Zimbabwean aural memory……music an integral part of our heritage

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By Dr Michelina Andreucci

MUSIC in Africa is as vast and varied as the continent’s many regions, nations and ethnic groups.
African music is as diverse as its cultures, which have flowered in many indigenous forms as well as been shaped by foreign influences.
Music intersects with every aspect of life.
It assisted to mark the important cultural moments, and helped to underscore the divine and eternal value of human life.
In our African villages, music was learned through cultural osmosis.
From early childhood, the music was heard and imbibed alongside one’s mother’s milk, as mothers sang lullabies to their children. 
There were numerous public socio-cultural activities in Zimbabwe that allowed village communities to practise and hone their performance skills.
In fact, the courtyard in the centre of the homestead was the arena for customary gatherings which orchestrated and synchronised village life with one’s ancestors and the universe.
As experienced during the Chimurenga, African music helped to connect people together in a variety of ways, strengthening the fabric of communities, which in turn reinforced people’s commitment to support each other and the community, toward mutual wellbeing and prosperity.
In Zimbabwe, sound and music has been part of the African memory and heritage from time immemorial.
Western colonisation, Christianity and their orchestrated cultural confusion of the indigene have dislocated our aural heritage.
Memory is genetic.
In Zimbabwean culture, we remember things from a past that is many years older than us, known as pasichigare.
It is this traditional memory that reproduces itself in society and manifests itself in behaviour, especially in the arts, performance, literary and visual arts constituting our shared heritage.
Earlier in the year when Dr Tafataona Mahoso confided that he was reviving ‘sounds of antiquity’, I had no idea that he studied, designed and fabricated his own musical instrument, let alone play the instrument in concert!
Recently, I was privileged to be a guest at Dr Mahoso’s debut appearance at the Chitende/Chimatende performance at the recently held Mbira Festival at Prince Edward School in Harare, where he entranced the audience with a traditional recital on his makwenyani.
Composer-performer, Mahoso who sings, plays, designs and makes his own traditional instruments has since fashioned and produced seven modified prototypes of the traditional makwenyani, a pre-historic Zimbabwean and Southern African bow instrument dating back to the 9th Century.
The makwenyani bow instrument was played alongside orature, used to tell legendary stories and histories about one’s community, ancestry and genealogy.
Together with the rest of the audience, I was enamoured by Dr Mahoso’s solo performance, which came as a big surprise to most of us.
His compositions and sound was aurally rich, his song texts imaginative and his performance visual and hypnotic.
The Zimbabwean musical bow/makwenyani appears in the chronicles of the 12th Century immigrant missionaries who, on hearing the sound of the instrument for the first time, wrote: “We heard the earth’s bowels breathing with a booming melody which echoed against the granite monoliths, interspersed with the sound of cow bells.”
The pastoral acoustics of the makwenyani is unmistakable; it is evocative of the past and rooted in nature.
The structural contrast of melodic patterns and the staccato stick vibrating on the wires makes this instrument both a percussive and string instrument, producing a kind of ancient soulful Zimbabwean blues, which is richly ideophonic and befitting the rhetorical nature of the lyrics.
The varied melodies and rhythms of songs generally follow the intonation, contour and rhythms of the instrumentation of the makwenyani.
Traditionally, folk musical instruments were usually crafted by the musicians themselves, usually with commonly available organic materials, such as Dr Mahoso has done with his makwenyani.
The makwenyani is an ancient bow instrument similar to the more commonly known chipendani/mouth-bow, but a larger and more acoustically richer instrument.
In the earlier history of the Khoisan, the Shangani, Ndau and Venda, the musical bow appears as a major instrument for these migratory people which also goes to illustrate the mobility of musical sounds
A calabash is attached to the frame of the bow with the gourd opening facing out from the bow.
Held upright against the chest, it is played with a stick beating against a strand of taut animal skin-rope, sinew or wire, resonating against a gourd held facing one’s chest.
Another important feature of the makwenyani music is its related movements and body percussion, such as the gourd beating the chest and the foot stomping rhythmically.
The polyphonic nature of the makwenyani allows for the composition of multiple simultaneously sounding rhythmic harmonies, rhythmically independent parts.
This combination of sounds is produced in a manner pleasing to the ear, but expressing life in all its facets through the medium of sound and orature.
The makwenyani has a rich history in the Southern African region.
It is a sound as old as the land and the archaeology of sound.
It is an unexplored area of musicology in the academic discourse in Zimbabwe, and its scholarship is way overdue.
Dr Mahoso’s revival of the vintage sound of the makwenyani is a landmark in indigenous folk music performance.
Together with the hwamanda, chipendani, chigufe and other traditional wind and string instruments, the makwenyani is a sound nearing extinction.
Due to the influx of Western technology and computerisation which often excludes indigenous African heritage, traditional indigenous music and dance face serious threat of decline.
Their preservation should be given special attention and scholarship in Zimbabwe.
Traditional and folk music was also employed for educational purposes and to impart hunhu/ubuntu to the community.
Let us revive these instruments for the richness of our cultural memory, for the expansion of our industrial design portfolio, cultural development and local musical scholarship.
Indigenous African musical expressions are maintained by oral and aural tradition.
Together with other tangible and intangible cultural material and traditional knowledge, our sounds are an integral part of our heritage.
Are our elders teaching and passing our manners, traditional orature, etiquette and way of life to our children?
Do our elders know the people of Africa are having their cultural heritage stolen from them?
Let us not leave our music in the hands of the pied pipers of colonisation.
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field.
For views and comments, email: linamanucci@gmail.com

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