The Shona chipendani (pl. zvipendani) is one among dozens of musical bows dispersed throughout Southern Africa in a wide arc stretching from the equatorial region of the Congo down to South Africa. Like the kambuya-mbuya and mukube, the chipendani is a monochord instrument, meaning that it features only a single string. On contemporary instruments, this string is frequently made of recycled wire. One instrument maker, Compound Muradzikwa, reports using bicycle brake wires. A piece of thread is tied around the instrument’s single string, dividing it into two sections. This enables the chipendani to produce two different fundamental pitches that are an interval of a fifth apart.
Chipendani players hold their instruments against one side of their cheek, using their mouths as resonating chambers in order to amplify the instrument’s sound. By manipulating the size and shape of their mouths, performers can also produce a series of overtones. These isolated harmonics create beautiful melodic lines that emerge distinctly above the instrument’s two fundamental pitches. As Sekuru Chigamba told me:
When you play chipendani, you don’t sing; the chipendani sings. You see, what people want to listen to is the sound of the chipendani, which sings like ten or twelve people singing; that’s what they want to hear. You use your mouth to make the chipendani sing. So if you sing, you are disturbing those sounds coming from your mouth.
“Untitled,” original chipendani composition by Sekuru Chigamba
Sekuru Chigamba’s stories about the chipendani illustrate the extent to which many previous assumptions about the instrument should be reassessed. Far from being played only by young herdboys, Sekuru’s recollections of listening to his grandmother play chipendani illustrate how the instrument has historically been played by adults as well as children, and by female as well as male performers. His account thus challenges conventional understandings of music and gender, and suggests that women constitute an important, yet largely unwritten part of the Zimbabwean musical record.
Sekuru’s narratives also reveal the chipendani ‘s diverse social roles in contexts ranging from courtship to the informal family gatherings known as matandaro. He observes that the chipendani can even be played in the ceremonial context of the bira, whether before the deep work of ritual begins, or as a musical interlude between mbira sets. As he recounts:
People used to walk with their zvipendani, carrying their instrument. So, if you are going to a ceremony, you go carrying your instrument. Walking, holding it in your hand. If people are seated when you arrive there, and they haven’t yet undertaken what they’ve set out to do, then everyone will enjoy themselves as you play.
Moving the chipendani out of the domain of child’s play, Sekuru Chigamba’s stories about the instrument present exciting new perspectives and suggest new lines of inquiry for research into this and many other musical bows dispersed throughout Southern Africa, such as the mukube and kambuya-mbuya.
Sekuru Chigamba’s grandson Brian is also an accomplished chipendani player who learned to play chipendani from his maternal grandfather, Sekuru Cigaretta, while growing up in the rural district of Rushinga.