Wednesday, December 8, 2010
The Mbira Cycle

Please understand that what I am writing is speculative - we cannot know with certainty what happened in African music 1000 years ago.

However, what I am writing is also grounded in reason, in what we know about mbira music today, and it connects with some known points in history. It makes a good story and I myself believe this to be true.

In 1989, Andrew Tracey wrote a paper, The System of the Mbira - basically a complex chord progression in 12 steps that describes most traditional mbira music. But the mbira is not the beginning. Andrew's theory is that the mbira "evolved" from the the 8-note proto-karimba, an instrument that I am reinventing as the student karimba. This 8-note instrument probably came into being about 1300 years ago when metal use started in the Zambezi Valley.

I quote from a masters thesis by LAINA GUMBORESHUMBA (2009), which is dedicated to examining the impact of Andrew Tracey's work in the field of ethnomusicology:

Andrew speculates that, back in the history of mbira music there was what he terms the original chord system which consisted of fewer chords and shorter cycles, similar to what is now played on the karimba. Then this changed at some point (probably during the time of the Great Zimbabwe kingdoms: 11th -13th century) into much more elaborate system of chords which are double the length of the shorter cycle.

It makes sense that both the music and the musical instruments started out simple and evolved into more complex forms. And it makes sense that this transition to complexity happened in a great period of Zimbabwean history.

I will present this story from the (presumed) simple beginning, and move to the more complex. The shorter chord cycle of the karimba (still used by today's traditional karimba music) is sort of like the I-IV-I-V progression we know so well in the West. The longer mbira cycle is more like Pachelbel's canon. A remarkable fact is that the shorter karimba cycle is contained within the longer mbira cycle.

The key thing about the shorter karimba cycle and the full mbira cycle is that they are generative - that is, they are structures that we kalimba players today can use to generate new music that keeps to the style of some of the most ancient melodic and harmonic instrumental music from Africa.

So, stay tuned in coming weeks of Wednesday tips! And get ready to write your own music based on these cycles - we will be holding a contest to help induce people to take this path!