Albert Chimedza, director of the Mbira Centre, began his lifelong love affair with the instrument almost by accident. His background was in psychology, writing, and film making. In the early 1990s he was commissioned by Channel 4 to make a short documentary film about mbira, and that’s when it all started.
Travelling around the country and speaking to mbira luminaries, like Stella Chiweshe and Thomas Mapfumo, he realized that he needed to learn more about the instrument to be able to converse intelligently on the subject. He decided to take a short course on mbira, initially thinking that a week or two of intensive training would be enough to learn the basics. Well, the short course turned into a three year apprenticeship under the guidance of Mondrek Muchena who played for the mbira group Mhuri YekwaRwizi. Later Chimedza started an mbira band called Gonamombe, playing at night and making his own instruments during the day. In the late 90s, in an effort to regularise production methods and marketing, the Mbira Centre was born, where instruments are made, lessons taught and learnt, and regular mbira performances are held.
The next step was to promote and popularise the instrument which, until recently, was often considered ‘rural’ by many urban Zimbabweans. One of his aims was to promote this special instrument as part of our Zimbabwean heritage and national identity. Another goal was to explore and expand the versatility of the instrument – exploring different genres and different combinations of instruments. Research and development at the Mbira Centre led to the creation of the Chromatic Mbira, which has keys laid out like a piano keyboard. Another innovation was the creation of fibreglass resin resonators, which give the instrument its special sound. In May 2012 an important performance took place at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe when the National Anthem was played on mbiras exactly as the music is scored.
While travelling around teaching and giving performances, Chimedza noted that mbira has gained considerable attention in places like the United States, Europe, Japan, and even South America – yet the instrument was not receiving the attention that it deserved locally. Finally Chimedza realised that the solution was simple – mbira needed to be taught in schools alongside other instruments like piano or violin. This would give children a chance to learn music theory through the mbira and understand traditional music in a global context.
And so, in partnership with the Culture Fund/European Union Partnership for Arts and Culture Development, the ‘Mbira in Schools’ project was formed. In August 2014 the programme was formally launched with ten schools initially benefitting from the pilot project. To date there are five Teachers’ Training Colleges participating as well as five secondary schools and eight primary schools. These schools and colleges are carefully selected and spread around the country from both urban and rural areas. While mbira studies should be an available option in all schools, the plan is to eventually establish specialist performing arts schools in all five provinces across the country to promote and nurture young talent in all artistic disciplines and mbira studies in particular.
With approximately ten thousand schools in the country, and five to ten mbiras in each school, manufacturing good quality, standardised instrument could become a major employment and income generating industry. Teachers would need to be trained in both performance skills and manufacturing skills in order to pass on their knowledge. Our Zimbabwean traditional heritage would be preserved and better appreciated, and our national identity would be consolidated. Musicians and performers would be assured of more receptive and appreciative audiences, enhancing their earning power. In addition, Chimedza promotes the inclusion of people with disabilities as music teachers, offering them a real chance to participate in income generating work.
To find out more email [email protected] or call Albert Chimedza on 0772 269 779.
You can also find them on ‘The Mbira Centre’, and ‘Mbira in Schools’ Facebook pages.