For a couple of weeks in January heavy rain falls continuously. Our rented home in Tynwald South sits on a bit of a slope, so the water streams down the driveway with no opportunity to flood the house. The roof tiles, soaked by a multitude of thunderstorms, slowly begin to weigh down on the brick structure. At first it’s a small crack near our bedroom door. We take a couple of photos and tell the land-lordess, but shrug it off because the new house is expected to settle. In the course of a few weeks the crack grows into a network of thin tendrils all along the edges of the ceiling, as if our doll house was being picked up by some giant hand attempting to rip off the roof and find us inside. There are a few places where these cracks run down the wall, where the plaster flakes away like fading petals. When we’re brewing a pot of tea or about to fall asleep, there are occasional loud and jarring booms as if someone has let go an armful of textbooks onto the tile floor; A sound that we come to realize is the bedroom wall as it shifts and splits under pressure.
Thankful to be dry and out of the rain, we stay inside for a time, baking quiches with fresh muboora and playing mbira. Travelling is a bit risky now with the roads flooded and rivers so high. Even in town the numerous potholes have multiplied and lay hidden underneath opaque puddles, filled by water that is dyed bright red from the soil. Our phones are fairly useless in Tynwald as the signal fades out for days at a time. At 3am, or some other odd hour of the night, all of my Whatsapp messages come flooding in through a break in the clouds.
Why so in need of reliable 3G? In light of all our experiences thus far, I really should be writing. There are so many things to put down. “I am supposed to be writing.” In a February blog post Professor Theresa MacPhail says this to her academic audience, concerned that “Instead, many of us are scrolling through news updates, skimming the latest hot takes, refreshing our social-media feeds, and worrying about our collective future.” My Facebook feed is hundreds of videos that will not load. I am on there anyway, trying to piece together what makes it through the wire.
As I stare into the abyss of empty webpages, a weaver attacks its reflection in the window just over my shoulder. Red eyes fixed on the phantom intruder, it puffs out its wings to make that characteristic heaving sound like a winding clock gone berserk. Com’n, man! Don’t waste your energy on the window. I shoo it away, but it returns again and almost daily thereafter to defend its territory against the mysterious birds that lurk in our windowpanes. Or maybe it’s telling me to get back to work.
Although we decide not to travel very often in this persistent rain, there are others who repeatedly make the journey between the NE borderlands and the capital city. James Kamwaza takes his chances on the kombis to ship out mbira from the main post office in downtown every couple of weeks. We benefit from this tremendously. With our teacher in house we have all the more opportunities to “capture the sound” of hera music from Nyanhehwe.
I get lost in that intricate tapestry of hera music. I can recognize the lines I know how to play, but I have to negotiate with the more unfamiliar versions. It’s not just the overtones that add an extra layer of sound, it is the multiple & interwoven right-hand melodies. The active right-hand thumb covers the lowest seven keys on the right side of the instrument (not to mention the extra five highest keys that are present on hera mbira). All of these notes for the thumb in conjunction with five to seven keys for the index finger means numerous possibilities. The thumb and forefinger frequently play octaves as well as broken “chords” that consist of two, three or four notes all braided together, resulting in a very dense musical texture. You might even say that the right hand fingers often look like they are braiding the melody as they alternate between high note, low note, middle-high note, middle-low note, etc. or some permutation thereof.
The characteristic descending high lines we hear on mbira nhare are nowhere to be found. Rather, the descending line in hera music is a distinguishing motif that usually starts and ends each song. Chaka Chawasarira calls this kupandutsa, which he translates from the Korekore-Tavara dialect as “to warn,” or “a warning,” that signals what is going to come next. The warning tells us to anticipate some kind of change, a transition from one variation to another or a transition between silence and sound. Chawasarira insists that in order for matepe playing to be “smooth” and pleasing to the listener, a player cannot just dive straight into that thick texture of four fingers plus overtones streaming at you all at once. The kupandutsa line is a breath of air, a flexible moment in the song when both thumbs play a descending line of octave equivalents.
ILAM track#HTFT80-T22-T1U1, T1U3 and T1U5. 1970. "Marume," "Kuvachenjedza," and "Muparaganda" by Josam Nyamukuvhengu on hera mbira. Korekore-Tavara. Recorded in Marymount Mission, Zimbabwe by Andrew Tracey.
James Kamwaza demos how he would start the song “Kanotamba Mubani,” intent to show us how each song is linked to a distinct variation of the descending line. The introductory phrase has several functions, first allowing a player to communicate what song they will play next. Kamwaza states that this practice is useful to less experienced players who may not be able to recognize unfamiliar versions or variations in style, but it also cues in even the most experienced vocalists and mbira players. Above are examples of three introductory lines and then three ending lines played by Josam Nyamukuvhengu from the following songs: “Marume,” “Kuvachenjedza,” and “Muparaganda.” The starting lines are all different, as you can hear, although to my amateur ear do not sound different enough to signify specific pieces. There is still an element of playfulness and improvisation in the execution of these descending lines, so they do not always sound exactly the same from one day to the next. The lines I can distinguish, improv and all, are based on Saini Madera’s matepe playing from the 1969 ILAM recordings of “Siti” and “Aroyiwa Mwana.” I know these well because Zack and I have played them on marimba thousands of times. Listen below to hear how we incorporated Saini Madera's version of "Aroyiwa Mwana" into the beginnings of a marimba arrangement a couple of years ago.
ILAM track#HTFT768-S7-S2D11. 1969. "Aroyiwa Mwana" by Saini Madera on matepe mbira. Sena-Tonga/Marembe. Recorded in Magohoto, Mkota, Mutoko District by Andrew Tracey.
Beyond providing a signature tag line, the descending motif also functions as a place marker. While playing with other musicians, the kupandutsa line helps me figure out where we are. Otherwise, when I’m off in the wrong part of the cycle Kamwaza subtly changes his left hand to what I am trying to play, gives me a side-ways look if I don’t catch on. Listening for the descending scale is less disruptive. If I hear that line I can latch on to the harmonic changes of some unfamiliar variation of a song, even hum along with a vocal part that I’ve gleaned from ILAM recordings and Andrew Tracey’s notes.
In the example that follows you can hear Saini Madera play these descending lines in the context of a song called “Msengu.” After Madera’s spoken introduction he plays two iterations of the straight descending scale before starting the first variation. He uses the line twice more, starting at 0:21 and again at 0:47 seconds of the recording, in order to transition again into new variations of the same song. Listen to them carefully and you can hear how the three versions of the descending scale differ from one another. Madera begins with hands together and then subsequently plays the lines by alternating between right and left thumbs. The most dramatic expression of the descending line, the one that begins with multiple repeated notes, is the last one in the clip (0:47 sec). It alerts the listener to anticipate a transition that turns out to be one of significant contrast due to a change in the basic rhythmic feel of the song; The variations change from an alternating duple feel to a triplet feel that is marked clearly by the left hand thumb.
ILAM track#HTFT769-S8-S2D15. June 1969. "Msengu" by Saini Madera on matepe mbira. Sena-Tonga/Marembe. Recorded in Magohoto, Mkota, Mutoko District by Andrew Tracey.
In an earlier post, I describe how James Kamwaza labels the descending scale of the hera mbira with ascending numbers (see here for a diagram of this numbering system). My first thought on this was, well, why not label it “normally” like other heptatonic scales, from the first degree up to the seventh degree? Perhaps simply because step-wise ascending scales are rarely heard, if ever, in hera, matepe and madhebhe music.
Apart from those characteristic kupandutsa lines, the mbira parts and vocal lines have the tendency to move down in a step-wise motion but not up in this manner. Andrew Tracey demonstrates this in his analysis of the intervallic movement of “Msengu” in his 1970 article (available on the African Music Journal's website). In one cycle of the songs’s harmonic sequence, Tracey shows how the notes of the diad “chord” progression of fourths and fifths move down a step twelve times and move up a step exactly zero times. He goes on to show how this harmonic pattern, with slight variations, is common to matepe music in general (as well as many other music traditions “from the Limpopo to the Zambezi”) (1970, 39). Similarly, Tracey highlights the descending scalar movement of the vocal lines of matepe music, stating that the “notable omission is the lack of the tone-up movement” (Ibid., 40). Considering this, it seems logical to number the scale in such a way that prioritizes descending pitches as foundational rather than, literally, backwards.
Early March and the downpour continues. The heavy rains this season have filled the dams and flooded the rivers. We relocate from our fractured dwelling in Tynwald and say so-long to the fields in our neighborhood, like so many fields we see in the city limits, that are filled with corn stalks that have outgrown us. The landscape has been transformed by countless rows of 2-meter maize with expectations of a bumper harvest in areas throughout the country. The rains are a mixed blessing and have caused damage to crops that are situated in areas prone to flooding. Driving past the wetlands along Bulawayo Road on the West side of town one can see how some of the plants are stunted with yellowed leaves from standing water while others are healthy and tall.
Zack and I move to the other side of town and are grateful to find a room in a beautiful old house. We are far from the paper-like sound of the mealies now and just a few minutes’ drive from the buzz of the city center. We take refuge in the serenity of the garden, which is surrounded by tall shady trees that are home to all manner of birds and bird sounds. This includes the dinosaur shriek of Mr. boubou who spots the cats nearby, plus that familiar swizzle of the weaver bird who builds its nest just outside of our window.