plays a key role in mbira music. While mbira
can sound repetitive to new ears, it's
the very nature of the repetition that provides emphasis and a framework
for variation. Structured around a common theme, the mbira player improvises
with subtle changes in rhythm or melody.
Because there are no "standard" parts for an mbira song, one
could say that all mbira playing is improvisation. Within the harmonic
structure of an mbira "piece" — that which identifies, say, Taireva
as Taireva — and even when playing the most "basic" variations,
how each player moves from variation to variation is unique to each "performance".
Even when playing "the same" variation, each playing is unique.
Because the rhythm and texture of the basic melody are so complex, an mbira
player creates "variations" in the course of shifting accents
or emphasis on certain notes or by singing along with certain notes. An
accomplished mbira player brings out different aspects or relationships
within the melody, thus creating and interpreting variations.
Within a melodic sequence individual pitches can be replaced by their
harmonic counterparts an interval of a third, fourth, fifth, or octave
away. Such substitutions give rise to new melodic rhythmic patterns without
disturbing the harmonic rhythm of the piece.
The mbira's layout of keys allows a typical mbira melody
to move quickly between the different octaves of the three manuals giving
mbira music a rich contrapuntal texture, even though normally only one
note is played at a time. A single melodic line that bounces back and
forth between high and low "melodies"
invites subtle, musically interesting variations on the tune. To the listener
a note might be either a low note in the high melody or a high note in
the middle melody. An mbira player can make a note "jump" from
one melody to another by making subtle shifts in accent and emphasis, or
by shifting a pitch in a variation. Melodies can seem to appear and disappear
during the same sequence of notes. Bringing out a variety of inner lines
in this way, an mbira player can make the same sequence of notes sound
like a completely different piece of music.
As in jazz, part of the basis for improvisation is the underlying harmonic
structure of each piece; this structure also makes it possible for two
or more mbira players to improvise together. Ernest Brown explains that
You don't have the word for "chord. " And you
don't have an explicit body of musical theory. But you learn the music
by imitation. And... if you play notes that are not in the chord, your
teacher will tell you, or someone in the audience will tell you, or they'll
throw a stick at you [laughs]: you don't do that. 'They'll say "Here,
leave that alone. Don't play that note here." And they'll show you: "Here,
play this one. " And if you analyze what they're telling you to
play, they’re telling you to play the notes that are within the chord.
So they’re hearing. . . the relationship of tones to each other.
Exploring the World of Music
Paul Berliner, who has written a study of jazz improvisation
as well as The
Soul of Mbira, observed that:
The polyrhythms that jazz musicians employ at times to animate their
music are actually built into the forms of many mbira compositions. Mbira
dzavadzimu players commonly perform patterns with a triple feeling in
the right hand while simultaneously performing patterns with a duple
feeling in the left-hand, sustaining the relationship from the beginning
to the end of performances.
That discipline is essential for mbira players. Polyrhythmic architecture
provides the foundation for their world of imagination. It is this world
that that they operate within, exploring all the possibilities for invention
it enables. Ultimately, they use polyrhythmic resources to explore ideas
that are melodic and harmonic in character, and to create rhythmic ideas
that have increasingly-abstract relationships to the beat. paul