Joel Laviolette is one of the leading players of the Mbira DzaVadzimu and one of the few people outside of Zimbabwe that plays the matepe (the mbira of the Kore-Kore people in North-Eastern Zimbabwe). He has played professionally in several Zimbabwean style bands in the U.S. and Canada, and has toured with Stella Chiweshe and Garidziva Chigamba. He has also toured and/or played on stage with many of the top names out of Zimbabwe including: Tute Chigamba, Ambuya Buelar Dyoko, Cosmas Magaya, and David Gweshe, and has opened for Oliver M'Tukudzi.
While living in Zimbabwe, Joel played in a group with his primary teacher, Newton Gwara, traveling the country playing both secular 'gigs' and spirit-possession ceremonies. During that time, Joel also recorded many traditional groups throughout the country (and Mozambique) and started a non-profit record label, Mhumhi Records. He has released 13 CDs on that label, and sends the proceeds from the recordings back to the musicians involved.
Now based in Austin, TX, Joel teaches Zimbabwean style mbira, marimba, and electric music. He also directs two marimba groups Rattletree Marimba and a student marimba band. Joel builds all the instruments for the groups and classes—including marimba, mbira, and the amplifiers used in the groups.
KM: I met Joel at PASIC (the Percussive Arts Society's International Conference) in Austin. He gave a presentation on mbira music, but I was most deeply touched when Joel and his marimba band Rattletree Marimba were playing an after-hours show when PASIC ended. He asked John Lane if he would like to play mbira, and John replied: "I learned Kariga Mombe from Erica Azim, but that's the only song I know." I immediately discounted him as a beginner, but John accepted Joel's invitation to play on stage with him. When they started playing Kariga Mombe, John held his own and Joel soared. I was blown away, and very touched by the beauty with which these two people, who had just met each other, played.
JL: It's one of the great things about mbira music that complete strangers can come together and play beautiful music together. PASIC was a really enjoyable time to me. I am used to teaching this music to either beginning music students or people that are already deeply immersed in mbira music. PASIC was an interesting experience in that it was full of great percussionists who already had a strong understanding of rhythm, but for the most part no exposure to mbira music.
KM: Yes, as a teacher, it is always a treat to work with gifted individuals. So Joel, when did you start playing mbira?
JL: I first heard the mbira in 1992. I was in New Mexico, and I was down in a natural hot spring outside of Taos. I was sitting next to the Rio Grande in what you would call an 'altered state'. I began hearing music all around me as I sat there. I was watching the eddies of water circling around and around as I heard this music make the same circular motion that the water was making. There was someone there playing the mbira. I immediately knew that I needed to learn how to play that music, so I asked the person what the instrument was. He told me it was an mbira and gave me the number of the person that built it for him—the builder was Dan Pauli. I ended up getting an mbira from Dan the next day, and got my first lesson then...
KM: How did you first learn mbira?
JL: I got that mbira from Dan a couple days before I started my first day at college back in Texas. I ended up putting the mbira down and focusing on the guitar-I was a jazz guitar major at UNT. Those days I was practicing guitar 8 hours a day, and I remember trying to write these cyclical songs with multiple melodies that would all work independently of each other. I was literally driving myself crazy because I couldn't get things to work out exactly like what was in my mind. Then I realized that the mbira music was the music that I was trying to invent on my own. I was filled with such relief because I realized then that I only needed to learn the music—I didn't have to invent it! I went to the school library and checked out Soul of Mbira. I then learned every song out of there from the notation. I started spending more and more time in the music library listening to field recordings from Hugh Tracey and the Soul of Mbira records. It wasn't long before I called Dan Pauli again and said I wanted to move out there to play mbira. I moved back to New Mexico and Dan, David Shaldach, Peter Swing, and I started Jaka.
KM: Joel, we've been walking around in the same circles - when I was in High School in Dallas, I would go to UNT to listen to jazz. And I've been in the Rio Grande gorge at Arroyo Hondo hot springs. And a good friend of mine in Tucson has been telling me about Dan Pauli since 1997. And I saw Jaka - mbira, marimbas, guitar, and drums - in Socorro, NM in the spring of 1999. They were great, I still have a very clear memory of some of the music Jaka played. I have been learning a karimba song from The Soul of Mbira, Bungu Utete - and that song reminds me of the music Jaka played. Were you there that very night in 1999?
JL: I was in Zimbabwe in 1998 and had already quit Jaka by then...There are a few hot springs there in Taos. This specific one was 'stage coach' not the one in Hondo—though I have spent time at that one as well. Jaka did go out there to play in Tucson in...I think it was 1997.
KM: Did Jaka indeed play Bungu Utete, or is my memory making it up?
JL: I don't know a song by that name. Maybe it has another name as well and Jaka played it. The only karimba (nyunga-nyunga) player in Jaka was Peter Swing-that was his main mbira. We did a few of his songs, so maybe he had arranged something from that tune and called it a different name.
KM: So, you went to Zimbabwe as an accomplished American mbira player - how did Zimbabwe change your music?
JL: I like to say that I went to Zimbabwe knowing how to play 50+ mbira songs and I came back knowing 5 songs. One of the great gifts I got while in Zimbabwe was the opportunity to focus on playing in one tuning. Here in the US, I think we have a tendancy to want many different types of mbira with many different tunings, so we don't get 'bored'. I really came to appreciate playing night after night with one mbira and one tuning (with Newton Gwara). It helped me develop the ability to learn variations on the spot and really develop an intimacy with my mbira that I hadn't understood before.
Going further into your question, I became more and more aware of each individual note that I was playing—the importance of the action. Mbira is really easy to play lots of notes and lots of variations. The challange is to really hear what you are doing. It is important to focus on playing accurately and really playing each line with intention.
KM: I have heard that when Hugh Tracey went looking for mbira players in Zimbabwe in the 1930s, he found only six players in all the country. How many players are there now? Or, what fraction of the population would you guess plays now?
JL: I think like a lot of people that have researched this, I have found there to be a large number of DzaVadzimu players in the Harare area. I think it is a good thing-all the attention mbira has received. I believe this has enabled people in Zimbabwe who live a traditional life and who support the mbira to be able to provide for themselves and their families in a way that a lot of people aren't able to do now.
As far as other types of mbira, that's a different story. Sadly, I believe there are probably less matepe, njari, DzaVaNdau, and chisanza players than ever before. I would like to be wrong about that.
KM: And to what extent are Zimbabwean mbira players' music planted in traditional songs, and to what extent are people evolving the tradition through new tunings or new songs?
JL: In my opinion, there are two types of music played on mbira: traditional mbira music, and everything else. I would say that the majority of music played on mbira in Zimbabwe is traditional music. Some would disagree with me, but I believe it is the structure of the music and not the instrument that makes mbira music what it is. So most of Thomas Mapfumo's music is traditional mbira music just played on electric instruments. It is important to understand that playing traditional mbira music offers the player tremendous opportunities for self expression and freedom—for me more so than playing other styles. There are many many players that 'compose' traditional mbira songs. As long as it follows the specific structure of the music, it is traditional.
My experience of different tunings is that it is more based on the families or groups playing. Different families all have different tunings.
KM: How different was the mbira music you learned in Africa from the mbira music you had learned in the U.S. before you went?
JL: I'd say that learning in the U.S. was like swimming on the surface of the water and learning in Zimbabwe was like diving deep underwater—it was all in the same deep pool though.
KM: Joel, you have learned both from written material (e.g., The Soul of Mbira) and from living people (Dan Pauli and many teachers in Africa). How are those two learning techniques different?
JL: I've learned in lots of different ways. I used to build mbiras in tune with field recordings of mbira players so that I could learn their songs. I used to listen to cassettes and learn parts that way. And then of course all the various transcription methods, group classes, one-on-one lessons, and even just playing on stage and having to learn songs while playing...whatever it takes. But to answer your question, aside from the obvious surface differences of the methods used, I think that the method of learning is not really important. What's important is quickly learning the piece and then sitting down and playing it for hours and hours. That's the bottom line. It is easy to learn a song. The trick is to learn how to hear what you are really playing and not just what you think you are playing.
KM: B. Michael Williams himself mainly has learned by listening to CDs. His ears are so finely tuned to the instrument that he can "hear" how the instrument is arranged (he rearranged the Hugh Tracey karimba to enable him to do some tricks that Dumi did). And then he took what he learned from the recordings and wrote the songs and variations down in his book, Learning Mbira: A Beginning. BMW says that he hopes his book can prepare people to go and learn from someone like Erica Azim.
JL: It's a great feeling when you can listen to a song and see it being played on your mbira in your head...it saves a lot of time ;-)
KM: When I was at PASIC, you were explaining the multiple mbira parts that are played simultaneously, and several people in the audience were asking questions about "the 1", meaning, the conceptual starting point in the cyclic mbira music.
To illustrate this, I looked in Paul F. Berliner's book, The Soul of Mbira, and I learned one of the songs, but it seemed that the note that Paul started on was actually a pickup. When I notated that song in tablature, I moved that note to a pickup, and I moved the "1", where I start counting the beats in the measure, to the second note. African music often has ambiguity built in, where it makes sense in different ways when you start counting (or feeling) the "1" in different places. It seems that two mbira players playing together can actually consider the "1" to come in different places, though the offset between their different "1s" will be constant.
JL: This is an important point, and I believe that there was confusion about what I was saying at PASIC. There is a lot of info here, so we'll bite into it a bit at a time... First of all the question of what is a "downbeat" in mbira music: An important thing to remember is that while the mbira music is playing, there is also the hosho shakers. Now the shakers are playing a "click-swish" sound or maybe a "chi-kee-e" sound. It is playing a swinging type of triplet rhythm. So in that pattern, there is a solid "click" sound (chi) that happens, and there is a 'less solid' place where there is 'swish' for the "upbeat" (kee-e). When you are listening to this music, people are clapping on the 'click' sound, and more often than not, the bass drum sound and the bass of the mbira is playing on the swish. This is disorienting to listeners because the driving drum pulse and mbira bass pulse of the following mbira is so strongly on that "upbeat". I believe that we in the West decided it was the upbeat because we saw people clapping on the click sound. It is my contention that the click of the hosho is no more a "downbeat" than anything else. In other words, there is not a specific thing that mbira players would think of as a downbeat...So that is the first kink in the armor, BUT it doesn't address the "one" issue...
Now here's the thing about the "one" that I don't think most people are really getting: In mbira music, there are at least three independent melodies being played by each person. Now despite the way most people here in the West have learned how to play, these melodies are INDEPENDENT OF EACH OTHER and therefore can (and do) all have different starting points within the cycle. Yes, they must all relate to each other within the cycle and be in the right spot in the cycle but that doesn't change the fact that they can all have different starting points. This is really a HUGE shift in thinking in terms of playing the mbira. Then, there are not just those three obvious melodies, but also an infinite number of resultant melodies from both mbira players playing together (and notes clustering in different ways in solo playing). So while some people have thought that I was saying you could just start your three digit pattern at a different point in the cycle and call it a new "one" (as Erica does in one of her exercises), I'm saying take it a step farther and do that with EACH MELODY that is being played. It is not just about having a different reference point for your starting point—it is a different reference point for every melody being played.
This is not just an academic exercise. On the contrary, I believe this is the fundamental shift that we Westerners learning this music need to grasp to begin to really feel the depth of this music. If you listen to players like Forward Kwenda, you can hear times when he is playing one long cycle with one melody while playing a four phrase idea in another melody all at the same time. Another example is in some of the matepe field recordings I've been listening to that Andrew Tracey made (#212 at ILAM specifically). There is a point where one matepe player is playing a "six phrase" melodic sequence while also playing a "four phrase" melodic sequence all while five independent melodies are going at the same time. Now there are people that just say "well, no human can do that and it must be the spirits". I was even reading that there was a scientific study done where they determined that the human brain can only keep track of two melodies at once in their head, but I believe we can slowly start to train ourselves to hear these things, or at least be open enough to know that they are happening.
That didn't specifically answer your question about Butsu. My thoughts on that would be that if you, the other mbira player, and the hosho were all able to play together hearing the hosho where it is supposed to be, then that is all that would matter. However, if by shifting that starting note to be an "upbeat" in relation to what the hosho is doing changed where you play in the cycle, then it wouldn't work.
KM: I'm just going to go off in a few tangential directions... First, on independent melodies on the Hugh Tracey Kalimba: I found that I could train myself to play independent parts with my two thumbs, but really those parts, left and right, usually end up interacting and enmeshing - and then I find that I AM playing two independent parts, but one of them is low and the other is high, and because of the note layout of the Hugh Tracey Kalimba, there are high notes on both left and right, and there are low notes on both left and right - so the left part doesn't really make melodic sense, and the right part doesn't really make melodic sense - because each of these is just made up of half the high melody and half the low melody. BUT put them together, and you have two melodies, both shared between the left and right sides.
On the mbira, the situation is somewhat different because you have 7 or 10 notes in a row that are functionally related—a melody will inhabit that row of notes, and you don't use both thumbs to access those notes in that one row. BUT you have another oddity - the right thumb and forefinger access one row, and the left thumb is in charge of two rows of notes! What is your understanding here?
JL: That is a great thing about these instruments! There is a built-in process (the various key layouts) that makes us hear music that is different than what our brains might register from our tactile movements. There are even more 'crossover points' than that for the melodies. The upper left of the mbira often shares melody lines with the lower notes of the right hand. Also, top register of the bass notes can mix with the upper left notes for independent melodies. The matepe has tuned overtones two octaves above the fundamentals of the bass notes. When you play those notes, you can hocket with yourself in the upper right hand notes. There are also more duplicated notes like on the karimba. As you pointed out, the melodies may or may not be what an individual finger is playing—they can jump around finger-to-finger, mbira-to-mbira, etc. The melodies do not confine themselves to specific rows.
KM: The other direction I am going in: When I play the karimba, my impression is that there are usually just two melody lines. Sometimes there are three notes going on, but the right forefinger is usually tied to the right thumb (i.e., playing octaves on the upper right and lower right rows of tines). Karimba music is definitely simpler than mbira music!
JL: I agree, it is simpler. It doesn't follow the same harmonic sequence that the 'big mbiras' follow either. I think that is part of the reason the big mbiras are used in spirit-possession ceremonies. It is easier to short-circuit your brain with all those melodies going. ;-) But remember, even those two melody lines on karimba don't need to start at the same point in the cycle as each other!
KM: Joel, your understanding of the mbira is certainly very deep. Thank you for sharing with us all! Do you have any parting thoughts to leave us with?
JL: Just that I hope we can all send our thoughts and prayers out to Zimbabwe right now. They are living in horrible conditions right now. Thanks for listening, and keep playing mbira!
Oh, and I just started a forum for my band, and we have a section specifically for people learning the matepe. I have videos and transcriptions there. People should come check it out-it's free!