Investing in Tradition

European audiences have been offered African music as a kind of dichotomy, i.e. either very traditional rural acoustic music or urban dance bands, with very little in between. This article looks at the way in which one African musician, Chartwell Dutiro, has subverted this polarity.

It is widely understood that traditional music is not static, but is a dynamic process, developing over time and responding to shifts in cultural environment, economic circumstance, urbanisation, individual creativity and any number of other variables. Perhaps it can be described in terms of the retrospective view yielding a sense of heritage, linked, often, to a particular place, language or social group. We like to feel a sense of long history relating to tradition with an authenticity that we cannot always specify. Yet this music is performed and heard in a contemporary setting, and needs to communicate to a modern audience, which may include people with no direct experience of the culture of origin.

The study of African music has tended to emphasise the preservation of ‘traditional’ music without taking into account this dynamic view and to resist modernisation and urbanisation as valid contributory factors within tradition. European audiences have been offered African music as a kind of dichotomy, i.e. either very traditional rural acoustic music or urban dance bands, with very little in between. This article looks at the way in which one African musician has subverted this polarity. Chartwell Dutiro, one of the authors of this piece, is a Zimbabwean mbira player who has lived in the UK for the last six years.

Mbira is made of 22 hand forged metal pieces that are placed on a wooden board; at the base of the wood there is a buzzing device which is a metal piece with shells or bottle tops. The mbira is then pinned down with sticks into a gourd, which is also decorated with shells, bottle tops or anything that gives a buzzing effect. When playing mbira we use two thumbs and an index finger to pluck the keys, so we have three melodies going at the same time. This creates complex polyrhythms and polyphony, with overtones providing a further level of sound. The mbira is accompanied by shakers called ‘hosho’ which set and maintain the tempo, and by singing and yodelling.

The sound that comes out of this sacred instrument has been used in ‘bira’ ceremonies by the Shona people of Zimbabwe for centuries, calling the ancestral spirits to come to offer guidance in day-to-day life and foretell the future, also giving warning about future calamities. Bira is an all night festival were the community gather to sing, play, dance and participate in order to invoke the spirits of the ancestors to come and possess the living and to communicate with the assembled people. Mbira music is an important vehicle of spirit possession, songs have few lyrics and the community can fill up the gaps with their own improvised lyrics, giving voice to the wishes of the spirits.

I started playing mbira in bira ceremonies when I was between 4 and 5 years of age. At the same period I was going through my Grade 7 primary African education and I was supposed to go to the Salvation Army Sunday schools even though I missed most of them, because I would have spent Saturday all night playing mbira in a bira. It was very hard to grow up in a colonised country where the music was discouraged because it was the music of the devil and bira ceremonies banned because they were seen as political gatherings. So as a boy I came to a point were I was shy to even carry my mbira around, but my mother was very encouraging so she would carry my mbira for me whilst I pretended I was not doing things that are for elders only, so she instilled in me how important it is to believe in the world of ancestors.

The Salvation Army brought with them instruments like cornets, trombones, etc., but in the village my cousin, Davies Masango, was the Director of music of the Zimbabwe Police Band and we had a trumpet in the village which I could only play in the scale of C Major. This helped me get my first job with the 15 member marching band, The Internal Affairs Band, in 1977, where I picked alto saxophone for the first time in my life. Chartwell spent a year with this band and then moved to a bigger band, The Zimbabwe Prison Service Band, which had 100 members. During his 8 years with this band Chartwell studied Grade 8 Rudiments and Theory of Music with The Royal Schools of Music. In 1986 he left to join Thomas Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited. During his eight years with Thomas they recorded eight albums and toured and performed all over the world, including Japan. In 1994 Chartwell moved to England through a collaboration project ,’Strong Winds and Soft Earth Landings’, which was funded by the Arts Council of England and directed by Will Menter. After the project he stayed in London to study, and in 1995 completed a Diploma in Recording Music Technology and Music Business Studies with Gateway School of Recording and Music Technology, Kingston, followed in 1998 by a Masters Degree in Ethnomusicology at The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

In all this time, Chartwell has moved far away from his traditional background, but his intrinsic bond with his culture and utter commitment to the mbira, including its spiritual significance, has not wavered in all this time. He is still a very traditional mbira player, and yet has collaborated with musicians from all over the world and is very progressive in his outlook. He has his own dance band, Spirit Talk Mbira, which includes non-African musicians. His dissertation was a study of how it is possible to transpose music from the mbira onto the guitar – a progression that has been commonplace in Zimbabwe now for years.

In 2000 Chartwell met Rachel Levay, who had been working in the world music business for a long time, and had become dissatisfied with its generic presentation and ‘pot pourri’ approach. They formed a company, Ingoma, together with Debby Korfmacher.

All three have completed an MMus at SOAS, and one of the company’s current projects is facilitating a link between SOAS and the Zimbabwe College of Music (ZCM), Harare.

ZCM was set up as a Rhodesian school of western music, and it is in the process of making the painful transition away from colonial domination towards being a centre of African musical excellence. The appointment of its first ever black Zimbabwean Director, Chris Timbe, in January 2001, has been an important step in this direction

Originally, it was assumed that the link would begin with simple exchange visits by students and staff. It was fairly easy to identify how students and staff at SOAS could benefit from the link, with opportunities on the one hand for field study, research and the learning of Zimbabwean instruments in Zimbabwe, and on the other hand for enriching the teaching at SOAS through return visits. It was not so clear how the benefit would extend to the ZCM, with its continuing emphasis on western music, its paucity of financial and physical resources – few library books, no recording facilities or music technology equipment – and its lower academic status in that it has, so far, been able to offer a diploma as its highest qualification. In fact a mismatch of expectations and resources characterised the early negotiations.

A way forward emerged only when Chartwell invited Gateway School of Recording and Music Technology to come on board. It was clear to him that this would be the catalyst which would make the link come alive. It is through music technology and an engagement with the commercial sector that practical steps can take place, tangible results be more easily produced and, curiously, traditional African music be best supported as a serious academic subject.

One of the next steps that the ZCM will take is to embark on a research project to standardise – not the performing of – but the method of examination of traditional instruments in Zimbabwe. Is this a good or a bad thing? A BA course in music is being set up with the help of SOAS and Gateway at the ZCM, the first of its kind in Zimbabwe, and it is vital to be able to give Zimbabwean instruments equal standing with western instruments in this course. Introducing examination and standardisation of indigenous music is a western concept and as such could be seen as post-colonialist. But international recognition of performance standards in Zimbabwean instruments could be a leap forward for musicians, and a means of continuing both popularity and pride in those instruments. This will have to be handled very sensitively, not only to avoid western manipulation, but also to avoid regional imbalance. Mbiras vary in structure and repertoire from the region to region, and some parts of Zimbabwe do not have them at all. It is essential to be as inclusive as possible not to be prescriptive about what is to be considered correct.

The involvement of Gateway widens the horizons of this course immeasurably. It will give music students, the majority of whom currently go on to be music teachers in schools, much broader potential career paths. There is, at present, no sound engineering course within Zimbabwe. Studio facilities are few, and dominated by two or three companies, and most top artists will go to South Africa in order to record. Bringing expertise in this field into the classroom will have a potentially profound effect on commercial music making in the country. It will help provide a professional bedrock for the development of contemporary Zimbabwean music within Zimbabwe, as well as securing a commercial future for the mbira and other Zimbabwean instruments. Not only that, but creative music technology in the form of computer programmes will enhance students’ ability to compose, experiment and ultimately produce their own music. For many, this may lead away from traditional instruments, but for others it will provide a contemporary context in which to develop new music incorporating traditional sounds. Time does not stand still, and expecting young people to continue playing mbira solely in its ‘authentic’ context will help the instrument become a thing of the past. What is important is to make choice available, by developing physical resources and academic expertise. The staff and students at the ZCM would then be in a position to choose whether to pursue studies in their own traditional and contemporary musics, in theoretical ethnomusicology, music technology and sound engineering, or any other musical academic avenue.

Mbira is still played in the rural areas much as it has been for centuries, but in the township and the city centres mbira will be accompanied by kit drums and new styles and tunings are developing all the time. Mbira formed a crucial part of chimureng a star Thomas Mapfumo’s line-up, and is the sound that drives many Zimbabwean guitar bands. Perhaps the best things one can do for ‘traditional’ music is to see it and encourage it to see itself as a contemporary and changing music, constantly developing and interacting, with a great deal to contribute to and a lot to learn from other musics both modern and traditional.

Mbira music holds at its centre the history and spirituality of a culture and of a people. This attracts foreign attention from world music aficionados, some of whom want to focus on the mbira’s ties with antiquity, its rural resonances, together with its spiritual significances. This can result in stifling the voice of the mbira and making it into a folksy and quaint construct.

These vegetarian mbira players with their incense and crystals are bringing something into the tradition that has never been there in the first place. It becomes cheesy, more traditional than it is supposed to be. Then it is a kind of double standards because, whatever we do, we shouldn’t colonise all over again! But you know, many of these foreigners learn to play at quite a high level and have taken the mbira further, and western interest has in turn inspired some Zimbabweans to pick up this instrument again. Serving creation instead of just tradition is important, and it doesn’t matter who it is who is serving creation. Whatever happens, Karigamombe is not going to die. Mixing tradition and creation is itself a process of decolonisation.

What is important is for Zimbabweans to have the opportunity to study their own music in their own cultural context, under their own terms.

The important thing is for Zimbabweans to have choice, and to take back their own spaces for learning and playing music. The Zimbabwe College of Music was Rhodesian, but now it has become a place where we can design a programme to stimulate the mind so people have choice – this is what leads to emancipation. It is better to learn to fish than to learn how to eat a fish. We need to learn the skills so that we can get back into these cultural spaces.

Some city Zimbabweans need to be reintegrated into spiritual spaces also. They need to go back to the villages with their mbiras and find out what the instrument is really about by seeing a bira ceremony and hearing the ancestors, and thereby take care of their heritage. We should be consulting spirit mediums about the way forward and inviting them into the college to talk as traditionalists so that people know where they are coming from. We want to make sure that we are not just creating musicians who want to go out of the country, but to locate themselves in Zimbabwe to replenish it.

Being connected to your roots is important, but things by their very nature must change, and that change should be welcomed. As time goes on, generation after generation, the repertoire of music that the ancestors want to hear changes. It might be a variation in tempo or in the tuning of the mbira, or perhaps there might be some different cultural influences coming into the music. You never know, in a few years time you might find an ancestral spirit that is a wicked sound engineer!

Chartwell’s role as a traditional mbira player has, in a way, come full circle. He is now in a position to invest in the teaching and re-popularising of mbira back in Zimbabwe as well as in UK, whilst fully understanding the benefits of collaboration, innovation and cross-cultural exchange. He is actively involved in all of these, illustrating that innovation can come from those who are themselves rooted in tradition.

Chartwell Dutiro and his group Spirit Talk Mbira have recorded a CD at Gateway School of Recording and Music Technology to support the link with the Zimbabwe College of Music. The CD Taanerimwe will be available in April. Contact mail [at] for further information.

Published on 1 March 2002

comments powered by Disqus