mbira is the traditional music of the Shona people and is central to their
spirituality, culture and folklore, the question of respecting and maintaining
tradition is an important one. We talk of traditional songs, traditional
instruments, traditional tunings, traditional mbira pieces, traditional
variations, and traditional religious/ceremonial contexts.
But we also know that traditions are not frozen in time; what is today
considered tradition is the product a process of oral transmission shaped
by continuity with the past and variation which springs from the individual
or the group.
Because mbira is a medium for communication with ancestral
spirits, mbira's special ceremonial context is a powerful force for maintaining
consistency from generation to generation; the ancestral spirits like to
hear the songs they heard when they were here.
But as we discussed on the page on mbira songs (),
because the music and tradition are passed down aurally and orally and
because we know mbira musicians create new versions of traditional pieces,
there is a limit to what we can know about "how traditional" anything
truly is. Was the Nhemamusasa we now call "the original Nhemamusasa" once
a new version called "the new Nhemamusasa" to distinguish it
from a now lost version?
While respect for mbira's traditions is essential, treating mbira as museum
music ignores the reality that mbira, like all traditions, is alive and
A review of a recent Stella Chiweshe
CD says that "she
journeys through the world of her ancestors, preserving their traditions."
But, in fact, traditionally women rarely played mbira! Stella Chiweshe
and Ambuya Beauler Dyoko defied tradition to become respected mbira players.
Might we not say that they (and others) changed tradition?
Mbira musician Tute Chigamba is a respected elder known
for his dedication to tradition. Sekuru Chigamba is also known for the
many new compositions he has created.
The mbira itself has changed just in the 20th century...
Many traditional mbira players frown upon mbira being played
in beer halls and nightclubs. But many of these same traditionalists
recorded records in the then new recording studios of the burgeoning
(Rhodesian) record industry and listened to mbira on the new medium of
their time, radio.