Hosho shakers are made of dried gourds filled with canna lily seeds, or hota. Sometimes boiled in salted water to improve their hardness, hosho are scraped out to remove seeds and other debris before hota seeds are added. Sometimes, a pattern of small holes may be burned into them using a hot awl. While the opening through which the hosho were cleaned is often sealed by a corncob or newspaper plug, sometimes a woven wire or string closure is used instead. As well as serving a decorative function, these measures improve the sound of the hosho by allowing dust and small debris to escape, maintaining the sharpness of the instrument’s percussive tone.
Hosho are central to many styles of musical performance, from mbira playing to dozens of ngoma genres featuring drumming, dance, and song. From his perspective as a gwenyambira, or master mbira musician, Sekuru Chigamba’s account of hosho playing compares the instrument to a candle lighting the way for listeners and ensemble members alike. On the other side of the Zimbabwean musical spectrum, popular vocalist and guitarist Oliver Mtukudzi attaches similar importance to the hosho. As he told audience members at one live show:
Hosho is a very special instrument, because it complements your mind and the music. It joins your mind and the music. And hosho is so important. It is the one that keeps us on the same page as musicians.
In addition to keeping ensemble members and listeners together, the hosho’s rich spectrum of frequencies adds sonic density and thickness to mbira performance, enhancing the sound produced by the majaka buzzers fixed to mbira soundboards and mateze resonators. Indeed, the hosho’s timbral contributions are an important part of producing the “vibrant, dense sound quality” that scholars such as Thomas Turino have recognized as fundamental to participatory music making (2009: 104). As Turino observes, buzzy timbres and loud constant dynamics offer more than simply a “cloaking function” capable of integrating participants of different skill levels:
The dense mesh of sound of participatory performance is actually a dicent index for the social and performative integration of participants: a sign of sonic and physical merging that actually results from that same merging and thus is experienced as true in a space where sound and experienced social reality are the same thing. (2009: 100)
Comments such as Sekuru Chigamba’s observation the hosho player is “reading the beats” of mbira music illustrate the hosho’s specific relationship to mbira playing. In particular, the most common styles of hosho playing tend to emphasize the second pulse of the triplet, resulting in a particular type of offbeat articulation integral to mbira ensemble performance. This distinctive offbeat emphasis on the second pulse of the triplet frequently corresponds with the bass notes of the kutsinhira part, highlighting one of the most salient, yet least discussed features of mbira music.
The interlocking relationship between the right-hand notes of kushaura and kutsinhira parts has long been recognized as a hallmark of mbira ensemble performance. I suggest that we must similarly attend closely to relationships between lower left-hand notes. In this bass register, kushaura parts frequently place notes on the triplet’s first pulse, while kutsinhira parts routinely place notes on its second pulse. In this context, hosho playing serves mirror and amplify the relationship between kushaura and kutsinhira parts, thus tying the parts firmly together.
“Nhimutimu,” from the album Muzazananda. Performed by Sekuru Chigamba, Irene Chigamba, Musekiwa Chingodza, and Ngonidzashe Chingodza
As the hosho player articulates the first pulse of the triplet, he reinforces the kushaura player’s position within the ensemble. As he proceeds to emphasize the triplet’s secondpulse – the only point when both of the hosho player’s hands are simultaneously engaged in producing sound – he likewise reinforces the kutsinhira player’s position. In the process, mbira players can hear the relationship between kushaura and kutsinhira parts more clearly, producing a strong sense of musical stability. As Sekuru Chigamba observes, “the mbira sound plays together with hosho sound.”
Finally, playing hosho can also be an important first step in learning to play mbira, as it enables aspiring players to look over the shoulders of mbira masters in order to visually absorb the patterns of mbira parts. Irene Chigamba, for example, first began learning mbira by playing hosho for her father and mother, Sekuru Tute Wincil Chigamba and Ambuya Laiza Muchenje:
I watched them playing, and as they were playing I would be playing hosho, and watching as I played hosho. That time I was playing hosho, I was a good hosho player. So when they put their mbira down, I would take those mbira, and I would stay behind. Then, if I saw they were coming back, I would return them.