The word matepe is often used as an umbrella term for three closely related variants of mbira, known as the matepe, hera, and madhebhe. In Zimbabwe, Andrew Tracey suggests that hera is played largely by Korekore and Tavara speakers in Rushinga, matepe by Budya speakers in Mutoko, and madhebhe by Sena and Tonga speakers in eastern Mutoko (1970). All three types are also found in central Mozambique.
Matepe music recorded in Josam Nyamukuvengu’s village of Nyanhewe. (Courtesy Tessa Watt)
Sekuru Chigamba’s encounters with matepe
As matepe is played predominantly in Zimbabwe’s rural northeast, it is often identified as a Korekore instrument. Yet matepe is played only in certain Korekore-speaking areas. Growing up in Guruve, for example, Sekuru Chigamba was exposed to neither the matepe or the mbira dzavadzimu. Rather, another type of mbira, known as njari, was played in Guruve. As a result, he would encountered both the matepe and the mbira dzavadzimu only after leaving Guruve and moving to the capital in the early 1960s.
After he began playing mbira dzavadzimu, Sekuru Chigamba met an elderly matepe player from Mozambique, whom he knew simply as Wilson. As Sekuru Chigamba recalls, “He was very old. He came on foot from Mozambique in 1928. So he said he played matepe from Tete to Vila Pery, he was playing matepe in all those areas.“
Although their instruments were different, Sekuru Chigamba and Wilson found a way to play together. As Wilson played his matepe, Sekuru Chigamba took up his mbira dzavadzimu and searched for a song that might fit with what the old man was playing. As Sekuru Chigamba explains:
He just played in his own way. And like that, while he was playing, I could play “Nhemamusasa” on my nyamaropa. I never played mavembe with him, but I played nyamaropa.
While Sekuru Chigamba continued to reside primarily in Highfield, he was granted land in the rural district of Mount Darwin through a government resettlement program launched shortly after independence. Within this district, the land allocated to him was located in Rushinga, one of the areas identified by Tracey as a stronghold of matepe playing. As a result, Sekuru Chigamba soon came into contact with other matepe players.
Among them was Josam Nyamukuvengu, who played hera. Nyamukuvengu is a particularly important musical figure, and was among the musicians who worked with ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey. In 1970, Tracey recorded Nyamukuvengu playing several songs, transcribed these recordings, and produced a tuning diagram of Nyamukuvengu’s instrument. Many of these transcriptions now available digitally through Stefan Franke’s Sympathetic Resonances project. Includes pieces “Dairai Romba,” “Kuvachenjedza,” “Marume Azere Dare,” “Muparaganda,” “Ndonda,” and “Pasi Panodya.” Nyamukuvengu’s terms for various keys on the instrument also appear in Tracey’s article “The Matepe Mbira Music of Rhodesia” (1970).
Sekuru Chigamba first met Josam Nyamukuvengu when he accompanied ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran and BBC producer Tessa Watt on a research trip to Nyanehwe Village in 1995. As Sekuru recalls, the Nyamukuvengu family was displaced by the Mozambican civil war, and sought refuge with the medium of a mhondoro spirit known as Nyamapako. Only after war ended were they able to return to their own village, known as Nyanehwe Village. As Sekuru Chigamba explains:
I moved from Guruve and settled in Rushinga. So there was the mhondoro spirit where they were staying, playing. They were offered a place there because most of them were moved from the border area because of RENAMO. And then they went to stay with the mhondoro spirit, since they were playing mbira. And they were playing matepe all the time at the mhondoro spirit. And, his wife also was a medium to the mhondoro spirit. She is good at singing. So they stayed there.
And then after the war of RENAMO then they went back to their place. They moved from Nyamapako and they went to Makuni. Because you know, they were staying in a keep, like a compound. That’s where they were staying, surrounded by the soldiers, because of RENAMO. You know, they were killing people there, so people were not allowed to stay in their homes – they were staying in that compound.
So when RENAMO stopped fighting, the Nyamukuvengu family moved. And they were not in the compound, they were in the village, that’s where they were staying. But the rest of their relatives were still in the compound. So, it was tough.
Reconceptualizing the matepe’s origins
While Hugh Tracey has suggested that the matepe originated in Mount Darwin district, Sekuru Chigamba locates its origins in Mozambique, where Sena, Chikunda, and Shona-speaking communities settled during the long southward migration from Guniuswa. As he says, “Those who stayed in Mozambique created the matepe.”
After the matepe became established in Mozambique, Sekuru Chigamba suggests that Portuguese inclursions into Southern Africa facilitated the instrument’s spread to Zimbabwe by causing certain Mozambican communities to migrate west, moving from Tete and nearby Barwe-speaking areas into Zimbabwean territory:
I think the right place to go where you can find matepe is Tete, Changara. In Changara, most of the people there are from Zimbabwe. And if you go to Tete Province, that’s where you get people playing matepe… Tete, that’s where you find this. And Tete also, that’s where we – people in Zimbabwe, they are the Munhumutapa people. They were staying there, in Barwe. So when the Portuguese came, they moved down here. They thought, “These people might take our areas,” so they moved down.
Tuning and playing technique
Wherever it is played, ethnomusicologist Jocelyn Moon has described the matepe as “an instrument that has strong associations to traditional religious practices of ancestral spirit veneration” (2016: 191).
A lengthy matepe song performed during a ceremony in Nyanhewe Village. The sounds of a possessed medium are audible in between song. (Courtesy Tessa Watt).
In this respect, the matepe shares an important commonality with the mbira dzavadzimu, which is similarly performed in the context of ceremonies centered around spirit mediumship. Yet the physical construction and playing technique of both instruments differ significantly.
While mbira dzavadzimu soundboards are generally crafted of wood from mubvamaropa (Pterocarpus angolensis) or muriranyenze (Albizia antunesiana) trees, Sekuru Chigamba reports that matepe soundboards are made of wood from mutiti (Erythrina abyssinica) or mupepe (Commiphora marlothii) trees. While the mbira dzavadzimu’s soundboard is solid, the matepe soundboard is hollowed out, resulting in a flat, bell-like shape. Metal rods with wire rings are often inserted into the matepe’s internal cavity, produce a buzzing sound.
In comparison to the mbira dzavadzimu, the matepe’s keys are longer and thinner, and are played with two thumbs and two index fingers, which Moon observes “adds a significant level of difficulty to the playing technique” (2016: 201). As Andrew Tracey further observes, the instrument’s tuning is carefully coordinated with its playing technique so as to produce the type of doubled notes so characteristic of the mbira’s sound:
The overtones of the nine bass notes… must be very carefully tuned to the required scale by making them sound accurately in unison with the shorter, higher reeds of the right manual. This gives the result that the left and right manuals sound effectively at the same pitch, although technically separated by two octaves. The music is composed to make use of the effect of combining the two hands – the resultant melodies perceived by the listener (and by the singers, see on) appear to be played as if by one hand in the limited range of an octave or so, but from watching the instrument being played it can be seen that the two hands combine more or less equally to create them (1970: 45)
Given the way the matepe’s bass overtones intermingle with its highest right-hand notes, it is particularly powerful as a solo instrument. As Tracey observes:
I have often been told by matepe players that their instrument is the best of all the types known because “One matepe is enough. With the others you must have two or three to get the same (full) sound.” And, of course, the volume and richness of sound coming out of three or four matepes, as is often heard, is incomparable (1970: 49).
Finally, Sekuru Chigamba notes that matepe music is frequently accompanied by ngoma drumming, in addition to hosho and singing.
Historic marginalization and new digital possibilites
As ethnomusciologist Thomas Turino has observed, the mbira dzavadzimu rose to prominance partly given its proximity to the nation’s capital, which housed important recording and broadcast centers. In contrast, matepe is found largely in the remote reaches of Zimbabwe’s rural northeast. Like the njari, mbira dzavaNdau, and many other indigenous musical instruments, the matepe has thus remained decidedly marginal, particularly in comparison to the mbira dzadzimu.
Among the nation’s marginalized musical traditions, ethnomusicologist Jocelyn Moon observes that the matepe in particular has recently begun into digital space, enabling it to reach an increased audience located primarily outside Zimbabwe’s borders. Among other digital resources, the matepe is now featured in Youtube videos, digital transcriptions, facebook pages, research blogs, Patreon lessons, digitized photographs and archival recordings available through ILAM and MBIRA, and online versions of scholarly articles such as those written by Tracey and Moon.
Back in Zimbabwe, the matepe’s growing digital presence has brought new teaching, recording, and performance opportunities for select matepe players. Despite this trend, however, the instrument appears to remain severely endangered. After conducting extensive fieldwork on the matepe, Jocelyn Moon thus observed, “After four years of researching matepe, I know of less than ten master musicians in Zimbabwe who play the instrument” (2016: 197).
Paradoxically, Moon argues that the new secular possibilities inherent in the matepe’s digitization may prove instrumental in ensuring the survival of this musical practice, which is otherwise closely associated with the ancestral spirits. Moon’s work suggests that younger generations in matepe-playing families have proven reticent to take up instrument, particularly in the context of Zimbabwe’s increasingly Christianized society. In response, contemporary matepe musicians point to the instrument’s digital presence as a way of claiming new secular possibilites. For Moon, these efforts to strategically decouple the instrument from ceremonial life constitutes a deliberate, indigenous reconceptualization of the matepe, and a conscious strategy for its survival (2016: 205).