Hera meets Matepe
Zack and I take a break from travelling during the holidays. Well, or so we think. Harare becomes a bit tense leading up to Christmas day and we make every attempt to avoid the madness of downtown. On the 23rd we are forced to make a trip to immigration in town to renew Zack’s visa. A tedious monthly practice, no doubt, but the lines are usually quick first thing in the morning. A dollar to park, a careful maneuver to cross the one-way streets, skirt the edges of the sidewalk to pass between cars and rows of people waiting at the bank, and 15 minutes to obtain the stamp needed for another month in country.
This day it was packed even at half passed 8. Thanks to my temporary resident status, I could sit and wait for Zack in one of the two dozen cushy chairs lining the back of the room and watch safari videos on mute. It’s the same video every time, perhaps more engaging in the absence of the spoken narrative so one can conjure their own imaginings of the lives of crocodile, lion pride and wildebeest. I’m thankful for the lack of recorded sound in this space, as the soft murmur of voices maintains a sense of calm among the crowded room. A rare occurrence this morning, one man, enraged, shaking, belts into the window towards the immigration employee: “I Hate doing this. I Really Hate this.” He repeats himself several times, but the people around me are un-phased. They sit, phone(s) in hand(s), under a small paper sign that reads “cell phone use is prohibited”.
Retreating from the city around 9:30, we see that lines for the ATM outside of every bank in downtown are three times as long as normal. The queues are folded back and forth along the sidewalks, with family and friends seated on the curb waiting to take their turn in line to withdraw a max of $20 or $50 or perhaps nothing, if the ATM is out of cash. There are bond notes mixed into the currency in the form of $2 green paper bills and dollar coins that were released several weeks ago. These additions are just a small step up from the 5, 10, 25 and 50 cent piece bond coins that have been in circulation for some time, used alongside well-worn U.S. paper bills. Two years ago while in Zimbabwe we would regularly receive a handful of mint hard candies as a form of change. Now with the coins in circulation one can make those small corner purchases that only cost 10 cents- match boxes, bananas, or a bunch of fresh greens.
On the 24th Zack and I make a half-hearted attempt to celebrate the first night of Hanukah with a bottle of South African wine that is far too overpriced compared to what it would cost in the Eastern Cape. We usually spend this time of year indulging in slow cooked meat stews and our winter spice homebrew, but this week we are not so enthusiastic to experience a second summer solstice in a row; From 115-degree heat in the Los Angeles valley in June and now, again, pierced by the intensity of the solstice sun in Harare.
Late afternoon we receive an unexpected phone call from James Kamwaza. He wants to know if he can meet us in town tomorrow to hand-deliver a hera mbira he has made that will go to Kuda Nyaruwabvu. Yes, of course, please come. But we think what an odd day to choose to travel the 5-hour journey from Nyanhewe to Harare on a crowded kombi.
Kuda, James, Zack and I rendezvous on the 25th at Long Cheng plaza around noon and drive to our home in Tynwald for a modest lunch of eggs and beans. Kuda is expected back in Bhora this afternoon with groceries in hand for a Christmas braai with his family, so he uses the time wisely to learn a couple of songs from James. He picks up the main pattern, sketches a map of the keys, and jots down note names with arrows and numbers for later reference.
This system of naming and transcribing the note patterns was developed by James some years ago when attempting to teach at a distance. The notes are numbered according to the diagram below, where 1 up through 7 name the descending scale. The transcription for “Muchenjedza MuTonga” that Kuda learns reads top to bottom and then right to left – the direction indicated by a small arrow on each line – so the notes listed on the page follow the layout of the mbira keys. There are no LT or RI or RT descriptors to indicate which finger is playing because the whole transcription is for the left thumb pattern, what James insists is the anchor to the whole song and must be learned first. Once a player is able to grasp the notes played by the left thumb with certainty, he says, then they can add the right thumb and both forefingers in stages. As an initial step you can play the octave equivalents in unison and then use these as a guide to add variations to the pattern.
James doesn’t have any of the old transcriptions from many years ago, but explains that he used to send them via fax machine from Harare to the UK. The transcriptions were going to Mike Thomas, the son of a hera musician named Lancelot who used to play with Chaka Chawasarira and Josam Nyamukuvhengu. James comments that this method of learning, using transcriptions, is useful as a memory aid for the first few songs until one is able to “capture the sound” and learn by ear.
On our way to drop Kuda in town there are several totaled cars spanning both sides of the center divider. Kuda remarks that these things can happen when people get too worked up over the holiday season. Driving with care, Zack, James and I avoid the accident scene and head back towards the west side of town on our way to a braai at the home of Martha Thom and Jacob Mafuleni. We brave the grocery store for a last minute purchase of ribs and Chibhuku. The lines at the store are daunting as ever, shopping carts filled to the brim, some awkwardly abandoned at the check-out lane, packed with fish and bread and beer. Customers like myself are empty handed as we hold a place in line. Among the families buying groceries and their big red plastic carts are a handful of people asking for cash in exchange for the use of their credit card. The grocery clerks are used to this trade and often negotiate the deal between customers. People linger around the checkout counter, tentative, their conversations consumed by the invasive sound of repetitive Christmas tunes on the market’s sound system.
After sunset, the heavy rain and thunderstorms return for the second time today. The Dzivaresekwa neighborhood kids are sporting their new clothes – camouflage from head to toe – and some with new boots that become caked with red mud from the street puddles. We take shelter from the rain as Martha cooks fresh chips to go with the sausages and ribs. The electricity goes out, perhaps from the storm, so we listen to James play hera by candlelight while enjoying the BBQ.
The tuning of the hera and the style of James’ playing are different from what we know. Our ears are used to the matepe songs of Saini Madera and Saini Murira from Mkota as well as the music played by the Zonke family in Nyamapanda. James explains the relationship between songs like Siti and Kanotamba Mubani to help us understand. Essentially they are the same song but in his area they start with the left hand (“Kanotamba Mubani”) and in Mkota they begin with the right hand (“Siti”). He goes on to demonstrate the differences in playing style. I ask, how can he know about this? Well, the ILAM recordings on that flash drive I gave him several weeks ago, he responds.
Not only did he listen, but he learned some of those songs. It’s not an easy thing to do, to learn matepe songs from audio recordings, whereby one must navigate differences in tuning and mode and take care to decipher the tangle of hocketing overtones and fundamental tones that can create the illusion of many players when there is only one. James says it’s good to know these differences in style and mentions for the second time how he would like to meet the Zonke family in person so he can get a better sense of how they play on that side.
The next evening, we take note of the songs he knows from the Rushinga area. He distinguishes between three types: Songs for Mhondoro (what he also calls mbira songs), those for Ngozi (avenging spirits), and ones from Mozambique.
As you can see, the list is long. James didn’t just learn these all from one person, but rather taught himself how to play through careful observation and listening over the last 12 years. He picked up a variety of songs from the many players that live around him in Nyanhewe and Makuni and hopes to learn more from musicians in other areas.
Notice that “Ndashaya Andidenha” is on the list. Kuda asked about this song the day before and if you read my last post you’ll understand why we were all a bit confused as to how James came across this particular tune. James explains that he knows “Ndashaya Andidenha” from Josam Nyamukuvhengu (also from Nyanhewe), who used to travel around when he was invited to play for certain ceremonies and events. He speculates that Josam must have picked up this song from the Charehwa and Katsukunya families during one such visit down to Mutoko. In the spirit of these travels, we decide to go ahead and drive to Nyamapanda so James can meet the Zonke family.
The distance from James' home in Nyanhewe to Nyamapanda is only a couple of hours along that dust road we took several weeks ago, but there is little demand to travel that route so transportation options are scarce. On the main highway from Harare to the Nyamapanda border post we pick up Kuda on the way in Bhora. He shows me the worn edge of his index fingernail, carved down from playing hera mbira over the last two days.
We make it to the Zonke’s homestead by evening time. They play mbira through the dim light of sunset until the bright flood lights of the border post a mile away are turned off and the night sky is thick with stars. James Kamwaza, Anthony Zonke, Kenneth Zonke and Boyi Nyamande take turns playing together, first with the Zonke family’s matepe mbira, then with the hera mbira made by James. They are not tuned the same, but it only takes the players a few minutes to adjust between switching instruments. They seem to prefer the soft keys of the hera, as Mr. Matomati explains that his fingernails are worn down from moving rocks the other day. At one point while listening, I am fixated on a creepy millipede-ish creature that is moving around in the stones near my sneakers. I feel something brush my arm and the music stops as Kenneth gets up to kill a small snake that, somehow, managed to fall from the roof(?) onto my shoulder.
All of the structures on their homestead are full so we find accommodations at the shops for the night. We don’t sleep much, tormented by an army of insects and suffocating heat inside of the rooms despite open windows and a giant circular fan. There are only a few hours of silence between late-night sungura music at the bar next door and the Thomas Mapfumo album that accompanies the employees’ early morning chores. After breakfast we relish in the peacefulness of the Zonke’s homestead, surrounded by fields of corn and forests and Mozambican mountains.
They ask us to record audio and video while James is there to document the encounter. The list below offers an idea of how they manage to play together, which requires an understanding of how songs from Nyanhewe align with those in Nyamapanda. The song titles are usually borrowed directly from the lyrics, so there certainly are differences in meaning and lyrical content between the songs even if they have similar or related mbira lines. Mr. Matomati negotiates these differences by hinting at the lyrics of multiple versions while also improvising references to James Kamwaza who has come to play with them.
Although I have to tell the rest of the story another time, I’ll leave you with this video of Boyi Nyamande, James Kamwaza, Mr. Matomati and Chrispen Zonke playing “Dairai Romba”/”Aroyiwa Mwana”.