors). That instrument was once used particularly during Shona religious ceremonies (or mapira) which often lasted through the night, the mbira music lifting people into a hypnotic, ecstatic state.
Zinyemba’s album Tariro is a beautiful, sensitive, soulful album. Hearing it, one feels the caress of the clouds and tastes the shimmer of moonlight. You can find the album on BandCamp and iTunes and probably elsewhere.
When I spoke with Zinyemba in February 2012, he told me had no plans to become a full-time musician; back then he was studying Human Geography at the University of Alberta in Edmonton with a minor in Music and a focus on disaster management, health planning, and urban planning. He also volunteered with the Kenyan Red Cross. But he did hope to collaborate with other musicians and develop spoken word albums featuring his musicianship.
Let’s hear all about his music, his plans, and his history of the mbira and its music in my conversation with Chaka Zinyemba on MF GALAXY.