A Platform for Ethnically and Culturally Inspired Music
Last year, in my article A view on innovation and preservation I have written about the tension between musical innovation and preservation of music. Today, I want to take up that topic again, but from a slightly more abstract and philosophical angle of view. These considerations might be applied to Mbira music, but also to other musical traditions elsewhere. In my article Gaps of Writing I wrote: In the human mind, knowledge is part of an active, creative process that can apply, adapt and modify it. The knowledge is always incomplete but it is extensible. The core of knowledge we have at any time may be thought of as surrounded by a more fluid “atmosphere” of dynamically changing thoughts and processes of experimentation constantly modifying the knowledge core. What can be written down, on the other hand, is always only a snapshot of some part of the incomplete knowledge. What is being lost in writing is the creativity and the wisdom. This thought can also be applied to music. If we record music or we write in down in a musical notation, we only record ore note down one version from a whole “swarm” of versions. A musician might learn a tune by listening to examples and by playing them. In his mind, a core model of that song takes shape but in performances, he might improvise on it and modify it. During improvisation, when you listen to what you are playing, there might always be an element of surprise. And when several musicians play together, the dialog between them will make that core of musical knowledge in each of them resonate and create new variants. No notations or recording can capture all the possible variations and interactions. Even if we invented something like a grammar of music, a notation that might capture several possible versions as once just like a grammar describes large sets of possible sentences by describing how elements may be put together, such a notation would not capture all possibilities since the creative musician can always modify the structure. And for the same reason, anything that can be written about music would be incomplete since the creative musician is able to invent new music not covered by the description. This situation is, of course, one of the nice aspects of music, but it poses a problem if we want to preserve music that we have received in a tradition. We can make recordings and we can prepare scores. But in doing so, we must know that recordings and scores only capture a subset of the whole. If we start teaching the music in a music school or conservatory, there is the danger that the tradition will freeze and become sterile. Teachers might no longer teach the tune as a creative structure but just certain fixed embodiments of if that have been recorded or written down. This has happened to several musical and artistic traditions. There was a lot of criticism when some conservatories started to teach jazz because people feared that if you can study and get a degree in jazz, the music, once mainly an improvised art form, would become formalized and sterile in the process. Preventing this is the challenge that the musicians who teach and learn in such institutions are facing. If the alternative is the total loss of the music or art we want to preserve, making recordings and scores or preserving fixed ways of performance is certainly better than nothing, and I think it should be done. Likewise, if a language is at the brink of extinction, preparing a grammar and a dictionary of it and writing down some texts is better than nothing. But this does not really preserve the language. An element of life is getting lost here. It is a little bit like collecting butterflies. You stick them to a board with a needle and preserve the beauty of the colors, to be viewed through the glass pane of the glass cabinet, but actually, you are not collecting butterflies, you are collecting carcasses of butterflies. The butterflies are not flying between the trees of a forest, drinking nectar. They are hanging on the walls of a natural history museum instead. To keep the music truly alive, the art must be transmitted from a master to a student., not just the tunes. On one hand, during learning, the student will learn the usual interpretations of tunes. He or she will listen to performances and perhaps recordings and might learn a notation and study written scores. The student might learn to reproduce tunes very exactly. But this is only part of the teaching; it is the part that can be gained from books or online tutorials. But there are parts of the teaching process that require the direct interaction of teacher and student, for example when the teacher gives feedback to the performance of the student. And after mastering all of this, the student must be able to step out of the model and dissolve it. The musician who becomes a master will start to be able to blow the life of creativity into the model he has been taught, to turn that model into a cloud of variants with no fixed border. From this, new interpretations and also entirely new music can spring up. The apprentice must learn the rules, but the master will know when to break them. Creativity is the ability to step out of any formal system, so after learning the formal system, you must break out of it. At the same time, you should make an effort to preserve it and to pass it on, perhaps with additions. While the codification of music contains the danger of traditions becoming sterile and fixed, in a living tradition the risk is that the beautiful tunes of the past will dissolve and be lost completely. This is the dilemma the master musician has to face: to preserve and at the same time to remain creative. I say “dilemma” her not in the sense of something impossible but in the sense of a balance that is difficult to maintain. Recordings and scores are important and should be made, but it is just as important to preserve the living art. This is something that requires a teacher-student relationship. When traditional structures are under threat from the modern world, it might be necessary to institutionalize this teacher-student relationship. Some kind of school has to be formed, but the challenge should be recognized that in institutionalizing the teaching and learning process, musicians and artists must be careful not to take the life out of the music. (The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Exotic_butterflies_at_the_Horniman_Museum.jpg?uselang=de ) http://zvembira.com/2014/02/04/creativity-and-tradition/ more
Pasichigare: Mystic Mbira Music of Zimbabwe is a new double CD offering from world renowned musician Chartwell Dutiro in a collaboration with renowned mbira maker and player Sebastian Pott and Elmar Pohl as the Chipindura Mbira Trio . The album is particularly special to Chartwell as it was recorded using the tuning that Chartwell grew up playing at ritual ceremonies in Zimbabwe. Talking about the experience of recording in this tuning for the first time Chartwell said; “During the recording I found myself totally uplifted! I had a feeling that the spirits of ancestors were in the recording room”. The Shona lyrics are translated into German and English. The album will be available for purchase on Amazon on the 31st of January. Expect a review from Zvembira on the 30th. For more information visit: http://www.chartwelldutiro.com Email: Chartwell@mbira-academy.org.uk http://www.mbira-academy.org.uk more
Well folks, we are back from a great weekend at the Zimbabwe in Devon Mbira Camp. We had a great laugh about the things that people who are not familiar to mbira say about the music and instrument. These ranged from the funny to the downright annoying! We’ve complied a top five list from some of the things that people shared with us. Here we go… 1. Is It Made Out of Spoons? Probably the most common question that a lot of mbira players have been asked! It seems this one has ruffled many feathers. Verdict: Annoying but sweet! 2. Did you make it yourself? People have also been asked many times if they made the instruments themselves. Have you had similar experiences? We were just wondering whether this question is asked because the instrument usually looks definitely handmade hence the assumption that everyone can knock one up for themselves. Verdict: Flattering but annoying 3. Can you play “normal” songs on it? This we found extremely funny (and a bit annoying)! People want to know if you can play a pop song on the mbira. It is a very interesting question in that someone is essentially asking about the versatility of the instrument. What we found annoying about this question is the use of the word “normal”. Anyway maybe this is what they were asking about… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaDA4qHGvKc Verdict: Annoying but understandable 4. I can hear a strange buzzing. I think one of your strings is a bit loose. Believe it or not, someone had the courage to say this! Buzzing seems to be something that always troubles people when they listen to mbira. People at the camp spoke a lot about how people always say “It would sound really lovely without those rattling bottle tops” or “it will sound really lovely when you fix the loose bits”. It seems some people are inclined to a ‘clean’ sound. Is it that there is too much buzzing or what? We’ll never know! We’ve written about buzzing here before. Verdict: People are entitled to their preferences 5. I’ve got one of those but it’s smaller. My mum brought it back from Africa. Well, don’t they all just look the same? We had a laugh about it because we imagined someone from “Africa” with a violin saying to someone in Europe who has a cello, “oh, I’ve got one of those but it’s smaller. My mum brought it back from Europe”. Check out the blog on ‘Mbira Identity’ here . Verdict: Very innocent silly thing to say! Have you heard any funny things out there? We would like to hear from you! http://zvembira.com/2013/07/01/five-things/ more
The UK is rich with mbira players. Just as an introduction we have compiled a short list of videos to introduce you to some of these great names. Chartwell Dutiro Chartwell teaches Mbira, dance, percussion and singing in community and school settings nationally and internationally. He is the founder of the long running mbira gatherings, which occur throughout the year such as Zimbabwe in Devon, Clan Mbira Scotland and Mbira Mubako in Seuilly, France. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AZlfsm5yrJk http://chartwelldutiro.com/about/ Anna Mudeka Based in Norfolk for more than 10 years, Anna has been playing music rooted in African traditions for a long time. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AsvNG5SJnb0 http://www.annamudeka.com/ Linos Wengara Magaya Linos is based in Brighton and he leads the band Zimbaramabwe. Zimbaramabwe performs, practices and teaches Zimbabwean arts particularly Mbira based music, both traditional and modern. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sVTcA31JGpE http://www.zimbaremabwe.org/ more
Following some discussions on Facebook over the last few days about ‘mbira and authenticity’, I went online seeking what others think about issues of authenticity in other types of music. I came across this article that I found rather interesting because it asks questions that are very relevant to mbira and have been asked before in mbira circles. I hope you find it interesting so that we can continue having conversations on mbira and authenticity. Happy reading! Published 2010 by Kirk Ward : Worship in the City What is authentic music? How do we determine what makes a song or a performance or worship experience authentic instead of commercial, fake, entertainment, showy, etc? This seems to be a very important question especially to the marketing-savvy PoMos out there who are looking to “emergent” styles of worship. We want to be involved in real worship experiences that are not contrived from an attempt to force a worshipy moment to occur. This issue was the driving motivation behind the “Contemporvant” video that made the rounds a few months ago. Are we just faking it every Sunday? What is the culture looking for in our definition of “authentic” in worship? Who defines authenticity? This is the first question that we need to ask ourselves. Is folk music authentic? Does unplugging make things more authentic? What if you are playing Contemporary Gospel music? Is is more authentic to unplug then? Does informal attire, a lack of worship order, or popular style music define authentic? Does ancient prayers, iconography, candles and incense create authenticity? My questions should be leading you to see that the problem lies in the fact that “authenticity” is culturally determined. It’s not as easy to talk about what’s authentic when you are bringing many different cultures into a room. In the end, it’s always going to feel “faked” when a white dude like me attempts to lead a traditional black gospel tune. I’m not the “real thing”. Authentic gets determined by the culture in which the expression is coming from. What about commercialism? So another problem that comes up is the power of the almighty dollar. So much music is created just like any other commercially distributed product, with the bottom line as the primary motivation. If I write a song that sounds like Chris Tomlin, I will sell a lot of records because people want to buy more of what they already like. So, what might have been created (maybe by Chris Tomlin) as an authentic expression of an artist goes out into the world and becomes cloned by the business into a thousand versions of “How Great Is Our God”. This effect happens in every market on the planet. There is no musical genre or tradition that is immune to the power of the dollar to create clones. For every “The Beatles” there’s “The Monkeys”. This effect is even seen in the genres that people run to in order to get away from commercialism: folk, country, bluegrass, classical, hymns, jazz, blues, jam bands, punk, indy, metal, thrash all have bands or artists that are sell-outs and poseurs. What do we do to escape it? Do we reject any form of art that has any kind of market drive or value? How does a Christian artist both make money as a craftsman and at the same time preserve artistic integrity? How do we as worshipers choose music to use in our liturgies without just becoming the equivalent of a Top 40 radio station for our particular cultural predispositions? Where does skill enter in to worship? Here’s the place where skill starts to get tossed into the mix. Music that is performed with skill is by it’s nature commercially valuable in the same way that a well built chair or car will have value in a market where chairs and cars are in demand. A well written song or a skilled performer will be a commercial commodity. We all hate to see bad musicians become successful because they look pretty, and yet when a skilled musician plays in church, that can sometimes come off as too “showy” or “commercial” because they are playing at a level equivalent to that which we hear coming from the mass media. We might all agree that skill is good in God’s eyes, but in the practical execution, there seems to be an implied expectation in a lot of churches that a display of skill takes away from the glory of God some how. Many musicians adopt an “indy” or “hipster” aesthetic in order to reject what they deem to be commercial. They play songs without skill (simplistic harmony, minimal instrumentation, limited vocal range, intentionally bland vocal style, casual style presentation). I find it comical that there appears to be a hipster backlash that is sweeping the web and I supposed the culture in general. People are starting to see this as just another culture with the same rules of assimilation, popularity, and commercialization that go in to the formation of a tribal identity. But that’s a tangent…skill as it relates to authenticity is determined by the culture. There’s ebb and flow within the culture as well as generational and class differences are taken into account. Authentic vs. Accessible In “Gather Into One”, C. Michael Hawn presents the problems of authenticity in relation to cross-cultural ministry. If I want an authentic experience of my worship music, I need to go to my tribal church. When I attend the church of a different tribe and they attempt my music, they will fail. Have you ever heard a traditional organist play a modern worship song? It always sounds lame (meaning lacking authenticity)and that’s not even a ethnic difference. So, when we blend tribes into one congregation, how do we create an authentic experience? The sending culture (let’s say Black, Pentecostal) has to adapt a song in order to make it accessible to the receiving culture (White Presbyterian). So what do we change and what do we keep? In the end, each culture has to sacrifice the right to authentic worship music in order to have something better: authentic relationships. I rambled a lot and didn’t answer most of my questions. Can you help me to process this? Did this create any questions in your mind? What is authentic music? | Worship In The City . I hope you found the questions raised in the article applicable to the mbira scene. Of course we need to ask more questions that are very specific to the mbira scene and continue to discuss, enrich and grow the mbira community. Later more
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Zvembira is an active blog about Zimbabwean mbira that provides a platform for mbira players, makers and enthusiasts to share information on mbira, lessons and any other issue of interest.