Bere in the Village
Today (25 November) we wake at dawn in anticipation of our trip up to Chesa to meet a mbira player named Matambudziko. We travel with Ngoni Kadondo, the man who arranged this meeting when he heard of our interests in mbira music from his home area in Chesa (where his grandparents live) and Dotito (where his parents and family live). We drive first into town to pick up our friend Kudakwashe Nyaruwabvu who is just as eager to meet hera players in the Rushinga area as we are. The 7 AM traffic and a line at the ATM pushes our departure time into mid-morning, so we leave the city under the steady heat of the sun on baked leather seats.
It is several hours drive to the turnoff for the large Karanda mission hospital and then another 15 mins on a sandy road to Ngoni’s grandparents homestead. I have a mini speaker and three flashdrives loaded with the ILAM recordings of matepe, madhebe and hera music, some from an area about 40 km Northeast of here in Dotito. The names in mind are hera players Hasha Nhete, recorded in 1970, and Mudariki Mkwenya and Andrea Magada, photographed (and likely recorded) in 1993.
ILAM Track# HTFT800-T22-T1V6. 1970. "Kuyendaenda Chirega" by Hasha Nhete (hera) and family, accompaniment by Enock Mutsaunebaya Char. Korekore. Recorded in Dotito, Zimbabwe.
When we arrive Matambudziko is waiting, but there is no group and no mbira. No doubt he wants to make sure we actually show up before asking other musicians to travel such a distance by foot. In the meantime, we bring our matepe mbira to see if he knows the instrument.
No upper register on the right; you play with only three fingers; the keys are thicker and more uniform in construction.
Mbira nhare? We think so. I am reminded of John Kaemmer’s dissertation research in 1972/73 & his observation that the mbira nhare was increasing in popularity relative to the hera mbira within what was then the Madziwa Tribal Trust Lands, a predominantly Korekore region to the Southwest of here. There may be time for questions about this later, but for now we decide to drive the 45 minutes back to the paved road to pick up another mbira group. Their instruments are old and well-worn, the tips of the keys are soft and polished from years of use. We enjoy their music and happily spend the day playing nhare together. Orchestra-style is their preference, as they switch instruments often to figure out new combinations between two differently tuned mbira. They ask us to play matepe, too, intrigued by its sound. They say this mbira (what they refer to as njari) is not around here anymore, but perhaps it can be found beyond the mountain range to the Northeast.
We play into the evening and flashes of lightening begin to gather in the distance. Around 8 PM the wind picks up and a very light rain starts to fall. We pile into the car to drive the musicians back home, reassured that “It won’t rain much” because this area has not received its first rains of the season. Just after passing the Karanda hospital the rain pours down heavily, collecting in large puddles on the sandy road. We weave around the puddles and newly formed streams as we tear through the washboards, listening to the musicians gleefully remark at the amount of water, exclaiming how “the river is thirsty!” but don’t worry, it will likely improve after we pass the borehole. We are exhausted by the time we make it to our guest house for the evening, the rains clamoring against the metal roof as we sleep.
After breakfast we depart from Chesa to visit Ngoni’s wife and children in Dotito. Rather than back-track to the pavement, we opt for the “shorter route” on the dust roads. The first section is doable, our truck roaring down the gravel lane, losing power in the higher gears only on steep ascending slopes that follow the many culverts and bridges crossing our path. The engine- we learned after we purchased it -is not the original petrol engine but a smaller diesel one that struggles to carry the weight of the vehicle up any sort of incline. We pass some very questionable spots as Zack must maneuver the truck over giant exposed river rocks that jut out of the road and dodge between basketball sized chunks of quartz. He also takes us up the steep wall of a collapsed wash bridge, thankfully resting in a bone-dry river bed. We are so relieved after 2 hours of this to return to the wide dust road just past the main shops in Pachanza. We nickname the truck Bere (hyena), owed to its strength in first and second gears and its ability to handle the obstacles on these remote roads. It is accustomed to “chewing bones,” we say, as the truck’s little engine grinds through the rocky terrain.
At Ngoni’s homestead we sit peacefully in the windy afternoon and ask his brothers about matepe. There is a mbira player 2 km up the road, they say, but the light is fading and we would have to walk. We inquire about this man with a family just a few houses down and after a brief meeting we are able to surmise that he plays mbira nhare. Exhausted from the day we head to Rushinga with hopes of finding someone at the shops who might know about hera.
We roll into town after dark and find a decent place to stay the night. After settling in Zack goes to pay for our accommodations and he’s gone for about an hour talking to the innkeeper. As luck would have it, the very man who showed us our rooms is from the Chokuwamba family and has agreed to go with us part way tomorrow morning to his uncle Junge’s place in Makuni towards Marymount Mission. We are confident with his reference to Chokuwamba, a name we know well from YouTube of all places. (Check out Manager Juntao's YouTube channel of the "Chokuwamba History and Activities")
We wake early to eat a breakfast of fried eggs and baked beans together with a giant snowman tumbler of instant coffee. Rather than a stack of white bread we munch on the rice cakes and peanut butter that are buried in my purse. Our group gets tied up all morning trying to find things in the shops before departing: a full tank of diesel plus 20 liters for the jerrican, a zip-tie to hold the diesel spout in place that was knocked askew by the bumpy ride yesterday, a jug of Chibhuku “scud” for any musicians we may meet and a few snacks for ourselves.
We leave Junge’s nephew in a wide intersection and turn on a series of narrow forested roads with Bere towards Makuni School. After asking directions a half dozen times, we arrive at Junge Chokuwamba’s house and are greeted by his wife and son.
It is Sunday so Junge is out drinking beer; He is not playing these days anyway because his mbira is in disrepair; He left it with a man named Chipfene (ugly baboon) who has yet to fix it for about a year now.
Kuda mentions that we have seen videos of the Chokuwamba family playing music on YouTube, notably a series of clips posted by Manager Juntao of Kamhiripiri Chokuwamba’s funeral in 2015. They are delighted to hear about this and send us off to look for a man named Isaac Kufandirori with whom Junge used to play.
We retrace our steps back to the main road and end up at the shops to inquire about Isaac’s whereabouts. A young man insists that if we are interested in hera then we must look for the Nyamkuvhengu family who live in Nyanhewe about 5 km up the road. He is surprised when we refer to Mishek Nyamkuvhengu by name, curious as to how we could possibly know him, but we explain that we know his father’s music from the archive. Before we drive off a young woman comes up to the car window and tells us that Isaac’s wife is close by, fishing at the dam. We are able to find Amai Kufandirori, hesitant to speak to us at first, who reports that her husband is at the beer hall today and that his mbira is also in disrepair!
The rain streams down as we pull into the gate near a large brick hut where a group of men are drinking. Ngoni the negotiator braves the crowd and locates Isaac, who takes some time as we try and convince him why in the world a group of strangers have appeared with no warning in this remote place offering to repair his mbira. He gives in and leads us to a clearing near the dam where we park the car so Zack and Ngoni can walk with him to his home and retrieve the instrument.
The Nyamkuvhengu homestead is easy to find, right along the main road. We are greeted by Mishek Nyamkuvhengu who tells us of his father Josam’s passing last August. We regret not printing those photographs of Mishek and Josam from 1993, totally unaware that we would make it to Nyanhewe on this trip. They plug the flashdrive I have into a sound system and blast the speakers from inside the house. A few songs by Hodzi Katsukunya from Mutoko district play before we ask them to go back to the previous group of recordings. Josam’s younger son clicks back a few times and hears just a few notes before exclaiming, “that’s my father’s hand!”. We listen to a few tracks before the solar battery fades. I mention that these particular recordings are by Andrew Tracey, who sends his regards. Mishek is delighted to hear about Andrew and to see photos of him from just a couple of months ago when we were in Grahamstown. He repeats several times that we must tell Andrew to come and visit even as we try to explain that he is not travelling too far from home these days.
ILAM Track# HTFT800-T22-T1U5. June 1970. "Muparaganda" by Josam Nyamkuvhengu. Korekore. Recorded in Marymount Mission, Zimbabwe.
We help jumpstart their van and there is a buzz of activity as the jug of “scud” emerges and more family members trickle into the circle. Someone rides in on a bike with hera in hand. James Kamwaza sits next to Mishek and greets us. We study the mbira as we talk, a very nice instrument built by James. Two pumpkin gourds are brought to them and they play for us. Emma Nhamkuvhengu, Josam’s widow, sits nearby engaged in the music and makes comments on our attempts to sing along with the lyrics we know from Nyamapanda. She tells us about the relationship between songs from different areas based on what she hears, but has a slight flu and prefers not to sing too much today. Her voice is actually on those recordings from the early 1970s, so I give her a flashdrive as she confirms that she has a way to listen to them.
We show the family our matepe mbira made by Chaka Chawasarira to compare. Although Chawasarira has not returned to Marymount for over 40 years, Mishek recognizes his name as someone who used to play with Josam. The mbira is not an entirely accurate representation of Chawasarira’s work, however, as the Zonke Tsonga family in Nyamapanda rearranged several keys and re-tuned it to match their instruments when we met them two years ago. Thanks to Kuda’s own curiosity, much discussion ensues about the differences in instrument construction and sound. James points out the “modifications” on his own mbira, the 5 high keys on the upper right register that Josam first began adding to his instruments (you can hear these high notes in the recording above of "Muparaganda" and the video below of "Kanotamba Mubani"). They note the difference in tuning/mode, but also remark that if they had a chance to meet the Zonke family they would create a nice sound together.
Before we depart Mishek and James play a few more songs. They are a minute or so into “Kanotamba Mubani” when Emma Nyamkuvhengu sits next to James and begins to sing. Zack is taking a video with his phone at this moment and looks up to exchange a quick glance of disbelief with me. Her voice is beautiful and moving and the sound haunts us for days to follow.
We depart just past 5 PM and decide to brave the dirt road that takes us past the Nyahuku River School and all the way to highway around Kotwa with hopes of spending the night in Nyamapanda. We arrive at the Mazoe River at dusk, extremely content with the day. We look forward to a nice meal at Mr. Karimi’s restaurant, but the road and our dim headlights postpone our meal and keep us on edge for the next hour and a half. Driving around earlier today Kuda reminds us that the Venda say “the mouth is a sister to the road,” remarking that it would be difficult to get lost when there are so many people around to ask. In this area we become increasingly uneasy as the people and homesteads along the unfamiliar road give way to thick shrubs and forest just as night settles in. The farms in this area are not the same linear settlement patterns that follow the roadsides, but most likely follow the rivers and streams instead.
Bere chews more bones on the stubborn roads and we finally make it to the pavement around half past 7. We zoom towards the border for a delicious meal of beef stew and sadza at Karimi’s where Anthony Zonke and Boyi Nyamande meet us for a short visit. We show them photos and videos from the day and are delighted to see them in good spirits. The rain begins and we pile into the truck towards our accommodations for the night. As we cruise over the road behind the shops Anthony Zonke takes the mbira in his hands, plays a few octaves, and hands it back because he says it is no longer in the right tuning. Perhaps two years and many airplane rides have altered the notes, but we’ll see another time.
We wake to a steady drizzle in Nyamapanda and one more hearty meal at Mr. Karimi’s who says we’ve brought the first rains. On our way back to Harare we take one last journey on the dust roads to visit Kuda’s mother and father at their farm about 20 km North of Mutoko town. We are welcomed by Martha Nyaruwabvu at their home and walk to find Everson Nyaruwabvu working in the gardens. It is great to finally meet Kuda’s parents after several years of knowing him and to see his rural home and its lovely gardens, green with tomato plants, watermelon, squash and paw paw trees that are fed by two nearby streams.
His father brings out his madhebe mbira as we tell of our adventures. The mbira is missing many notes, some broken and others oddly twisted up. Although worn a bit, the sound board still rings out nicely. We agree to try and repair this one as well, although it is difficult to know exactly how to go about this. He says there is no one in this area who plays these days, no one to fix the instrument. Without a local reference it will be challenging to know how to stay true to the design and reconstruct the scale, but perhaps the archival resources from this area will be of use.
We gather giant bags of mangos from their trees, filling two large sacks with three different varieties. Just as it begins to rain again we depart with a bounty of fruits and ground nuts. Zack and I finally arrive home to Tynwald South after sunset.