Paper Scraps

Paper Scraps

A box marked “mbira transcriptions” sits on a shelf in the center office at ILAM. The tall shelves covering half the room are filled with identical rectangular boxes labeled per their paper contents: letters; journal entries; teaching guides; song lyrics; translations; broadcast notes; pulse paper. We hope to locate a variety of hera transcriptions because Andrew Tracey assured us it exists- a whole stack of music from Mt. Darwin he transcribed several decades ago. But the contents of the box we find are scarce. It contains original pen-and-paper drafts of Saini Madera and Saini Murira’s music from Mkota, already available as neat-and-tidy prints in Tracey’s 1970 article, “The Matepe Mbira Music of Rhodesia.”

The originals are far more than just drafts of the published materials. They are complete with notes-to-self in the margins about beat placement, second guesses, starting points, choices, and any possible errors. I much prefer the scrappy originals, quilted with a personal script that conveys Tracey’s thinking about the music. For instance, he pieces together two variations with a common point in the cycle, carefully aligning the vertical seam of a shared hosho beat. Then he questions it. Seam ripper, eraser, and then alternative options texture the page. Such info is cleared away in the published copy and the reader is left with the following recommendation:

“If you want to hear this music, listen to the records. If you want to play it, read the music. Far better still, go to Mkota, Mt. Darwin or Chioco and learn from the artists themselves!” (51-52).

We take this advice to heart and embrace the slow churn of matching note heads to matepe keys one-by-one. Tunes in hand, we visit musicians in Nyanhehwe, Nyamapanda, and Charehwa Village. The transcriptions we play are often dubbed “from that side,” (e.g. “not from around here”) because they represent the style of Madera and Murira of Mkota. As such, we can’t always fill in the missing details about, say, how two versions of a song fit together, because individual players or musicians from a particular region may hear that song in a different way. James Kamwaza’s leads “Kanotamba Mubani” with his left-thumb, for example, whereas Madera’s version of “Siti” (same song, different name) leads with the right thumb. The two versions are compatible, but the pattern variation in this case acts as a means to distinguish between regional styles.

How valuable are those paper scraps lost in a volume of boxes? In the company of mbira players, our conversations often turn towards the who and what and where that distinguishes regional variation. Musicians can further articulate the characteristics of a certain sound or style – Anthony Zonke uses the terms “this-beat” or “that-beat” to distinguish styles – with two or more versions of a song at hand. This is not a new preoccupation. For instance, the Zonke family plays a rendition of “Koodya Hove” from Pfungwe that always throws us for a loop. What song is that exactly? Oh, right, the one “from that side.” The mbira pattern is different from their usual “Koodya Hove,” but so is the mode, based on a slightly lower tonal center (listen below). And, how did you come to play this version? No clear answer (yet). What is clear, after so many months of revisiting the topic, is that the relationships between individuals, families, and regions based on playing style is important. One can stitch together local knowledge with preserved bits and patches of song cycles to form a bigger picture of matepe/madhebhe/hera music and its life among the borderlands.  

As for the unpublished transcriptions, a bit of evidence surfaces in the form of correspondence between Andrew Tracey and anthropologist Michael Bourdillon. “Don’t I owe you a heap of mbira transcriptions?” A.T. writes on October 19th, 1970. The letter is addressed to Marymount Mission in Mount Darwin, near the place where Bourdillon conducted research on traditional religious practices of the Korekore-Tavara. Six months prior he must have already mailed a number of songs, as Andrew Tracey remarks in an earlier letter that he hopes “these transcriptions will give you an easy way into the music.”

Letter to Michael Bourdillon, April 1970

We nearly forget about the exchange until five months later in Harare when Zack and I are invited to the home of Michael Bourdillon. In the corner of his living room, nested on an end table, is a hera mbira that catches my eye. Glazed in a thin layer of cobwebs, the silhouette of tapered keys hangs in a series of rusted arcs over the hollow soundboard. Unmistakable, that Nyamukuvhengu mbira, a beautiful example of his craftsmanship that is only slightly out of tune after so many years. Bourdillon tells us how he managed to play a few tunes while living near Darwin and was even called to perform for a ceremony on one occasion. How did you learn? Well, with written music. He retrieves a stack of papers from the other room and hands me nearly three dozen transcriptions by Andrew Tracey. Bingo. Goldmine. A few of the larger pages are originals and the rest appear to be photocopies of the infamous transcriptions that are still floating around Grahamstown. They include songs by Josam Nyamukuvhengu, his brother Derek Nyamukuvhengu, Matias Chidavaenzi, and karimba player Raison Kanakombizi.

A few days thereafter we show James Kamwaza the recovered transcriptions. The songs are all from his area, based on the music of his teachers. Kamwaza flips through the stack and then produces a small bundle of pages from the depths of his backpack. He hands me a pile of weathered transcriptions that he created years before, the ones he assumed were discarded or burned (read about them in this post). They were in the house the whole time, he says, stashed away somewhere. The little notebook pages, stapled together in the corner, are dense with blue and black ink. In lieu of staff notation there are rungs of arrows that zig-zag across the page to provide a scaffold for two long strings of numbers. Left-thumb and right-thumb are accounted for in this way, but rhythm is out. They work in conjunction with audiovisual recordings, so one must pick out the rhythm by ear.

Andrew Tracey and James Kamwaza’s notation systems of hera mbira were both developed as supplementary learning resources. They are forms of prescriptive notation that allow someone to learn one or more basic patterns or variations of a song. Both systems are incomplete. One notated cycle offers an introduction to a tune, but the player must then apply this knowledge to the context of a song and its development. This may include an introductory kupandutsa line and layered entrance, a sequence of variations on mbira that follows the lead of a vocalist’s improvisation, and/or the syncopated interplay between hosho and mbira. Zack and I learn nearly all of A.T.’s transcriptions with the auditory reference of his field recordings. We have not used Kamwaza’s transcriptions for this purpose, since we can learn directly from him while we’re living in Zimbabwe (he is a patient teacher and breaks everything down – beginning with square-one, left-thumb out-of-tempo, phrase by phrase).

The relationship between visual, motor and aural embodiment of a tune is complicated, and written transcriptions of hera mbira offer a means to understand the visual element in isolation. In his 1970 article, Andrew Tracey describes how the overtones and buzzers of matepe music alter the “sound-picture” that one expects to hear from a transcription. He writes: “the ear does not hear the music, nor is it meant to, in the same way as the mind and fingers compose it” (51). A beginner can depend on the stillness of the page to first visually locate the note patterns of a new song using a transcription, which likely occurs at a snail’s pace. Videos are also helpful to this end, but then one must study the hands of the performer through repeated viewings. In this approach, depending on camera angle and tempo, it is sometimes difficult to decipher exactly where the thumbs land as they tend to cruise over the smooth metal surface of a keys before flying off to the next note.

It is time consuming to begin with audio and attempt to decipher a tune on hera. Several months ago, when the rains were raging down on Harare, Zack set out to learn Kadori’s version of “Ndonda” from Hugh Tracey’s 1933 recording sans transcription. This auditory-based learning was possible for two reasons. First, the tuning of Kamwaza’s hera is almost identical to Kadori’s madhebhe so Zack could play along with the track. Second, Hugh Tracey included analytical sections of the song that feature left-hand apart from right-hand as well as the dense tangle of both hands together. The process took about 10 times longer than learning via transcription, but Zack was nevertheless able to pick out the lines and eventually play and transcribe one cycle of the tune.

In late November, 2016 I receive an email on the Dandemutande listserv from Stefan Franke. The email announces the latest version of, an online mbira transcription tool that Stefan developed in 2014. Z and I peruse through the site, impressed by the play-back feature that utilizes sampled sounds from specific mbira. One can choose from a list of various mbira nhare tunings and hear a transcription as it would sound in, for example, B-flat Nyamaropa tuning made by Samson Bvure or B Nyamaropa tuning made by Leonard Chiyanike. Well, that is pretty cool. We have been thinking about a similar concept for a good couple of months- how to digitize transcriptions so the play-back is in tune with the mbira on which it was played. Although the site, at this point, is only suited for mbira nhare transcriptions and we have matepe in mind. Zack discovers a little gem on the “About” page where Stefan mentions his interest in accommodating other types mbira, “especially matepe.” Who knows what kind of celestial magic was at work there.

Not long thereafter, with detailed guidelines from Stefan, we begin to record the sound of various matepe/madhebhe/hera instruments for the website. A favorite of mine is that Josam Nyamukuvhengu hera slumbering in Bourdillon’s living room. Zack tunes and polishes the keys with Andrew Tracey’s tuning diagram of Josam’s mbira from that same year and we record the sound one note at a time.

Michael Bourdillon's hera mbira, made by Josam Nyamukuvhengu

Michael Bourdillon's hera mbira, made by Josam Nyamukuvhengu

The mbira is only in our possession for a day, so I pick out Josam Nyamukuvhengu’s version of “Ndonda” from one of the transcriptions (minus left index, which was too clumsy to add at the time):

Now compare the sound to “Ndonda 2” on the sympathetic resonances website.  Follow this link, scroll down to the transcription titled “Ndonda 2” and press play.

You can also add another layer so “Ndonda 2” and “Ndonda 1.01” play at the same time. Press “Play” on one of them, then press the “+” button on the other to add it to the mix. Voila, two complementary versions play simultaneously.

For the full song in context, compare these sounds to a 1970 recording of “Ndonda” by Josam Nyamukuvengu:

ILAM track#HTFT797-T19-T1S3. 1970. “Ndonda” by Josam Nyamukuvhengu on hera mbira. Korekore-Tavara. Recorded in Marymount Mission, Rushinga District by Andrew Tracey.

When you listen to this clip of Josam Nyamukuvhengu after hearing the sampled “Ndonda” transcriptions, it accentuates the contrast between the simplicity of the transcription and the full groove of the song. The former is suited for how-to learning and requires the player to listen to live and recorded performances in order to work towards a deeper understanding of the music.

What have we done with that stack of transcriptions from Michael Bourdillon’s living room? The paper copies are at ILAM for safe keeping away from the jaws of hungry insects. Thanks to Zack and Stefan, each of the thirty-some transcriptions are also digitized and currently available on for all to access. (The project doesn’t end here, but more on that later.)

We meet up with James Kamwaza and show him the transcriptions again, this time via the website, play-back and all. He listens intently and studies the application of his own numbering system on the screen. Again, Kamwaza hands us a stack of stapled pages from his backpack. The typed handout is printed with clear instructions, a numbered diagram and about 10 transcriptions. He intends to use these transcriptions, along with video examples, to teach hera mbira to children in secondary school (he reports that his 9-year-old son recently learned “Kuvachenjedza” using this method). I don’t know the logistics required to introduce hera into local schools (anyone?), but am nevertheless interested to see how Kamwaza continues to develop his notation and teaching methodologies. No doubt his insights as culture-bearer and musician will influence the online tool as these various approaches to transcription take on new forms.