Articles tagged with: mbira dzavadzimu

13 June 2019

My Story of Hugh Tracey

Written by Mark Holdaway, Posted in News and Announcements

He understood the potential loss of traditional African music to the encroachment of the west, and worked his whole life to preserve it

My Story of Hugh Tracey

Hugh Tracey is a complex and important historical figure in the contemporary kalimba world. I should start by stating my relationship to Hugh Tracey: for the last 33 years, I have played instruments he designed, and for about half that time I have made most of my living by selling Hugh Tracey kalimbas. So I might be a little prejudiced, but Hugh Tracey's work was clearly pivotal in the trajectory of modern lamellaphones.

Hugh Tracey, a white European man, cherished traditional African music and made it his life's work to study and preserve that music. But he also invented and marketed the Hugh Tracey kalimba, which is not a traditional instrument at all, and has, arguably, directed some interest away from traditional instruments such as the mbira dzavadzimu or the karimba.

For me though, the Hugh Tracey kalimba has been a doorway to the world of ancient and traditional African music. Would you like to explore that world, and Hugh Tracey's part in it, with me?

17 May 2019

How is the Karimba related to the Mbira Nyunga Nyunga?

Written by Mark Holdaway, Posted in News and Announcements

The mystery of the evolving names of the kalimba

How is the Karimba related to the Mbira Nyunga Nyunga?

Evidence indicates that in 1950, kalimba and karimba were used more or less interchangeably to describe any traditional African thumb piano. Seventy years ago, mbira dzavadzimu meant exactly what it does now - a particular traditional Shona thumb piano - and the mbira nyunga nyunga probably was not even a thing yet. Seventy years ago was just before Hugh Tracey began to build and sell a new instrument which he called a kalimba, which combined features of many traditional instruments and had a western tuning.                                                             

Thumb pianos evolved over time and were affected by numerous influences, ancient and modern, African, European, etc. They have a very rich, varied genealogy. Today, kalimba usually refers to non-traditional thumb pianos. Karimba refers to a particular family of traditional African instruments also known as the African-tuned karimba. Mbira nyunga nyunga, which translates to the "sparkly sparkly mbira" is essentially the same instrument as the karimba, though if it is rustic-looking, it is more likely to be called mbira nyunga nyunga, and a workshop-made instrument might be more likely to be called karimba.

But it isn't exactly that simple, and here I will outline the details of this fundamental discussion.

14 November 2016

The System of the Mbira - Part 1

Written by Mark Holdaway, Posted in News and Announcements

The chords and phrase structure behind most mbira music

The System of the Mbira - Part 1

Most "primitive" music is so-called "two-phrase" music - basically a call phrase and a response phrase, or a question and an answer.  This simple musical form exists across cultures, in nursery rhymes, and in basic karimba music.

Sometime between 600 and 1000 years ago in the Zambezi Valley of southeastern Africa - let's suppose during the peak of the "Great Zimbabwe" civilization - an incredible innovation occurred: that primal two-phrase tune pattern evolved into a "four-phrase" pattern.  This innovation was momentous. Doubling the length of the original two-phrase cycle had the effect of expanding the possibilities of the music by far more than a factor of two. This four-phrase musical structure is the essence of the sound of the mbira. It is one of the pinnacles of African music, culture and intellect. 

In this post I will impart my conceptualization of an essential African musical form to you, and will start with the basic chord progression common to a lot of four-phrase mbira music. This harmonic understanding, which can be applied to any instrument, will be demonstrated on guitar in the keys of G and A.

12 December 2016

The System of the Mbira - Part 2

Written by Mark Holdaway, Posted in News and Announcements

You can start at different points in the cycle to make different songs

The System of the Mbira - Part 2

Sometime between 600 and 1000 years ago in the Zambezi Valley of southeastern Africa, something amazing happened - four-phrase mbira music was born.  This revolutionized the music that had been played for a very long time, and greatly increased its sophistication, sort of like going from nursery songs to Pachelbel's Canon.

The new musical structure was complex enough to support a wide range of songs.  In fact, new songs in this vein continue to be created today. There is basically an infinite supply of mbira-type music.

In this post we begin analyzing how new songs can be created within this four-phrase system. One way is to start the song at different places in the cycle.  We show you two common places to start, and illustrate the differences in the music.

14 November 2016

"Taireva" Tablature for Mbira and C Alto Kalimba

Written by Mark Holdaway, Posted in News and Announcements

Learning this song on Alto Kalimba has put me into "Beginner's Mind"

Have you ever read the book, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind"?  The basic idea is that we can make great progress on our journey by approaching everything with an open, beginner's mind, for it is in this state that we are ready to be taught, we are ready to see, and we are ready to understand.  The expert who already knows everything might not ever see the truth.

While I like to think of myself as a kalimba expert, I do get knocked on my (musical) butt quite often.  So really, I am only an expert at playing in the fairly narrow musical style that I know how to play. 

For me, to learn mbira music on the kalimba is a leveling experience.  The thumb patterns required to play this music on kalimba are so foreign that I have been brought down to the level of "total beginner."

11 November 2016

The Topsy-Turvy World of Mbira Music

Written by Mark Holdaway, Posted in News and Announcements

A close look at the inner workings of the mbira song "Taireva" reveals remarkable and quirky details

The Topsy-Turvy World of Mbira Music

Mbira music is elusive. You think you understand it, you reach to grasp it, but then it slips through your fingers.

There are in truth many ways to understand mbira music - and you learn to strive to come to the place where you touch all of those understandings without holding any.

In another blog post, I give away the tablature for the song "Taireva," for both mbira and C Alto kalimba.   In this post I detail some of the more subtle aspects of traditional mbira music, using "Taireva" to help in the analysis.  I show you new ways to think about mbira music that will help you play it with that magical feeling of dancing in between one way and another.

Also, the level of detail in the traditional music of the mbira is actually pretty inspiring.  That Africans were doing this stuff many centuries ago really speaks to the genius of the ancient African mind.

08 November 2016

Mbira Song "Chaminuka"

Written by Mark Holdaway, Posted in News and Announcements

New tablature for mbira dzavadzimu, plus tabs for Hugh Tracey Alto and B flat Treble Kalimbas

Mbira Song

Chaminuka was a real person, a renowned Zimbabwean prophet who foretold the coming of white European colonialists.  After his death, he became a popular ancestral spirit to channel.  Mbira dzavadzimu were and still are used in these ceremonies.

While researching Chaminuka for the Chiwoniso article, I learned that there are at least two totally different songs by this name: "Chaminuka" for the karimba by Chiwoniso, and an unrelated song for the mbira dzavadzimu.  The mbira "Chaminuka" is the classic pattern described by Andrew Tracey in his seminal work "The System of the Mbira."  I have notated it in my new (and evolving) mbira tablature, and you can also play it on the Bb Treble kalimba and the Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba.  I supply all three of these tablatures to you for free!