Interview with Kevin Nathaniel
Re-birthing the Creative Spirit of the Mbira

Kevin Nathaniel

Kevin Nathaniel Hylton is a celebrated mbira player, composer, songwriter and percussionist. His mentors were Zimbabwean mbira legends Ephat Mujuru (with whom he worked closely for 16 years), and Dumisani Maraire. He is founding member of the Spirit Ensemble, Heritage OP, Forestdance, Music for Guitar and Mbira, and several other groups. He has produced or co-produced 12 recordings, including 2 solo recordings, 5 for his various music groups, and 3 for other world music artists. He was featured on the Narada release African Voices (1996), composed and recorded for the soundtrack of the film Beloved, and recorded mbira for Alice Walker's audio version of Possessing the Secret of Joy. He was awarded the Parent's Choice award for his recordings featured on the Ellipsis Arts release African Dreams. In his work re-birthing the creative spirit of the mbira and connecting its beautiful sounds (minanzi) to current culture, Kevin is a dedicated teacher, sharing the art of building and playing mbira to people of all walks of life, all over the planet. Currently he runs an ongoing workshop for mbira-making on Sundays in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at Wula Drum.

Mark: Kevin, the instrument on the cover of your CD Mbira Sancuary is known as an Mbira Nyunga Nyunga, or Karimba. In addition to this instrument, what other mbira or kalimbas do you play?

Kevin: In addition, I play a style that was developed by the founder of Spirit Ensemble, the late Zeleka Alem Saged. A musical genius, his mbira (or kalimba) is a marvel of an instrument. I also play one of the likembe styles from Uganda (Basoga Likembe), as well as the "Hugh Tracey" kalimba. I also build mbiras and kalimbas and make them to the needs of various compositions, and this is part of the tradition, a creative tradition as kalimba players. Mbira/kalimba to me is a concept in sound organization, and before the instrument was the concept, which is manifest in every style of mbira or kalimba. Each style is so beautiful to listen to; each one can transport you.

Mbira Sanctuary
Kevin's CD, Mbira Sanctuary

Mark: Kevin, you run workshops on making mbiras. Of the instruments on your CD, which ones did you make? Which instruments do you do workshops on?

Kevin: I made two of the instruments I play on the Mbira Sanctuary CD. They are both expanded karimbas with an extra two keys (17 keys).

I teach workshops for building practically any type of mbira. I have an ongoing workshop in which we are building karimbas, along with a Ugandan Likembe style, several other kalimba styles, and even one half-mbira/half drum machine.

Mark: How did you learn how to make mbiras?

Kevin: Several ways. First, around 1982, I began looking at photos of the instruments and started building mbiras based on what I saw. Then I found the appendix of Paul Berliner's book, Soul of Mbira. That started me building karimbas. I built mbiras with Ephat Mujuru (Zimbabwe's legendary mbira master), but I also worked a lot on my own. I do plenty of mbira building workshops for people of all ages and I learn something new about the process whenever I teach.

Mark: How does playing an instrument you made change the music that comes out of that instrument?

Kevin: That's a question that keeps opening new questions. I'll talk a little about the instrument-making process first. If you make your instrument, you can reach for the sound you'd like it to "voice" in your building process. So the instrument making process is itself part of the music, and it is a musical process in itself. When you build instruments over a long period of time, you (or at least I) tend to throw out the rulers and tape measure, and start feeling everything out. That is to say, working by feel. In this approach you start being guided also by the sound you are imagining coming from the instrument. After a while that sound that you are "hearing" is guiding you. As a musician, you are following that sound in your every move, every part that you cut, file, smooth out, every groove you place. You knock on the wood not only to hear how it resonates but also checking if it will produce the "voice" you want the instrument to resound. It's an exciting thing, because you are actually reaching for that sound in your building process. In baseball, good batters are reaching for a sound when they swing the bat. They want to hear that very resonant percussive sound (crack!) that says HOME RUN! The batter will throw down the bat and without looking to see whether it actually is a home run, will take off on his tour of the bases. The outfielders, upon hearing that sound will sometimes give up on the idea of chasing after the ball. Instrument making, on a quality level, is like that, reaching for that sound. When I built the karimbas that were eventually used on the Mbira Sanctuary CD, I was looking for a long sustained note that hovered. I built the boards very deep and worked the wood carefully. I secured the metal keys and was careful to use high quality spring steel. I was happy with the result as I had reached something of the sound I was looking for.

Playing an instrument you made allows you to develop compositions based on the sound or "voice" you were able to design, or plan, or imagine for your instrument while you were building it. In the composition "Breathe" on the Mbira Sanctuary CD, I knew as I was composing a piece for an mbira that I could get to practically breathe or suggest the sound or feeling of breathing in the long sustain of the notes and the kind of buzzer plate I attached to soundboard. This relationship between the player, the instrument, the composer, the imagination, can function in almost any direction. It can creatively begin anywhere, for instance to begin with the composition and end with the instrument, or begin with the imagination of the instrument's "voice", and end with the composition, vice verse, etc. You can flip it any way, start anywhere and end somewhere else in the 4 part link.

Now there is another layer to this question. And that has to do with your voice and personality as an artist as expressed in the work of your hand. Your voice, soul, spirit, cannot help but be expressed in the product of your own hands. As artists we know that an event or object changes according to the observer. The interpretation of an event says so much about the interpreter. An artist's work has their soul and personality all wrapped up in it. I remember in my days of art school (one of my past lives which I'm still living) I used to walk around the art classes and look at friend's drawings and paintings and realize how much of their spirit I could actually see in their work. I could see their personality so clearly as if every drawing they did had their image and sound in it. I know they could see the same in my work if they knew me and observed carefully. So if you build an instrument it has your voice in it before you even play it, because it is the work of your hand. Couple that with the actually live voicing of your soul when you play, and you speak from your heart in many unique ways.

Mark: How did you learn how to play these instruments?

Kevin: I used to build mbiras and play them "by ear" when I first became fascinated with mbira music. Later, I met, studied, and worked with Ephat Mujuru. We were like family; we hung out a lot. I worked with him on many projects, and he worked with my group, Spirit Ensemble. I also worked with some other incredibly talented kalimba virtuosos, one being Zeleka Alem Saged (Jenkins). He was a remarkable mbira, kalimba man. Everyone who knew him, knew that. He was a musical genius; the kind of musical soul who would make music with practically anything. He, along with Jimmy Cruiz, founded Spirit Ensemble.

I worked with a myriad of other kalimba and mbira players, many of whom I continue to work with.

Mark: In traditional Shona pieces, there are distinct variations. A player will play one variation 4 or 6 or 8 times, and then will step up into the next variation. This is like walking up stair steps. It seems that in your music, each time around you add a little bit - sort of like walking up a smooth ramp. Is this perception accurate?

Kevin: Thank you for that observation about the music I play. It's so good to hear the observations of other artists because you can learn about your tendencies from those observations. I don't tend to think of my compositions that way (ascending a ramp), but I guess it's an observable fact. I think of the mbira as telling a story. The mbira keeps unveiling new nuances and embellishments as the story unfolds. In this way, the mbira can be mesmerizing, but not repetitive. What is interesting is the subtle changes that seem to say so much. Just one note or one slight rhythmic variation can keep the piece interesting, because it changes the whole "kaleidoscopic" or "kaleidophonic" pattern. The variations must have some sense of internal order so the mbira seems to be telling a story that keeps unfolding. The mbira keeps creating new combinations, harmonies, and harmonics.

Storytellers will have their styles, and though it may seem that other mbira players tend to stylize certain ways from region to region, it is my experience that most mbira players also hear themselves as uniquely different from their fellow players. I remember Ephat telling me about Mude's style. He was commenting about how some would borrow his phrasings and call it "traditional." "But that is his style, his sound," Ephat would say, meaning that it was not some "traditional" form that one should feel free to imitate while simultaneously disregarding the creativity and artistic choice of this individual artist. "Traditional" is a tricky word and concept, because all musicians are playing in the here and now.

Mark: How does your music relate to traditional African music?

Kevin: I'm a lover of the "tradition of African music," and I thank you for this question. It's a beautiful question because it allows us to question so many other things. What is tradition? What is African music? These concepts can tend to function in hindsight. I tend to think of tradition as most functional as a verb, in the state of doing or being about. One can be playing "in the tradition of." Most of the time when the word traditional comes up, it needs to be carefully considered because it tends to apply in hindsight, and can tend to separate the art form from the immense river of here and now. Musicians, all of us, are playing in the here and now, like saving a life and healing (which is what music does so much of the time); the urgency of here and now. This is in no way to discount the vast body of knowledge that is tradition. And tradition at its best is the pattern of goodness. I want to be clear that I'm talking about the word "traditional" as it tends to be used.

Even when we speak of African music, or tradition, we need to be keenly aware of what we mean. Are we inclusive or aware of what we are leaving out, what we are trying to define?

The tradition of African music is so vast as to be unfathomable. I will question my own attempt to answer the question after breathing the concept of vast.

So my music relates to the tradition of African music, and I'm thinking of this tradition as an active ongoing event. It is a living tradition and the music I play is part of this tradition. It is a link in the long pattern of tradition, a creative tradition, a tradition which after thousands of years is still young and alive. It a tradition that embraces creativity and inspiration, that embraces this moment. It is a tradition that defies definition, and that touches all. In this living tradition, we have to ask the question for the children. Where do we see the children embracing this tradition? The children must be embracing the tradition if we expect it to be here tomorrow. I was child not long ago, and I hope to always be learning and fascinated like one.

Kevin Nathaniel
Kevin Nathaniel performs for/with children.

Mark: How do you write your songs? Is the path for each song well worn - meaning can you repeat it exactly, or is there improvisation still in your songs?

Kevin: There is much structure and there is improvisation, but I refer to it as variation. We tend to think of improvisation as going anywhere. Improvisation is conversation that is responsible to the moment. I wouldn't want to repeat a song exactly. Each time I play a song I'm telling the story and as a storyteller, the audience is so important. You are conversing with someone, your audience. They may be participating, dancing, clapping their hands, chanting along, or just listening. This is one of the fundamental aspects of this tradition which places emphasis on the present moment, the listening responsive audience and your relationship to them, the importance of being present, the importance of memory. This tradition is a tradition of listening, of participating, of community working together, of healing. This is the foundation of music that addresses community. It addresses in the present, not with the message it delivered a year ago verbatim. Now we are also talking about "in the tradition of..."

Mark: I love the beautiful sound of the mbiras in your recording. Do you do anything special with the sound manipulation to achieve that sound, or is that the way your mbiras sound naturally?

Kevin: It's the way I built the instruments. As I mentioned earlier, I built some of them to have long sustains. Also a few of the instruments I had made for me. One of them was built by Dennis Capodestria, a legendary mbira builder, who currently lives in New Hampshire and now devotes his time to carpentry. One of the instruments was built by Peter Shapiro of "Goshen Art School".

Mark: What are your plans for the mbira for the future? What would you like to do?

Kevin: I am interested in mbira being more present in our every day musical palate. Imagine turning on the radio and hearing it, turning on the TV and hearing it. Walking down the street and hearing it. It's beginning to happen already. As one yogi once said, "Let's not worry so much about how we are going to live in this world, let's imagine the kind of world we want to live in." For me, part of the vision is a world where we hear the mbira singing out like the "call to prayer" in many of the everyday places we move about. A world where the music speaks with beautiful polyphony rather than expletives deleted. A world of synchronicity.

I'd like to see/hear mbira become a household name among instruments similar to the piano or guitar. The kind of instrument that people choose to get together over instead of going to a movie. I'd like to see mbira in schools to bring children into listening mode. I'd like to see mbira played in hospitals to help with healing. Mbira played and heard in prisons to heal the pain of separation and confinement. I'd like to hear mbira sound spreading the vibration of peace throughout the land. Peaceful vibrations influence peaceful actions. This is slowly happening in today's world, and it's amazing.

Mark: Thanks so much for the chance to learn from you, Kevin! Thank you for sharing yourself.

Kevin: Thanks Mark. I really dig these questions. It always confirms that kalimba is something magical. I believe there is really some mysterious web that connects us all. It's some kind of subtle electricity. Kalimba, mbira, etc. can somehow connect us more deeply into that subtle electricity. You have to be listening deeply into the music of the instrument though. I remember working with some deaf performers years ago. One woman could not hear at all. I was playing kalimba for her part of the performance, so I asked her through the sign language interpreter what the sound of the kalimba was like to her, being that she couldn't hear it. She said it felt like electricity on her skin. In my mind's eye I saw an image of sparkles of electricity dancing on her skin, and I recall that Dumisani Maraire, called the karimba "nyungwe nyungwe" which literally means "sparkle sparkle." I guess any kalimba/mbira played well must sparkle about the electricity that connects us. There's a depth to this that doesn't end. I also recall Dumi saying, the mbira player builds their instrument, and I also recall him saying the most important focus for the mbira maker is not how the instrument looks or sounds, but how it feels. Thanks again, Kevin

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