Shona Spirit: Passing On the Ancestral Music
An interview with Ephat Mujuru
…with excerpts from an article by Banning Eyre.
While Zimbabweans fought and died to topple their Rhodesian oppressors in the 1970’s, a young traditional musician named Ephat Mujuru managed to get national radio airplay for a slyly political song. “How can I cross the river?” asked the song “Guruswa,” which means “ancient Africa” in the Shona language. Perhaps Rhodesian radio programmers heard only quaint nostalgia for the past in the song, but future Zimbabweans got the message. “It was talking about our struggle to free ourselves,” explained Ephat in a recent interview. “During the time of our ancestors, they had none of these problems (things like subjugation, cultural oppression, and mass poverty). We wanted the place to be like it was before colonization.” The idea that to move forward you must recover things from the past is quintessentially African, and this goes to the heart of Ephat Mujuru’s central mission – to promote the ancient culture of his people, the Shona. On his latest release, Shona Spirit, Ephat and fellow mbira master Dumisani Maraire collaborate in the spirit of Shona Pasichigare (traditional culture) even as they depart from tradition by creating new compositions and arrangements.
Ephat was born in 1950 in a small village in Manicaland, near Zimbabwe’s border with Mozambique. He has brought the mbira to Carnegie Hall and to jam sessions with musicians as diverse as Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and Britain’s Eurythmics. “When the mbira is played, it brings the two worlds together,” he says, “the world of our ancestors and the world of today.” The ancestors are at the core of Shona religion; living spirits that people turn to for counsel in matters great and small. As a child, Ephat was raised and taught to play mbira by his grandfather, Muchatera Mujuru, a medium for perhaps the most important figure in Shona ancestor cosmology, the prophet Chaminuka. Showing clear talent for the mbira’s polyrhythmic complexities, Ephat advanced quickly, playing his first possession ceremony when he was just ten. In 1972, he formed his first group, Chaminuka, with which he performed throughout the brutal decade of the independence war against the Rhodesians. Ephat says, “when we played mbira, people would come and dance with a special feeling. `Hey, we are going to be independent!'” In the context of war, mbira music became political, a rallying cry for the resurgence of African culture in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe gained its freedom officially in 1980, and the work of building a new nation began. Renaming his group Spirit of the People, Ephat recorded his first album in 1981, using only mbira, hand drums, hosho gourd rattles, and singers. He sang about brotherhood and healing, crucial themes during a time when the nation’s dominant ethnic groups, the Shona and Ndebele, struggled to work out their differences. Independence and a measure of commercial success brought new possibilities for Ephat. He helped to found the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe and became the first African music teacher to work at the conservative Zimbabwe College of Music. In 1982, he came to the U.S. for the first time to pursue university studies and, eventually, to lecture and teach mbira and marimba at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Ephat plays all of Zimbabwe’s five types of mbira, but his specialty is the popular mbira dzavadzimu. Where mbiras can have from fifteen to fifty iron prongs, the mbira dzavadzimu has twenty-two, arranged in three register banks that he characterizes as “voice of the children, voice of the adults, and voice of the elders.” The prongs, often made from flattened bed springs, get clamped tightly onto a laminated slab of hard mubvamaropa wood. Mbira makers often attach shells or bottle caps to the mbira’s tin shield to produce a resonating buzz that compliments the chiming character of the notes. For amplification, players use sticks to jam the instrument into a large, halved calabash gourd that serves as a resonating chamber.
With 25 years of playing experience behind him, Ephat Mujuru has a vast repertoire of traditional and original songs. His sense of humor has helped him transform the traditional art of telling allegorical tales to children into a personalized narrative that disarms adult audiences as well. His levity also affords him license to address serious topics, such as war and starvation. He says he is not a politician but rather a “musician who talks about the philosophy of life,” and clearly, the most common theme in his songs is unity. Unity is a constant theme in his life as well: Ephat has worked to unify Africans and non-Africans, the rivalrous Shona and Ndebele, the rich and poor, traditional and pop musicians, his wife and seven children, squabbling band members, and now with the new recording of Shona Spirit, Dumisani Maraire and himself. He is clearly helping to build solidarity behind the traditions of the mbira – and that gives him a special satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.
Dumisani Maraire: Shona Ambassador Born into a musical family in Zimbabwe in 1943, Dumi’s first mbira experiences came from his uncles who played for him during family visits. He later studied more formally with the late Sekuru Jeke Tapera. He first left Africa in 1968 to pursue further studies and eventually to teach music and Shona culture at the University of Washington in Seattle. After many years of living and performing in Seattle, Dumisani returned to his homeland to teach at the University of Zimbabwe. Dumi says: “I believe the most important elements of Shona culture are respect, love and sharing, especially when extended toward strangers. Shona music, with it’s multi-part texture, is especially conducive to sharing”. Dumi plans to continue teaching in Zimbabwe and the U.S., and to implement cultural exchange programs between Zimbabwe and the rest of the world. He also wants to create a center for African traditional music in the U.S. and, of course, play mbira as long as he lives. Dumi’s most well known recording is Chaminuka
(MOW208) on the Music of the World label. He has received critical acclaim for his collaboration on the Kronos Quartet’s release Pieces of Africa (Elektra Nonesuch, catalog # 979275).
Ephat Mujuru and Dumisani Maraire have taught and performed in the U.S. since the 1980’s, and have influenced important American composers, musicians and millions of fans of traditional African music. During the 1980’s they became figureheads of two distinct and loyal followings in the U.S. – with Dumi on the West coast and Ephat on the East coast – yet they never previously recorded together until now. Says Ephat, “I think Shona Spirit has to be one of the best mbira recordings ever, since Dumi and myself have contributed so much in Zimbabwe as well as in North America.” Dumi sums up the project like this, “Music, like culture, language and art, is not fixed; it changes and evolves with time. I see this recording as a way to break away from cultural chains, remain true to Pasichigare, and still keep Shona cultural material intact.”
Banning Eyre covers world music for All Things Considered, The Boston Phoenix, Rhythm Music Magazine and Guitar Player. He recently co-authored AFROPOP! An Illustrated Guide to Contemporary African Music. Shona Spirit, the musical document of an unique collaboration between these two accomplished masters of mbira, was conceived and produced by Bob Haddad. Ephat’s newest recording, Ancient Wisdom, is now available.