For many, mbira is their first experience of Zimbabwe or Shona culture.
The Shona, who live in high plateau country between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers, are among the sixty million Bantu-speaking people who predominate in central and southern Africa.
Since about 800 C.E., kingdoms of the Shona and neighboring peoples have ruled large territories; stone fortresses such as the Great Zimbabwe number among Africa's most impressive architectural achievements. These kingdoms participated in a lively Indian Ocean commerce with seafaring powers such as the Arabs, Persians, and Indians. The Portuguese arrived about 1500. Eventually the large-scale Shona states faded under pressure from other African groups, notably the more militaristic Ndebele in the 1800s. The Shona became a more decentralized, agricultural people.
At the turn of the twentieth century English-speaking settlers took over the land and imposed their culture and economy on the local African The colonial period in what was then called Rhodesia was brief, but it radically affected most local institutions. As in neighboring South Africa, a systematic policy of land grabbing left Africans materially impoverished.
Racist settlers scorned African culture; many local people came to doubt the ways of their ancestors For two decades after the independence of other contemporary African nation-states in the 1950s and 1960s, white Rhodesians maintained their dominance. Finally a war of liberation (1966-1979) culminated in majority rule and the birth of the nation-state Zimbabwe in 198l. Music played a part in the struggle. Popular and traditional songs with hidden meaning; helped galvanize mass opinion; spirit mediums were leaders in the war against white privilege. After decades of denigration by some Africans who had lost faith in traditional culture, the mbira becomes a positive symbol of cultural identity.David Locke — Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World's Peoples
recent history and traditional Shona music
Shona music was and is so much more than what Westerners associate with "music"
The "traditional" music of Zimbabwe reveals people's spiritual beliefs, their modes of expression, patterns of communication and forms of entertainment, in as much as their present day popular music reveals a lot about the people's present lives and past experiences. For example, traditional Shona songs were a medium of instruction through which young boys and girls were taught the values and expectations of adulthood. All social relationships were sealed, bonded and regulated through songs. Through songs, a daughter-in-law would express her bitterness against a horrible mother-in-law, a bitter wife against a greedy husband, and the whole community would protest against an unjust chief, hence there is a tradition of Shona protest songs." There were songs to praise, urge, ridicule and reprimand. Most communication strategies in the pre-literate and oral African societies were musical in one way or another.Alice Dadirai Kwaramba — The Effect of Colonization on Music in Zimbabwe —www.postcolonialweb.org
The colonization of Zimbabwe dramatically affected all aspects of Shona life, including its music. Accompanying the new "settlers" were missionaries, and these church groups took on the responsibility for administering the education of "Africans." Through the classroom the missionaries were able to condemn traditional religious practice aa well as traditional forms of expression such as dance and music. Schools imposed European religious and esthetic values on the Shona people. As people were converted to Christianity European four-part a cappella hymn singing.was imposed while traditional drumming with call-and-response singing was discouraged. Mbira was condemned.
Colonization, a legacy shared by most African societies, was a significant turning point in their history. It introduced new social and political structures such as urbanization, formal school education, the Christian religion, and more importantly new varieties of music such as Christian hymns. The traditional role of music as a medium of instruction was replaced by the introduction of a formal education system which was closely linked to the new Christian religion.
The introduction of the Christian religion on the other hand changed the people's religious songs and ritual music. Recognizing the close relationship between the people's religion and music, Christian missionaries, ensured a fast decline in traditional culture and religion. Written church hymns replaced African religious songs, with a choral type of music comprising of four lines, namely soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. This type of music emphasized meter, a thing that was alien to African music which is based on rhythm and polyphony. It also came with certain dress codes, voice modulation rules, selected instruments and dancing styles that were alien to the religious performances of the people.2 For example, in Rhodesia, Catholic missionaries castigated the use of the mbira instrument in church ceremonies and dismissed it as unholy and heathen. Christian converts were usually forbidden to play traditional musical instruments. The mbira and the drum which had carried the tradition of the Shona people's music for a long time were often dismissed as unholy. One major change that the choir concept effected was to cut a clear division between those who were "gifted with voices" and those who were not, who consequently became the audience in a society where, before, virtually everyone was considered a singer in their own way.Alice Dadirai Kwaramba — The Effect of Colonization on Music in Zimbabwe —www.postcolonialweb.org
Shona are primarily agricultural. Their main crop is maize, but they also grow millet, sorghum, rice, beans, manioc, peanuts, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. They raise some cattle, sheep, and chickens. Women may supplement their income by selling pottery and hand woven baskets that serve primarily as utilitarian objects. Men may work as blacksmiths or carvers by commission. Although cows are milked, they are most often used for bride price. Cows are considered taboo for women, so men must do all of the milking and herding. Men also do some hunting and fishing, but neither contribute greatly to the food supply. Men and women both participate in farming.Art and Africa Online — http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart
Shona culture emphasizes the extended family. The Shona person lives for the family not for themselves. This is exemplified in the way farm work is shared through "nhimbe."
Hunhu refers to a person's character, spirituality, disposition and sense of responsibility.. One's hunhu determines how one is regarded in society—a person with hunhu is respected, one without hunhu is an outcast.
The Shona are a paternal society and society is centered around the extended family. Although a paternalistic society, Shona mothers are treated as "holy". The extended family is further extended through the "mutupo" or totem and people of the same totem do not marry.
Despite mass movement to urban areas, the traditional Shona people maintain constant contact with their rural home. Deep down, they are agricultural people and they pride themselves as "sons and daughters of the soil.” This comes from their tradition of burying the umbilical cord (once it drops off a new-born baby) in the soil at the entrance of the hut they cook in - the kitchen. The Shona also connect to the land through their ancestors and refer to their home areas as "Kune makuva amadzitateguru angu" (the place where my ancestors are buried).
Traditionally, Shona peoples lived in dispersed settlements, usually consisting of one or more elder men and their extended families. Most decisions were made within the family, although organized political states were recognized as a source of centralized power. They were headed by a paramount chief who inherited his position and power in the divine manner of a king. He usually resided in a centralized location and was accompanied by his court who advised him about most important decisions. The head chief often received substantial payment in the form of tributes from his constituency.Art and Africa Online — http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart
The Shona language is intertwined with Shona social and religious values. The Shona language is diglossic—in addition to an everyday Shona language there is a "high" or "deep" Shona that is used in communicating with the ancestors. Because of the mbira's place in Shona spirituality, deep Shona, which is rich in proverbs and has a vocabulary all its own, is the language of much mbira singing.
Although one does not need to know Shona to learn the mbira, it would seem that a knowledge of the language would lead to a much deeper understanding of and connection with mbira.
Shona peoples believe in two types of spirits. Shave spirits are most often considered to be outside or wandering spirits, and vadzimu are ancestor spirits. Shave spirits are associated with populations living outside of Shona territory and may be connected to neighboring peoples, Europeans, or even animals. These spirits may be either malevolent or benevolent. Bad spirits are associated with witchcraft, while good spirits may inspire individual talents associated with healing, music, or artistic ability. Vadzimu represent all that is ideal and moral about a Shona way of life and are usually associated with recent ancestors or with more remote culture heroes whose exact genealogy has been forgotten. They serve to protect society, but may withdraw this protection if Shona moral ideals are not respected. (See our page on Shone spirituality )