In the story “Rhumba Dreams,” Sekuru Chigamba describes his dreams of journeying to the Congo to become a rhumba guitarist in 1962. At the time, the Republic of Congo had been independent from Belgium for only two years. Sekuru’s dream of becoming a professional musician in the Congo thus illustrates music’s powerful draw as a symbol of mobility and freedom. Sekuru Chigamba was first introduced to the Kenyan version of rhumba music, known as kanindo. Yet he did not express a desire to move to Kenya. Neither did he consider settling in Zambia, which he would have had to cross in order to reach the Congo.
Sekuru Chigamba’s specific wish to become a musician in the Congo was likely motivated at least partly by a desire to live in an independent African nation. While Kenya and Zambia both won independence within the next few years, neither country had thrown off the yoke of colonial rule by the time Sekuru Chigamba sought to emigrate to the Congo in 1962.
Sekuru Chigamba’s dreams of becoming a rhumba musician suggest that music offered ways to mitigate or escape the type of oppressive labor regimes that he, his father, and his grandfather had experienced as laborers on colonial mines and white-owned commercial farms. Indeed, music’s potential to produce both mobility and freedom echoes throughout Sekuru Chigamba’s stories, from his descriptions of the Zimbabwean liberation war to his experiences as an international touring artist following Zimbabwean independence.
Beyond the horizons of the bira
At the same time, Sekuru Chigamba’s dreams of becoming a rhumba guitarist remind us that his interest in the mbira dzavadzimu followed upon his early interactions with many different instruments, genres, and musical contexts. This is a relatively common trajectory, and many other mbira dzavadzimu players have similarly described early involvement with other instruments. Notably, musical bows such as the chipendani appear to have been a particularly important instrument for many 20th century mbira players (Brenner 1997). At the same time, many mbira players also play a wide range of other instruments such as the guitar, the nyunga-nyunga mbira, and the neo-traditional Zimbabwean marimba.
Given its close associations to the vadzimu ancestors for whom bira ceremonies are held, the mbira dzavadzimu is often described as an inherently conservative musical tradition oriented largely toward the past. However, through their involvement with instruments ranging from the chipendani to the guitar, the musical imagination of many mbira dzavadzimu players extends well beyond the horizons of the bira.
Mbira and the musical imagination
In this essay, I illustrate two ways in which Sekuru’s stories challenge conventional portrayals of the mbira dzavadzimu as an inherently conservative musical tradition. Rather, his stories depict the mbira dzavadzimu as a vibrant musical practice characterized by relentless innovation, creativity, and change.
This type of innovation is particularly apparent in the story “Meeting Sekuru Gora.” In this story, Sekuru Chigamba offers his account of the origin of the mavembe tuning, which is one of the most important tunings played by contemporary mbira musicians. It is equally important in the story “Composing Songs,” in which Sekuru Chigamba describes his long history of creating new songs for the mbira, which he has proceeded to perform regularly at bira ceremonies.
Setting the stage for this discussion, the following section, “Conservatism versus flexibility,” illustrates how scholars have struggled to reconcile apparently competing tendencies toward conservatism and flexibility in mbira performance.
Conservatism versus flexibility
Writing on the mbira dzavadzimu, scholars have struggled to reconcile apparently competing tendencies toward conservatism on the one hand, and flexibility on the other. On the one hand, ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey has described Shona mbira music as “inherently spiritual and conservative” (1971: 8). Thomas Turino has similarly suggested that indigenous Shona religious life is inherently conservative, describing this conservatism as “an impetus for maintaining older styles and repertories of drum and mbira music played in ceremonies” (2000: 36).
At the same time, Turino describes a certain degree of flexibility in Shona musical and ritual practice, which he describes as both individual and contextual:
This instrumentality of conservatisim, however, is balanced by cultural flexibility involving the individual dispositions and attitudes of particular spirits – attitudes developed when they were living… This same type of flexibility also affects musical practice (2000: 36-37)
Taking a broader view, Paul Berliner observes that Shona music has long been characterized by innovation and change, extending from crossfertilization between different musical instruments to the composition of new pieces within the repertory of existing instruments (1993: 25).
Sekuru Chigamba as consummate traditionalist
Scholars have invoked Sekuru Chigamba in the literature in order to illustrate both conservatism and flexibility. On the one hand, Thomas Turino reports that Sekuru Chigamba “at times stated a positive view of adopting cosmopolitan cultural ways and technologies” (2000: 39). Turino likewise relates the following anecdote illustrating the type of individualized flexibility he ascribes to mbira musicians:
Chigamba, for example, told me that mbira should not be played in bars. Months later, he and his family got a contract and played mbira in a bar. I asked Chigamba about this, and he replied that he had consulted with his spirits and they had agreed that the family needed income and so would allow such performance. Like loving (although also sometimes stern) parents and grandparents, family ancestors are concerned with the well-being of their children and so may exhibit flexibility in what they will allow. (2000: 37).
Yet Sekuru Chigamba is more often portrayed as a consummate musical “traditionalist.” Music theorist Martin Scherzinger, for example, states that Sekuru Chigamba views the mbira’s close ties to Shona ritual as rendering it “unsuitable as an instrument of mere entertainment” (Scherzinger 2001: 30).
Music journalist Banning Eyre similarly describes Sekuru Chigamba as rejecting Thomas Mapfumo’s guitar-based arrangments of mbira songs:
“It’s good. It’s not so good,” said mbira master Tute Chigamba. “Young people enjoy that, but for old people, it’s a part of driving away our spirits again. Because the sound we hear from the guitars is so loud. Mbira sound is soft, and those spirits, they draw near” (interview, 1998). Chigamba worried about repertoire as well. With mbira improvising alongside guitars, traditional songs could morph and merge, confusing the spirits and muddling human memory of the past. (2015: 97)
In these accounts, Sekuru Chigamba is portrayed an anxious traditionalist whose cultural orientation is fundamentally deeply conservative, even if it allows for occasional flexibility. Yet Sekuru Chigamba’s own stories paint an entirely different picture. In them, he emerges as a more nuanced figure, at once firmly rooted in indigenous lifeways and decidedly creative, even cosmopolitan.
Through his dream narratives in “Mbira Dreams,” accounts of attending ceremonies in “Taking Up Mbira,” and unwavering faith in the vadzimu ancestors in “Destitution,” his stories illustrate how deeply he values and upholds the mbira’s relationship to the vadzimu spirits.
At the same time, stories such as “Meeting Sekuru Gora,” “Zaranyika,” and “Composing Songs” suggest that Sekuru Chigamba perceives the mbira’s relationship to the spirits as strong enough to foster and sustain creativity and innovation within mbira practice, including new tunings, modifications of the instrument’s soundboard, shifts from participatory to presentation performances, and original compositions for the mbira.
In the following section, “Innovation and the mavembe,” I discuss the emergence of the mavembe tuning, which is among the most influential developments in 20th century mbira playing. As I illustrate, Sekuru Chigamba was among a group of musicians who participated in developing the mavembe, making contributions to the instrument’s layout, tuning, and name.
Innovation and the mavembe
Sekuru Gora’s role
One of the places where Sekuru Chigamba’s tendency to embrace musical innovation emerges with particular clarity is in the story “Meeting Sekuru Gora.” Here, Sekuru recounts hearing Gora describe how he was inspired to modify his instrument’s tuning after listening to mourners cry at a funeral where he was performing.
For mbira musicians, the mavembe tuning was immediately distinguishable from prior tunings. In the words of music theorist Martin Scherzinger, it “has a general and distinct character (faintly “phrygian,” to use a reductive shorthand) that differs from that of both dambatsoko and nyamaropa tuning” (2001: 50). As a result, Sekuru Gora’s distinctive new tuning was widely adopted by contemporary mbira players. As Sekuru Chigamba told me:
The tuning was introduced by Sekuru Gora. Now, it’s a popular tuning now, everybody likes mavembe.
Assertions that Sekuru Gora created the mavembe tuning have been disputed by some mbira players, who have suggested that it existed prior to Gora’s time. Sydney Maratu, for example, told ethnomusicologist Claire Jones that Gora initially encountered this tuning through his grandfather (2019: 213). At the same time, Jones states, “Whether or not Gora ‘invented’ the magandanga/mavembe tuning, the recent history of mbira music and the media in Zimbabwe suggests that he is largely responsible for its spread and growth in popularity” (2019: 214).
Sekuru Chigamba’s account suggests that Sekuru Gora was responsible for more than simply popularizing this new tuning. At the same time, Gora’s description of re-tuning his mbira after performing at a funeral is not mutually exclusive with the suggestion that a similar tuning may have existed prior to this moment. Indeed, we have no way to know whether the instrument he was playing at this event was in a “standard” tuning, or rather in a tuning specific to his family or village, which may have been relatively closer to the mavembe.
Ephat Mujuru’s role
Yet Sekuru Chigamba observes that Sekuru Gora was not the only person involved in the emergence of the mavembe, which also features an “extra” key added added by another legendary 20th century mbira player, Ephat Mujuru.
This extra key, located furthest to the left on the mavembe’s upper left-hand register, does not commonly appear on nyamaropa tuning instruments. Rendering it even more unique, this key is played with the left index finger rather than the left thumb, the only note to be played in this manner. The introduction of the player’s left index finger represents a sudden departure from conventional mbira playing technique.
As Sekuru Chigamba told me, Ephat Mujuru introduced this key in order to adapt a song known as “Marenje” for the mavembe tuning:
This was put by Ephat Mujuru. He’s the one who introduced this key, because he went to Makonde. He saw them playing njari. So, he took that type of instrument, then he said, “Maybe if we put this, we can play ‘Marenje.’”
Claire Jones has noted that “Marenje,” which was first recorded on mavembe tuning by Sekuru Gora and Ephat Mujuru, is sometimes considered a variation on the song “Mukai Tiende,” and (2019: 215). Yet Sekuru Chigamba’s account is bolstered by a field recording made by Hugh Tracey in 1948, which features two njari players, Machuni Jambwa Mbewa and Chitembe Mrewa, performing the song “Marenje.”
Pointing toward the importance of cross-fertilization between different instruments and musical styles, Ephat Mujuru’s desire to play “Marenje” on the mavembe both resulted in a significant modification of the mbira’s layout, and made a substantial contribution to mavembe repertory, introducing what would soon become one of most popular songs played on this tuning.
Even as Sekuru Chigamba’s stories position Sekuru Gora as central in this history, they also clearly demonstrate how the mavembe was forged through interactions between the musical imaginations of several different musicians.
Naming the mavembe
Sekuru Chigamba describes his own contribution to this process as coming up with the name mavembe. As he recalls, Sekuru Gora initially referred to this instrument as the “zig-zag mbira,” a name that emerged from his perception of the uneven intervals between its pitches. As Chigamba told me:
When he was at a funeral, you know, he was saying, “I must tune this mbira zig-zag.” And he did, he put them zig-zag… Because this key is low, this is high. This is low, this is high. This is low, and this is high.
In response, Sekuru Chigamba encouraged Gora to change the name of the tuning to an indigenous Shona name:
He used to call this whole thing “zig-zag mbira.” So, I said, no, he shouldn’t say zig-zag mbira, because no one in Shona knows about zig-zag. So he said mavembe, because you know, there’s a discord there on some of the keys.
In encouraging Gora to come up with a Shona name for his tuning, Sekuru Chigamba sought not only to convey meaning through easily comprehensible terminology, but also to situate Gora’s musical innovation within a local, indigenous framework.
The word mavembe comes from the Shona word uvembe, which Sekuru Chigamba defines as “discord when you sing.” By extension, the word mavembe refers to people who sing discordantly. As Chigamba states, “People who can not sing properly, they are mavembe.” Given that the different registers of the mbira are often conceptualized as the voices of different groups of people, with the right hand register understood as children’s voices, the top left register as mothers’ voices, and the bottom left as fathers’ voices, using the term mavembe to designate this mbira tuning is a natural extension of the word.
At the same time, Sekuru Chigamba ties the term uvembe directly to Gora’s experience of listening to mourners crying, which he described to me as a naturally discordant sound:
So that is uvembe, because when people cry they have different sounds there. One uses a low voice and one uses a high pitch, and all that. So they mix together and make one sound. So Sekuru Gora listened to the cryings of people, and he found out, “Oh, there are some words which are low, some words which are high, and so different chords there inside the cryings of people.” So he had to pick, each chord by each chord, and make the tune.
As Sekuru Chigamba notes, the mavembe tuning is sometimes also called magandanga, a word that literally means “terrorist.” As Sekuru Chigamba explained:
The sound, it’s a violent sound to people. You know, they’re all terrified, and start jumping, dancing wildly. That’s why they called that gandanga. But the real name is mavembe.
Sekuru Chigamba’s description of the mavembe as violent and terrifying reflects an account offered by Claire Jones, in which Sekuru Gora similarly describes this tuning as “a terror.” As Jones recounts:
In chiShona usage, gandanga (singular of magandanga) refers to a wild, savage person or bully. A more current connotation for the word came about during the war for independence; in the 1970s, Rhodesian propagandists referred to the guerillas of the liberation armies as magandanga in an attempt to disparage them as terrorists. Sekuru Gora told me he gave his mavembe-tuned mbira the nickname magandanga because the tuning “was such a terror” (Pers. common. 1989) – thus appropriating the term and cleverly turning it to his own use. (2019: 214)
The semiotics of listening and emotion
In Sekuru Chigamba story of the mavembe tuning, deep ties between mbira music, listening, and emotion emerge with particular clarity. As he recounts, Gora’s experience of hearing mourners cry produced a deep sense of sympathy, encompassed in his remark, “Oh, people are crying in a way that truly elicits sympathy (Ah, vanhu vari kuchema zvinonzwisa urombo chaizvo).” As a result, Gora was moved to create a tuning in mutual accord with their crying, or munzwo unowirirana nekuchema kwavari kuita.
The deep connection between mbira players and their instruments has been documented by Paul Berliner, who observes that simply playing mbira is powerful enough to move musicians to tears (1993: 133). Chigamba’s story about meeting Sekuru Gora suggests that these emotional resonances extend beyond the dyad of player and instrument, potentially encompassing all participants at a musical event. Sekuru Gora’s experimentation with tuning thus emerged from deeply established structures of feeling linking mbira music, emotion, and listening.
Piercian semiotics, which offers a framework for understanding how signs convey meaning, represents one way of interpreting Sekuru Gora’s story about the origins of mavembe tuning. Following Pierce, we might consider Gora’s re-tuned mbira as an indexical sign of relationality, designed to communicate a sense of togetherness following the shared experience of a funeral. Gora’s recollection of mourners crying even harder upon hearing the re-tuned mbira suggests that this indexical sign was effective, and its meaning successful apprehended.
In the ritual moment of the funeral, Sekuru Gora’s new tuning represents only one of many indexical signs at play, including the structure of mbira parts and their accompanying vocal lines, the timbral qualities of the hosho shakers, and the rhythmic framework of mbira songs. As a newly created index such as Gora’s retuned mbira intersects with these more firmly established signs, it participates in what Gary Tomlinson has called a world of ritual systems in which “formalized indexes enter the sphere of the transcendent” (2015: 272). Through the complex interaction between many layers of indexical signs, participants at this funeral engaged in creating a ritual moment linking the living to their recently departed relative, as well as to a long line of ancestors.
In this story, Sekuru Gora’s re-tuned mbira thus emerges as much more than a new arrangement of pitches, for it also operates as an indexical sign of shared emotion. In it, we see how musical innovation may be inextricably interwoven with semiotic innovation, involving the deliberate and creative manipulation of sound as sign.
New tuning, new songs
The emergence of the mavembe tuning was instrumental in Sekuru Chigamba’s own emergence as a composer. As he told me, many of his original songs were developed specifically for the mavembe tuning:
And also some of the songs, I composed, they are on mavembe. On Nyamaropa, I composed very few. But on mavembe, there are plenty of them.
In the final part of this essay, I turn to the story “Composing Songs.” In it, Sekuru Chigamba’s long history creating original songs for the mbira dzavadzimu represents another important realm of musical creativity. As I illustrate, Sekuru Chigamba views his original mbira songs as situated within an ongoing tradition of mbira practice that is deeply linked to indigenous lifeways, to the vadzimu ancestors, and to the ritual context of the bira.
Descriptions of the mbira as inherently conservative often focus on the instrument’s repertory. From this perspective, old songs are valued for their ability to attract the spirits to possess living mediums, while new compositions are not highly valued, or are even considered undesirable. Summing up the position, ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino writes:
Cultural conservatism is… an impetus for maintaining older styles and repertories of drum and mbira music played in ceremonies. Specific pieces and styles known to and particularly enjoyed by the spirit when she was alive are key inducements to come of the ceremony, as are ‘seven-day beer’ and snuff (2000: 36).
As a result, a group of core songs played on the mbira dzavadzimu are now frequently referred to as “classical mbira pieces” (Turino 2000) or the “classical mbira repertoire” (Goddard 1996; see also Berliner 1993: v).
That most mbira players do not compose original songs may itself be interpreted as a sign of musical conservatism. Writing about the mbira player Chartwell Dutiro, for example, Tony Perman cites the fact that Dutiro does not compose original songs as evidence that he “does not entirely reject conservatism” (2007: 39).
Sekuru Chigamba as composer
Sekuru Chigamba, on the other hand, has been actively composing new songs for the mbira dzavadzimu since 1976, when he wrote the song “Mutenda Mambo.”
“Mutenda Mambo” performed by Mhembero, from the album Pasi Mupindu
In the ensuing years, he composed at least twelve other songs, including “Bembero,” “Chaminuka,” “Dandemutande,” “Guruve,” “Marariromba,” “Masongano,” “Mutenda Mambo,” “Ngozi Yemuroora,” “Nyatwa,” “Pasi Mupindu,” “”Tinovatenda,” and “Vasina Katura.”
While Sekuru Chigamba’s original mbira songs are mentioned by only a few music scholars, these authors describe his compositions in dramatically different ways. In a preface to the new edition of his classic work The Soul of Mbira, Paul Berliner cites Sekuru Chigamba’s compositions as an instance of experimentation within the mbira tradition, enabling his songs to be performed in the context of bira ceremonies:
Tute Chigamba has composed new pieces for the mbira dzavadzimu. With the permission of spirit mediums, he performs them side by side with the classical mbira repertory at religious ceremonies. (1993: v)
Thomas Turino, on the other hand, describes Sekuru Chigamba as decidedly cautious about performing his own songs at bira ceremonies:
Mr. Chigamba, a composer of mbira music, once remarked that he could occasionally play his new compositions at ceremonies, but not too often because the spirits would not recognize them and thus would not be attracted to them (2000: 36).
Playing original songs in the bira
In his stories, Sekuru Chigamba paints a more complicated picture. Here, he describes performing his own original songs regularly at bira ceremonies, but only after meeting two conditions. First, Sekuru Chigamba actively solicits approval for his new songs from the vadzimu ancestors in the context of bira ceremonies. Only after receiving their approval does he continue playing his songs at other ritual events. In one of our interviews, he described this process as follows:
When we play in a bira ceremony, there is the time at around two or three in the morning when people get tired. And some fall sleep, and some sit down. That’s when I say to my partners, “I think we can play the new song.” Then we play the new song. As soon as we play the new song, they all stand up, and dance. And some get possessed there. So the spirits have to ask, “Which song is that?” “It’s my song.” “Play it again!” And, I play again, and they dance. They say, “The song is good. What is the name of the song?” I give them the name. They say, “It’s true, it’s true. It must be the meaning of the song, because it’s really nice.”
In “Composing Songs,” Sekuru Chigamba describes having doubts about whether one of his songs, “Bembero,” would be accepted by the vadzimu, suggesting that he does not perceive this process as automatic. So far, however, it appears that the ancestors for whom Sekuru Chigamba has played his songs have received them all with enthusiasm and acceptance.
Sekuru Chigamba also maintains an immense respect for established ritual and musical practices, even as he feels empowered to exercise his musical imagination in relation to them. This is illustrated with particular clarity in the following excerpt from “Composing Songs“:
Those songs, what I used to do is that when I entered a bira ceremony, we would play “Nhemamusasa” and all those other traditional songs. When I saw that people were tired, and they wanted to sleep, then we would play our songs. As we were playing, you would see someone who had been asleep wake up suddenly, exclaiming. He would start to dance. Some would even become possessed while they were still asleep. You would hear the mudzimu spirit ask, “Where did you get this song?” I would say, “It is mine, from my own head.” They would say, “Oh, it is so exciting, play it again!” We would play. “Play it again!” And we would play.
In this narrative, Sekuru Chigamba positions performing traditional songs as both desirable and necessary. In the first place, these songs are well known for their ability to attract the vadzimu ancestors for whom the ceremony is being held. At the same time, his own ability to play these songs expertly establishes Sekuru Chigamba’s status as a true gwenyambira, or master mbira musician. A true gwenyambira would never enter the bira and perform exclusively original compositions; rather, he or she must demonstrate mastery over the instrument’s extensive repertory of pieces.
Yet this excerpt also portrays Sekuru Chigamba playing his own songs as a normal part of performing at bira ceremonies. He depicts these songs as producing great interest and enthusiasm among ritual participants, with even the vadzimu spirits inquiring about them. At the same time, this account suggests that his songs have been met with culturally appropriate responses, including vigorous dancing as well as actual spirit possession. These responses are likewise apparent in other stories, such as his account of “Bembero,” in which he describes performing this new song at ceremonies held by a neighbor in Highfield:
If we played “Bembero” when we were at Mai Donnie’s house, even the midzimu spirits would dance in a different way, in a manner difficult to comprehend. I said, “Oh, that dancing!” Because if a person didn’t have a mudzimu spirit, you wouldn’t join in the dancing. You couldn’t just join in the dancing, no! They were dancing very forcefully, in a celebratory way.
Finally, Sekuru Chigamba describes being asked to play his songs several times in a row, often at the insistence of the vadzimu spirits. Once again, these requests also feature in his account of the song “Bembero”:
I went to Chitungwiza, and I played it there. And we didn’t play any other songs apart from that very one, “Bembero.” All night long, “Just play it again! Play it again, play it again, play it again!”
In these stories, we see that Sekuru Chigamba’s ability to play many well-known mbira songs is critical in establishing his status as a capable gwenyambira. Only after his expertise has been confirmed does he proceed to perform his own original songs. In the process, his compositions are more likely to be perceived as his own contributions to a longstanding tradition of mbira performance.
Sekuru Chigamba’s intention for his songs to become part of the mbira tradition, enabling them to be played during bira ceremonies held for the vadzimu ancestors, is reflected in his description of his own songs as “sacred” (rwakakosha), “chosen” (rwakasarudzwa), “ceremonial” (chemuteuro), and “beloved” (rwadiwa). It likewise emerged in our interviews. As he told me:
When a song is composed by a person like me, I am a Zimbabwean. I can compose a song. If the spirits say it’s a good song, it’s a good song. Yeah, it can be traditional, because I’m one of the traditional people. So I have to compose a song. Those people who composed songs, they were living people, like me also. So I must leave a history also, as what they did.
Composing for the spirits
The sound of Sekuru Chigamba’s songs has likely contributed to the approval with which they have been met at bira ceremonies. As ethnomusicologist Keith Goddard has observed, Sekuru Chigamba’s songs are “based, for the most part, on the structural principles of the classical mbira repertoire” (Goddard 1996: 84). The chord progressions of most of them, for example, are closely aligned to the many permutations of what ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey calls the series of standard Shona chord sequences (2015).
Most of Sekuru Chigamba’s songs similarly have a familiar 48-beat cyclical form, which divides neatly into four, 12-beat phrases. Even his more distinctive songs are clearly innovating in relation to this familiar 48-beat cycle. Two of them, “Tinovatenda” and “Chaminuka” are characterized by a 60-beat cycle, suggesting the addition of an extra 12-beat phrase to the common 48-beat cycle. Another song, “Marariromba,” has a 36-beat cycle, suggesting the subtraction of a 12-beat phrase from the 48-beat cycle.
Tute Chigamba plays “Marariromba”
Furthermore, Sekuru Chigamba’s songs are often about the ancestral spirits for which they are performed. This is evident in the very first song he composed, “Mutenda Mambo,” which he describes as inspired by his desire to thank his father’s spirit for the bumper harvest his family collected in the year following Chigamba Tavasika’s death. It is likewise evident in “Chaminuka,” which is named after this great Shona ancestor, and features lyrics imploring this spirit to return. Similarly, the lyrics to “Tinovatenda” thank all of the spirits who fought for Zimbabwe’s independence.
In Sekuru Chigamba’s own discussion of “Tinovatenda,” he observes:
We are treating the vadzimu spirits as if they have become worthless. But what they have given us is the very source of our life. That is what makes God to know that we are here, that we are satisfied. All of that is known by our midzimu spirits. So that is the basis of some of the songs that we are discussing.
“Tinovatenda” performed by Tute Chigamba, from the album Yangu Ndega
Whether or not Sekuru Chigamba’s songs will continue to be performed by subsequent generations of mbira musicians is another question. When I asked whether his songs were currently being performed outside of his family, he replied:
No. No, I think they will play my songs when I die, maybe. They are still afraid of me. If they play, I might say, “No, don’t play my songs, no.” But everybody should play the song.
Some are playing “Bembero,” and some are playing “Mutenda Mambo,” but not very many. And “Ngozi Yemuroora,” some were trying to play, but not as good as we do. And most of people, they don’t play gandanga. They play the nyamaropa tuning, so that’s why they don’t play the songs.
And those who are playing now, you know, the mbira players of today, they are not playing traditional songs. They mostly play jiti songs, you know, trying to mix them with guitars, and all that. And most of them want to follow the footsteps of Thomas Mapfumo. So they are losing their track. But the right track is to play traditional songs, and try to learn the songs as they were played before.
In comments like these, we begin to see that Sekuru Chigamba views his own songs as traditional, even as they are original. In this section, I have illustrated how his compositions draw upon common formal and harmonic features of mbira songs, speak to fundamental themes of ritual, spirits, and ancestors, and are meant to be performed within the participatory context of bira ceremonies. For these reasons, Sekuru Chigamba’s songs may be accepted as simultaneously traditional and new.
In Sekuru Chigamba’s stories of his musical life, we begin to see that the mbira is far from being a conservative tradition oriented toward the past. Rather, it is one of the most vibrant instruments in Southern Africa, with a long history of dynamic innovation. I suggest that this type innovation emerges with particular clarity in Sekuru Chigamba’s account of meeting Sekuru Gora, as well as in his account of composing songs for the mbira dzavadzimu. Along the way, the mbira dzavadzimu has played an important role in carrying precolonial musical and social practices forward into an emerging present.