The Mbira Dzavadzimu is the instrument played at the Shona bira ceremony in which a spiritual medium becomes possessed by an ancestral spirit so that the living may communicate with the ancester. B. Michael Williams believes that it is the inherent ambiguity of Shona mbira music - the fact that it is open to interpretation in so many ways - that helps people to access this trance state. One example of the music being open to interpretation in different ways is "Where is the one?" The first note of an mbira line could be considered to come in "on the one" - or it could be considered to be a pickup, coming in just before the one. "The one" is just where our conscious mind considers the start of the phrase.
Not only can you consider "the one" to come in at different places in a mbira line, but traditional mbira players can play both ways at the same time. They will be one beat (1/12 of a measure) offset from each other. The leading part is called Kushaura, and the lagging part is called Kutsinhira. Sometimes the two parts are slightly different, but often they are exactly the same.
The example of this we showed in the last newsletter was the traditional song Nyamaropa. Listen to the basic nyamaropa line on a single mbira in KTabS. We also provide an MP3 of two mbiras playing offset from each other (several variations).
Not every melodic line you might invent will sound wicked amazing when two players play it separated by a beat. It is sort of like writing a round, except that the timescale is only one beat instead of a few measures. However, there is a simple procedure you can follow in KTabS that will allow you to check out any melody you like and see if it works with the two offset parts. Coming up with a melody that would sound amazing in the kushaura and kutsinhira parts probably took some African genius weeks to work out, but it is possible to check the two parts in KTabS in about a minute. Well, I should say that this KTabS trick won't ever help you find a melody that will work, but it will allow you to test a melody to see if it works in Kushaura and Kutsinhira parts.
By the way, this is a perfect example of an "inverse problem." There are many problems in science or math that are impossible to solve, but any answer that you happen to come up with can be easily tested to determine if it is the right answer - or to see how far off it is from the right answer. We can't come up with a melody that will sound great in offset kushaura and kutsinhira parts, but given any melody we can see what the kushaura and kutsinhira parts sound like with each other.
Let's say God gives us a melody line - we somehow get it - and we want to make a shifted copy that we can play back with the original melody. In this case, the ancestors of the Shona people wrote it, and it was passed down to us.
The tablature to the left represents the Kushaura part, with the first note being interpreted as a pickup. KTabS considers that first note to be a measure all unto itself. After this note is played, we move on to measure 2, then 3, 4, and 5. When we reach the end of measure 5, we hit the "repeat sign" - the green horizontal double line with two dots. This indicates "go back to the beginning" or, in this case, go back to the last "open repeat sign," i.e., the double horizontal green lines with two dots above, at measure 2. Notice that the last beat of measure 5 has us play two notes, which are exactly the same as the pickup we started with. So when we are playing the very end of the phrase, it beckons us to play it again because this last note is the same as the "get ready to start" note of the pickup. Or the pickup is the same as the end note.
You can download the KTabS file for this part if you'd like to go through the motions. Start by opening this file with the KTabS program.
The first thing I do after I open the original file with KTabS is to save this as a new file name. We will be editing this music, but we also want the original music intact so we can play the two together. Go into the file menu and select "save as" and make up your own name.
After you have saved this copy of the original music as a new KTabS file, we need to do some editing. First, select the pickup note in measure 1. Right click to access the action menu, and select "Insert 1 Below", because we want to shift the pickup note to the "1" of measure 2.
However, KTabS just inserted a quarter note, and we want an eighth note, so while that space at the beginning is selected, click on the eighth note in the note value window and, while you are there, select the rest symbol (the black rectangle to the far right) and the space we inserted will become an eighth rest.
We are getting there, but the pickup note is on the wrong side of the repeat sign. Proceed by left clicking on the open repeat sign at measure 2 and then cutting (use control-X). KTabS is now warning us that all is not right with the timing in the first measure - it is highlighted in red. With the first note (formerly the pickup note) highlighted (selected), right click to get the action menu and select "Fixed Barline", which will insert a new bar line between the eighth rest and the first note. We have shifted the pickup note onto "the one" of measure 2, and the place where the pickup used to be is now a rest.
Why did we need a rest to be inserted at the beginning? Because we want to play this back with the original part, and this indicates that this part will just hang out while the other part plays its pickup notes.
We are not quite done yet. Inserting the Fixed Barline cleared up the red highlight which had indicated we had the wrong number of beats in the first measure. However, we need to get a repeat sign at that first measure bar. Right clicking on that measure bar at measure 2 to get the action menu, select "Repeat Open" and we get our wish.
Finally, because we inserted an extra eighth note at the beginning, replacing the pickup note with a rest and shifting the pickup note to come in on the "one", the last note of the phrase has been shifted beyond the last bar line and there is now another measure (6), which has only one beat in it. To make this music the same length as the original, we remove this last beat: left click on it to select it, and then delete (control-X or right click to get the menu and select "cut"). This results in a kutsinhira part that is matched in length to the kushaura part.
Now we must save all of these edits (control-s is a shortcut for save). If you are having difficulty following these instructions and it is taking you a while, try to save after you successfully accomplish each little change. And if you make a mistake, remember that control-z will undo. KTabS has multi-level undo.
It is very easy to get KTabS to play back two (or more) parts simultaneously. The process we went through above has resulted in two parts of the same length and same tempo. Always check that the two parts are consistent (or if not, understand what you are doing).
First, open the file for the kushaura part using KTabS, then in the same instantiation of KTabS open the kutsinhira part. The KTabS screen shot above indicates the two icons you can use to control these two files - they are right next to each other at the top center and are circled in black. The right icon looks like two pages in a book and is "tile windows" - this will put the two parts side by side in the KTabS work canvas. It is not required, but is a nice feature as it lets you see both parts at once as they are played.
The left icon of the pair is "tie all views together" and clicking on this will toggle to a playback mode in which all open parts will be played back at the same time.
Really, it's as simple as that. Once you learn this process, you can create kushaura and kutsinhira parts for any melody, and as you do this, you will gradually understand how to write melodies that will work great in kushaura and kutsinhira parts.