More recent atrocities may have pushed the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe out of the news, but the devastation wrought by the iron-fisted Robert Mugabe and his kleptocratic ZANU-PF party continues apace. During a decade of incomprehensible hardship, the spirit of Zimbabwe’s people has been buoyed by the music of Mawungira Enharira, a hugely popular band that puts a sophisticated, contemporary spin on mbira, a folkloric Shona style played on the thumb piano of the same name.
The band’s success has helped spark a resurgence of interest in traditional Shona culture at a time when the lure of Western pop music is hard for young Zimbabweans to resist. At the same time, Western interest in Shona music has become an invaluable ally for Mawungira Enharira. (Listen to their track, Muninga, for a flavor.)
The ensemble has maintained strong ties to the United States in recent years, and a four-member contingent known as Mbira dzeMuninga returns to Northern California for a series of workshops and concerts over the next few weeks.
Featuring mbira masters Jacob Mafuleni, Tonderai Ndava, Peacheson Ngoshi, and Martha Thom, a dynamic dancer, vocalist and percussionist, the quartet plays Ashkenaz on Saturday on a double bill with Zimbabwe-born Julia Tsitsi Chigamba’s Chinyakare Ensemble, an Oakland-based group of African and American musicians that plays traditional music drawn from Shona and other southern African cultures. The performance comes at the end of a three-month residency centered on an extensive network of Shona music lovers around Puget Sound and the active community of Zimbabwean music fans in the Santa Cruz area.
Traditional mbira music features two thumb pianos, which are played in large calabash resonators that amplify the instrument’s warn metallic twang. Like Mawungira Enharira, Mbira dzeMuninga expands the traditional instrumentation, creating arrangements with mbiras in different registers. The result is a buoyant, gorgeously textured sound that seems to float and shimmer in the air. With the interlocking, incantatory rhythms, it’s easy to feel how the music transports people at all-night religious rituals.
With hyperinflation, a shell-shocked economy and a faltering coalition that has further disempowered the opposition led by the outmaneuvered Morgan Tsvangirai, the situation in Zimbabwe makes it one of the world’s most benighted nations. For the musicians in Mbira dzeMuninga, the three-month sojourn provides a welcome respite from the chaos, while also raising American awareness of Zimbabwe’s rich culture. And of course, earning fees is U.S. dollars provides the band and their dependents with a life sustaining income at a time when Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate hovers around 80%.
“It’s impossible for them to make money in Zimbabwe,” says Dana Moffett, a Whidbey Island-based musician who has studied with Mawungira Enharira’s mbira masters. “They’re taking care of these extended networks, and each musicians is supporting at least 20 to 25 people.”
Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.