Interview with Scholar and Mbira/Karimba Artist
B. Michael Williams

B Michael Williams
B. Michael Williams is a lover of mbira, karimba, and traditional African musics.

KM: Here is your introduction to percussionist and scholar B. Michael Williams, in his own words:

BMW: I've taught percussion at Winthrop University for 22 years. I came to "world music" through John Cage, who was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. Cage used percussion instruments from around the world in his early works for percussion. It was those pieces written from 1935 to 1943 that piqued my curiosity about percussion instruments from various world cultures, particularly from Africa.

I was in a group touring and performing Cage's music when one of my colleagues showed me an mbira dzavadzimu made by Andy Cox. Andy was an art professor who had made an instrument from descriptions and photos in Paul Berliner's book, "The Soul of Mbira." I had taken Berliner's course in jazz history while working on my masters degree at Northwestern University in the late 1970s and immediately recognized the instrument. I hounded Andy to make one for me, but time and again he refused. I think he wanted to test my sincerity. In the meantime, a local music teacher had given me a Nigerian lamellaphone with keys made of rattan. It had two ranks of keys set side by side. I was determined to figure out a way to alter the configuation so I could learn to play some of the karimba tunes in the back of Paul's book. Looking back, it reminds me of the scene in the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," where Richard Dreyfus' character is carving the mountain out of his mashed potatoes. I took some toothpicks and used them as a secondary bridge so it raised a second manual of keys. I learned to play "Butsu Mutandari" on that instrument! When I played it for Andy, he agreed to make me a karimba.

KM: Cool - I just learned "Bustu M'tandari" last month!
I myself am coming from the point of view of a non-traditionalist - I have been given these instruments (Karimba, Kalimba) by the grace of the ancestors - the people who invented the instruments and who modified them through time - and my job is to see what I can do with them. You are someone who is rooted firmly in the ancestral musical traditions of the mbira and karimba instruments, looking outwards to see what else you can do with these instruments while being true to the musical traditions. Do you agree with this assessment of where you are?

BMW: I have great respect for the traditions of all the African instruments I play, from frame drums to djembe and mbira, but I don't think I could ever be "firmly rooted" in them. Like you, I feel like these traditions are a gift, but it is my respnsibility to bring my own voice to them. I felt I needed to start with the traditional pieces, and now I'm searching for my own voice. BataMbira was my leap of faith in that regard.

KM: How do you view the non-traditional lamellaphones such as the Hugh Tracey kalimbas. or the Hokema Sansula (which I assert is modelled after the karimba)?

BMW: I think these instruments are wonderful! I haven't learned to play them, but I agree with the concept of providing a generic instrument that is free of any particular cultural association.

KM: What about the Hugh Tracey African-tuned Karimba? How does it stand up to traditional, or more rustic Karimbas (also known as the mbira nyunga nyunga)?

BMW: I love the sound of this instrument, especially when it's plugged in. It has a cleaner, more western sound than the original type, with a softer buzz. it's really a lot like the difference between an acoustic and electric guitar. It's the same instrument with a different tonal quality.

KM: I've read and heard about Jege Tapera, the great karimba master, how he was "discovered" by Andrew Tracey in 1960 and brought to teach at the Kwanongoma Music College. A lot of the traditional karimba tunes come to us through Jege Tapera, through his students, through Paul Berliner's and Andrew Tracey's publications. While traditional karimba music is alive and well in the world today, I get the impression that in 1960, that music could have been lost forever if Tapera had not been discovered. What do you know of the state of traditional karimba music circa 1960?

BMW: I only know what I've read from Andrew's articles. Tapera was brought in to teach at the Kwanongoma College of Music in Bulawayo and he taught Dumi Maraire, who later brought it to the US.

KM: But on the flip side of that, the karimba seems to have had a very wide range, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zaire.

BMW: Andrew has a great article on that. I think the title is "The Original African Mbira." His theory is that all mbiras (at least in the Bantu-speaking areas of Africa) may be derived from the 8-note karimba. I think it's a very compelling idea.

KM: We explored that idea in our interview with Andrew Tracey.

KM: In your mind, how do the karimba and mbira relate to each other?

BMW: Well, I often compare them with the guitar and banjo, or the violin and 'cello. They are certainly instruments of the same family, and while it isn't uncommon to find that a musician can play both, one wouldn't assume that. Mbira music is based on a four-phrase structure while the karimba employs a two-phrase structure.

KM: How many traditional tunes have both mbira and karimba?

BMW: If you're asking if traditional tunes use both karimba and mbira playing together, that is not done. Just about any tune for karimba can be played on mbira, but not the other way around. Even though I can play tunes such as Butsu Mutandari and Chemutengure on mbira, I much prefer to play those tunes on karimba. It just feels more intuitive to me. A few years ago Dumisani Maraire and Ephat Mujuru made a record together (called "Shona Spirit") combining the two instruments and it was a beautiful collaboration, but it traditionally isn't done that way.

KM: Most of the readers know about the use of mbira in Shona spirit possession ceremonies. In what ways are the karimba used?

BMW: My understanding is that the karimba is a more secular instrument, played more as a pasttime than for religious purposes. In Dumi's dissertation, "The Position of Music in Shona 'Mudzimu' (spirit) Possession," he alludes to the possiblity of karimba being used to initiate possession. I have no experience in that area.

KM: Most karimba tunes are really rooted in the lower row of 8 (or 9) notes, so one really gets the impression that the lower notes are the heart of the instrument. Andrew Tracey's research asserts that these notes may constitute the original tuning. What do you know about the lower and upper rows of tines?

BMW: Just that they're octave duplications of the lower right-hand notes. Everything I know about the karimba comes from Andrew Tracey's writings and email correspondence. He and I corresponded when I was working on my article on the relationships between mbira and marimba, which I presented at PASIC in 2000 and later published in Percussive Notes. He suggested several recordings, which I purchased through ILAM. He was very helpful in suggesting specific recordings from many different African cultures.

KM: Where did you learn your karimba tunes?

BMW: I only know a few karimba tunes. I learned a couple from the back of "The Soul of Mbira," and 3 or 4 I picked up from Dumi's recordings. After that, I got into mbira dzavadzimu in a big way.

KM: (By the way, we have just released the karimba tunes from The Soul of Mbira in KTabS format.)

KM: What other resources are out there for Karimba players?

BMW: I don't know of any printed materials other than what's in the appendix of Paul's book. Paul Novitski has a listing of teachers on his website, www.dandemutande.org.

KM: At Joel Lavellette's mbira clinic at PASIC, the audience got stuck in the hole of "where is the 1?" for about 10 minutes. I've transcribed Paul F. Berliner's version of Bustu Mtandari into KTabS, but I've taken his "1" and turned it into a pickup, so my "1" is in a different place. So, what about the "1"?

Bustu with Pickup
The basic riff of Bustu Mtandari written with a pickup.

BMW: The very essence of the kushaura/kutsinhira relationship in traditional mbira duo settings is that the two players hear "one" in different perspectives. In BataMbira, Adam Snow and I played Butsu Mutandari together. We each played exactly the same notes, but he was hearing the first note as a downbeat, while I referenced the same note as a pickup. That's what makes the two parts interlock. I think what Joel was trying to get folks to understand is that this music isn't fixed in time, but allows for muitiple perspectives. Is there a "one?" I have to say absolutely yes. There is a "one," but it may not be in the same place for every person hearing or playing it. Dumi suggested that this is possibly the door through which the spirit enters.

KM: Bustu Mtandari came through Jege Tapera, was published by Andrew Tracey, and printed in Paul F. Berliner's "The Soul of Mbira". When I hear each variation, I can discern a "perfectness" of the music and the arrangement - i.e., the chord progression oulined in the basic riff (see the tablature above) is carried on perfectly through all the variations (which is fortunate for me, because when I make an error transcribing from Berliner's tablature, I can immediately hear it when I "play" the tablature in KTabS). Is this perfectness truly ancient, in the traditional piece, or is it from the mastery of Jege Tapera, or has it been massaged into the piece from Tracey or Berliner?

BMW: I think this "perfectness" is in the structure of the instrument itself. It's interesting that this is what prompted Paul Berliner to begin his research on mbira. He had a hunch that the music itself was a product of the inherent structure of the instrument. I think the instrument layout, the materials from which it is made, and the cyclical patterns can all be viewed as metaphors for life itself --- not to mention the highly metaphorical nature of the Shona language. I guess we'll have to save that discussion for another time. Anyway, "Butsu Mutandari" is a traditional tune from the reperotire of shangara dance songs. In the shangara dance, the dancers imitate the rhythms of drums, or even the patterns of mbira playing, with their feet. That's another metaphor.

KM: I totally get it - the karimba suggests its own music. Even if you don't know any traditional music, the instrument will teach you.

KM: I've heard from like a dozen different people, many of them people who know more about African music than I, that African music is not based on chord progressions. However, when I listen to Shona music, I can hear and feel the chord changes. In fact, the harmony sounds remarkably western to me. What is your understanding?

BMW: My understanding is that traditional Shona music is polyphonic, and what we hear as harmony is the result of coincidence of individual lines. In other words, the music is linear (actually circular) rather than vertical (and you thought "One" was controversial!), and the vertical sonorities appear when the lines (or circles) intersect. Of course, there now have been generations of western influence (through missionary activity and western popular culture) to the point that we have mbiras played alongside guitars and saxophones. I think there's little doubt that the instruments have taken on a much more western tuning through the years.

KM: The traditional karimba has no 4th. The Hugh Tracey karimba does have a 4th, but just in the upper octave. In Shona karimba pieces, the 6th seems to be used as a replacement for the 4th (the 6th is, after all, the major 3rd of the IV chord, so someone could play the 4th on a guitar while the karimba played the 6th and it would all make good sense). SO, what about that 4th?

BMW: All I know is that it ain't there and we have to work around it. I do not think of the karimba as a hexatonic instrument, but as a heptatonic (7-tone) instrument with a missing 4th.

KM: And what about the 4th on the mbira? It is stuck into the upper left row of tines (which actually maps to the lower right row of karimba tines) out of order, which Andrew Tracey makes a great issue of - what is YOUR understanding of that note?

BMW: It isn't such an issue on the dzavadzimu, except that those octave pairs (the 4th and 5th scale degrees) cross. It makes it more interesting to play. I wonder if it could be related to the principle behind the "QWERTY" keyboard design of typewriters. Anyway, the 4th IS present on the dzavadzimu, whereas it just isn't there on the karimba.

KM: Your comments about tapping into a spiritual source when you play mbira resonate strongly with me. Do you care to share more about your spirituality and how playing mbira or karimba ties in with your spirituality?

BMW: Regardless of what one may think of the notion of spirit possession, I sure get the feeling that these instruments possess the spirit. My own spiritual belief system is a combination of Christianity and Zen Buddhism. I consider myself a "Zen Methodist." I've found that many African spiritual concepts resonate with Zen philosophy, especially in relation to suffering and overcoming suffering. I know that playing mbira gives me great comfort and joy. It is among the richest blessings of my life. What meditation is to Zen, mbira is to Shona spirituality.

While I'm on this subject, I need to make a correction from a quote you attributed to me last year following our meeting at PASIC. I think you wrote something to the effect that BMW takes Shona spirituality very seriously and says you should be very careful in dealing with it. I think you might have been referring to something my partner Michael Spiro said about spirit possession. Not only is he a Santaria priest and plays bata drums for spirit possession ceremonies in that tradition, but his father was an anthropologist and Michael spent some of his childhood in Indonesia and other places around the world. He related that he once saw a 75 year old woman pick up a 200-pound man. He said, "I don't know what was going on, but that was some weird s**t!" That is the extent of my indirect experience with spirit possession.

KM: I showed you my G minor karimba tuning last year, and you said that it actually maps to some neo-traditional karimba tuning. Anyway, I play it in a gourd to get some nice volume and buzz tone, and I can spend hours "in the zone" on that instrument. None of the music I play on it is "traditional", but I get this incredible sense of being connected to a tradition going back centuries, of being right in the flow of a great river of humanity and spirit. More often than not, this is how I pray these days. Like laying down and spending time with God through this musical experience.

BMW: Paul Berliner quotes a Shona musician (I believe Hakurotwi Mude) in "The Soul of Mbira," who sums up that relationship beautifully. He said the mbira is like the Bible. "It is how we pray to God." The more I play this instrument, the more I think I see God, not only in the instrument, but everywhere. Forward Kwenda said if everyone in the world played mbira, there would be no war. I think it's absolutely true.

KM: I introduced the kalimba to two friends of mine, and we all played on their sofa for about an hour, and afterwards, Donna said exactly that - "If everyone did this, there would be no more war!"


KM: When talking to Andrew Tracey, I got the impression that most traditional African lamellaphones are in decline, some to the point that nobody living knows how to play the instrument anymore. I am guessing that the mbira, on the other hand, is played by more people today than at any other point in history. Is the mbira just lucky, were the right people at the right places to popularize it, or is mbira music that much more beautiful and finely developed than the musics of other traditional African lamellaphones?

BMW: I really don't know why the mbira (dzavadzimu) has become so popular. I read an article written by Hugh Tracey in 1932 titled, "The Mbira Class of African Instruments in Rhodesia," which reported that the mbira dzavadzimu had all but died out. He said he could find only six instruments at that time. The most popular lamellaphones at that time were the njari, matepe, and karimba. Some time between 1932 and the early 1970s, when Paul Berliner began his research, it must have gone through a pretty significant revival. I remember corresponding with Andrew Tracey when I was researching possible connections between the mbira and marimba. Andrew mentioned that with the Venda people the question of these relationships could no longer be asked, as the old xylophone players had died and younger musicians hadn't taken up the traditional music. I guess the mbira was lucky, as were we.

KM: What called you to the mbira?

BMW: Andy Cox played me a recording of Erica Azim, I think it was her "Mbira Dreams" record. I was stunned by the beauty of the instrument and Erica's singing. I had by then learned a couple of karimba tunes and had read Berliner's book, but hearing Erica's recording sent me to another place! Andy made me an mbira and I was hooked for life. Chartwell Dutiro speaks of the "itch" to play mbira (and the word "gwenyambira" comes from a word that means "to scratch"). I've been scratching that itch now for 16 years or so.

Learning Mbira

KM: N Scott Robinson calls your book, "Learning Mbira: A Beginning", the best resource around for learning mbira. How did this book come to be?

BMW: I learned those early karimba tunes from the appendix to Paul's book. The tablature notation gave me enough of a start that I was able to to find my way around the instrument well enough to pick up more tunes from Dumi's recordings. Once I had the keys under my fingers, i coulld visualize what I heard and learn new songs by ear. I tried to learn some of the dzavadzimu tunes from the staff notation in Paul's book, but for some reason the western-derived notation wasn't as intuitive for me as the tablature, so I devised my own tabalature for the mbira dzavadzimu. It was inspired by Paul's karimba tablature, but my notation moved horizontally, whereas Paul's was a vertical notation. I found it much easier for me to follow with the horizontal layout. I don't really read my own notation as I would read western notation. I used my tablature as a "storage/retrieval" system, and collected pieces as I learned them from recordings. When I shared some of these with my students, I discovered that they were learning these tunes pretty quickly. That's when I decided to publish them in a book.

KM: I don't sight read my own tablature very well - I use it in a similar way, in that it reminds me exactly what I should be doing. How old do you think the mbira songs in your book are?

BMW: All I know for sure is that they are ancient. They are probably at least 1,000 years old. Mbira keys have been found among the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, which I think dates from around 1,000 A.D. The earliest written documentation comes from Father Dos Santos, a Portuguese preist, in 1586.

KM: When I play the mbira songs in your book, the purity of the logic and order come through, almost as strongly as if I were listening to a Bach harpsichord piece.

BMW: This is my experience as well. I remember analyzing all of Bach's two-part inventions in theory classes. My theory professor was always praising Bach's "economy of means," referring to how much music he could create with the fewest resources. The unaccompanied cello suites are simply masterful in that regard. It's just a single line most of the time, and whenever the cello plays chords, they're sparse and really just give hints to the implied harmonies in the melodic line. This is exactly what happens in mbira music, and it's one of the reasons the mbira repertoire is relatively small. There's just so much that can be done within the inherent limitations of the instrument. It creates the opportunity to develop our musical economy.


KM: Here is B. Michael Williams in his own words about his book:

BMW: I published my book, "Learning Mbira: A Beginning..." because I thought it would be a way for people who might not have ready access to a live teacher to get an introduction to some of the basics of mbira playing. My own experiences learning karimba tunes from Paul Berliner's tablature gave me the idea of developing my own tablature for mbira dzavadzimu. Paul's karimba tablature was in a vertical alignment, requiring it to read top to bottom. I figured that my dzavadzimu tablature was more intuitive for that instrument in a horizontal alignment read left to right. I viewed the notation as a "storage and retrieval" system, and not so much a notation to be read verbatim. It is simply a way to store tunes as a reminder of the most basic patterns in a given piece. I often compare the notation to a photograph of a sculpture. It is only one of any number of ways in which that three dimensional figure can be viewed. It in no way pretends to represent a definitive version of a traditional piece, but one way it can be perceived. I have tried to be clear in my explanations in the book that there are infinite ways these pieces can be played and heard, and that is part of the mystery and wonder of mbira.

The book has helped people get started on the instrument, and that is what I hoped when it was first published in 2001. It has sold all over the US, in Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, China, the UK, Japan, and even Indonesia. I had a student tell me he had attended one of Erica Azim's workshops in California and that my book had prepared him for that experience. I told him that was exactly what I had hoped for when I wrote it.

I have not made one dime from that book, by the way. I have pledged all my royalties to Erica Azim's organization, MBIRA. I can't say enough about the heroic efforts Erica has made on behalf of musicians, mbira makers, and their families in Zimbabwe. She helps them record CDs and sells them on her website. She sells mbiras at her workshops and sends the payments directly to the artisans who make them. In giving back to the culture that brought us this indescribably beautiful music, she is a model for us all. I urge everyone who loves this music enough to subscribe to this newsletter to seriously consider donating to this worthy cause, because the people of Zimbabwe are in pretty dire straits right now, as we all know.

KM: Michael, Thank you so much for spending a bit of your time sharing your thoughts about the karimba, the mbira, and the world or beautiful mystical music.


B Michael Williams
BataMbira is a project with B. Michael Williams and Michael Spiros.

KM: There is a whole other topic to get to: project Bata Mbira, in which Michael takes Cuban rhythms played by Michael Spiro and combines that with African mbira playing. I will just mention that this is some of the sweetest mbira playing I have ever heard, and that Michael's BataMbira CD is available at the Kalimba Magic Shop. Apart from that, it's press time at Kalimba Magic, and we'll hear more from B. Michael Williams on his CD at a later date.