Mbira is indeed a very “tangible” instrument. Only if you connect with it will it help you to produce the most enticing sound, a phenomenon in which beat mixes with harmony. As of this week, UNESCO recognizes mbira crafting and playing as intangible heritage in Zimbabwe – and also, with the variant name sansi – in Malawi. I’ve written about my experience with mbira elsewhere, so here’s the UNESCO summary video:
While mbira/sansi is less iconic in Malawi, where it is played in the south, it is an iconic instrument amongst the MaShona people that dominate Zimbabwe. Hence the move by UNESCO was met with applause, and Hope Masike – a young and accomplished mbira player and musician featured in some of the media coverage.
The greats are leaving us. Just a few days after Tuku, another famous African musician left us, the Kenyan Ayub Ogada. I don’t know how often I have played his most popular song “Kothbiro”with people everywhere, kids and grown-ups alike.
A word of warning: I will write about something here that I know very little about. Something that a lot of people consider beyond rational understanding, and that others consider plain nonsense. Something those with a strong (and narrow-minded) Christian attitude wrongly (!) consider witchcraft, and that I have not yet been granted the chance to experience first hand. I tried, but due to an illness my meeting with Noksangoma had to be cancelled, and another appointment was impossible to make. It wasn’t time yet, perhaps, to see it in a light more akin to the topic under discussion. However, I feel like I have to write about the sangomas, the traditional diviners and healers in southern and notably in South Africa. Not only because they play an important role in the culture, even in the 21st century, also because they can bridge the potentially wide gap between ancient beliefs and practices on one side, and modernity on the other, and also because some engage in political matters. I also feel I must write about them because I am personally intrigued by what I’ve seen and heard, not least because I have noticed similarities to what I learn in my training in gestalt therapy.
The Daasanach live on both sides of the Ethiopian-Kenyan border. If they want to cross into Kenya, the removed lower front teeth are their passport. I crossed the Omo at Omorate with my guide Gabriel and his friend to reach the nearest village just before sunset, and it was a very enjoyable visit. No other tourists, the kids enjoyed my mbira again, and since I handed my camera to Gabriel’s friend I could freely move about and people cared less about me. Less posing as well. Things must have been similar to the Mursi situation until a while ago, but now the arrangement is such that visitors pay a flatrate of 200 Birr (ca $7.50) to take pics. The German lawyer who gave me a lift the next day had been to the very same village in the morning, in a crowd of tourists. He said that as much as he loves photography, he found the village arranged in such a way that half-naked women were sat outside their huts staring into the distance apathetically, and he refrained from taking any pictures at all. My experience was totally different. I was able to interact with the people to a degree, and I am very grateful to Gabriel’s friend for the pics he took – he’s a natural photographer, I must say. And I find the Dassenach are amongst the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen.
Circa 7,500 strong, the Mursi are amongst the most iconic African tribes, and famous especially for the ceramic plates (some) women wear in their lower lips. To this day they live in fairly remote areas some two hours across dust track from Jinka, the southernmost town that has an ATM in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region.
Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region along with the area around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya is one of the candidates for being the cradle of humankind, as some major discoveries that have been made here suggest. Since it is also a region with an incredible diversity in tribal cultures, it has been referred to as a (live) museum of human cultures. I found traveling here truly exciting, though not free from major challenges. I don’t mean the usual challenges of logistics, food and health or such like, even though they are more pronounced here. Rather, traveling here has exposed me to significant questions concerning the role of tourism, and tourist-tribe members interaction in a region where ritual infanticide and the ritual whipping of women is practiced. I have written about this in a separate post. So here’s a first glance only.
Those who know me also know that I have a special relationship to Zimbabwe, and yes, I still do, especially when it comes to music. One of my main aims this time round was to visit the tomb of Chiwoniso Maraire, who passed away in July five years ago. However, Zim more than any other one is the country that tends to create more obstacles while travelling for me, and major car issues eventually let me decide against going any extra mile. Another time!
24 July this year sees the fifth anniversary of the passing of Chiwoniso Maraire, one of the world’s greatest musical talents, and revered as the Queen of Mbira in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Born 5 March 1976, Chi died in 2013, aged only 37, the same age as Alberta, my ex-wife, at that time. I mention this because they were school-mates in Mutare for a while. My introduction to Shona culture and music owes much to her, and I added considerable efforts myself, reading and doing research, to the point of learning to play songs by Oliver Mtukudzi and, of course, Chiwoniso. I explored Zimbabwean music more and more, and Chi has since become a musical icon for me. Her music speaks to me more than many others. It is a sorrowful case of historical irony that I didn’t know her when she appeared at the Würzburg Afrikafestival in 2011. Some of my favourite live recordings were taken there. Continue reading →