African Laughter/Doris Lessing

Excerpt from the chapter And, Again, 1989. Music

A Sunday morning mbira party. The mbira is a base of wood with metal strips of varying lengths and widths set on it, in tiers. It can be held between two hands and played while walking. When I was growing up the gentle sprightly tinkling of the mbira could be heard as you walked through the bush, and then the player came into sight, usually a young man with a hoe slung over a shoulder, his fingers conversing with the hand piano (which is what we called it) while his eyes searched the bush for game.

When played seated, the instrument is held inside a calabash, for resonance, and metal beer tops are used to add depth and tone.

There were a lot of people, perhaps forty, on the verandah enclosed on three sides by rooms. A swimming bath was watched in case toddlers went too close.

Pupils of a school some way out of Harare sat in tidy rows, wearing their dancing costumes, consuming soft drinks and peanuts. They are well known and entertain visiting Chefs, at parties and banquets. Now they are playing for fun. The meal was sadza, with relishes of peanut sauce and green leaves; rice and curry; stewed chicken, bread, and Mutare’s famous mangoes. Ice-cream. Oceans of Coca-Cola.

The mbira orchestra consisted of three black players, one described as Zimbabwe’s best player, and some white amateurs who joined in the accompaniment. The children danced to the mbira. This kind of dancing is deceptive. It begins with simple padding movements, the feet flat, the body quiet, then grows, but slowly, into a frenzy of movement where you cannot follow the variety and speed of the rhythms, for at the dance’s height it seems the dancer’s feet are always in the air flying after energetic arms and shoulders, every part of the body answering a different beat. There was one little girl, perhaps eight or so, watching the older girls’ movements and carefully following them. She was all concentration as she adapted her arms, her feet, her body, to the dance. Once I watched flamenco dancers in Granada (this was before every flamenco group was tuned to the tourist industry). Four or five women danced together, of different ages, the oldest being perhaps sixty. They were initiating a new dancer, a girl of twelve or thirteen. The older women watched her, making almost imperceptible gestures of correction and encouragement. The audience all knew this was an occasion for the new dancer, joined in the clapping, and called out to her. One day she too would be a famous flamenco dancer, like her grandmother, her mother, her aunt, her elder sister…And she danced for hours, absorbed in her rituals. So, too, the little girl that Sunday morning on the verandah.

People called out for this mbira piece, or another: soft, delicate music, subtle music, the rhythms outside one’s capacity, just as the energetic patterns of the dancers were too fast to catch.

‘This music is to us what your New Testament is to you,’ said the famous mbira player. ‘It is sacred to us.’

Later, in London, I switched on the radio and heard the most seductive of the pieces I had heard that morning being played with a Western orchestral backing, as part of a concert. They say the Zimbabwe mbira players are honoured outside Zimbabwe, but hardly known there: there is a centre for mbira music in New York. Similarly, young people will often have no time for their own songs and music until they hear them played by visiting bands, who have fallen in love with them and adapted them.

When I was a girl there was a man called Hugh Tracey (‘That man Hugh Tracey!’) who went around the villages recording and collecting music. The whites regarded him as some kind of a freak, even a traitor. Some of that music would not have survived without him.

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