Throughout Zimbabwean history, music has played a prominent role in the social, political, and religious life of its communities. While the nation’s most iconic instrument is the mbira dzavadzimu, the nation’s many genres of drumming, dance, and song – collectively known as ngoma – are by far the most common indigenous musical styles performed in Zimbabwe today.
The term ngoma is widespread throughout communities in Southern, Eastern, and Central Africa. At a basic level, ngoma simply means “drum.” At the same time, it is also commonly used to refer to specific musical styles that combine drumming, dance, and song. Further extending its meaning, the word ngoma can also be used to designate the very concept of music itself. Finally, there is often a therapeutic dimension to ngoma, which is played at many of the same ritual events where mbira music also features, such as bira ceremonies.
Throughout Southern Africa, there are many different varieties of ngoma drums that share roughly the same construction technique. These drums are identifiable by their cylindrical wooden bodies carved from whole tree trunks and cow-skin heads, which are held firmly in place by a series of wooden pegs. Because the tension on the skin is not easily adjustable, ngoma are often tuned before each performance by heating the drum head in order to raise the instrument’s pitch.
Ngoma can be played with either sticks or hands, or a combination of the two. From tall, slender instruments played standing to wide, short drums that produce an incredible resonant bass sound, ngoma come in various sizes, and can be played singly or in pairs. Depending on region, size, and genre, they are known by an astonishing variety of names even within Zimbabwe: mhito, dandi, mutumba, mhiningo, usindi, and mbete-mbete are but a few.
Ngoma in Guruve
Sekuru Chigamba identifies four different ngoma genres in his home district of Guruve, each of which is played for a different kind of spirit. Two of these genres, mangwingwindo and humbekumbe, are played for different types of ancestral spirits, known as mhondoro and vadzimu. Two more genres, dandi and chidzimba, are not associated with the ancestral spirits, although chidzimba is associated with a separate class of spirits known as mashave.
Sekuru Chigamba grew up watching his father play mangwingwindo during spirit possession ceremonies held in Kamuchanyu Village. He describes mangwingwindo as one variant of a drumming style widely distributed across Zimbabwe, and known by different names in each region. As he explains:
On the drums, some call it dandanda, others say mangwingwindo, and others say dinhe, but it is the same ngoma. It depends on the area where people live. If we go to Chiweshe, they call it dandanda. If we go to Guruve, they say mangwingwindo. If we go to Mashonaland West, to Hurungwe, they call it dinhe. But it is the same drumming. When they sing, they sing the same way, and the ngoma is played the same way. There’s no difference.
Mangwingwindo performance involves several different sizes of drums. Highest in pitch is a pair of small drums known as mito, which are the drums that Sekuru Chigamba’s father specialized in playing. Next lowest in pitch is a single drum called mhiningiro. Finally, the lowest in pitch are a set of three tall, standing drums known as mutumba.
Humbekumbe is a fast-paced ngoma genre played for the family vadzimu ancestral spirits, but not for the senior mhondoro ancestral spirits. In addition to the combination of drumming, dance, and song characteristic of many ngoma genres, humbekumbe performance may also involve a type of mbira known as the njari. As Sekuru Chigamba states, “When it is Humbekumbe, they play drums, and they play njari also. They mix them together.”
At the same time, Sekuru Chigamba observes that residents of Guruve also use the word humbekumbe as a name for any ceremony where this type of music is played. Thus, people would refer to “going to humbekumbe.” He describes tise practice of using the name of a musical genre to refer to a ceremonial occasion at which it will be played as widespread, stating that people similarly refer to “going to dandanda,” “going to dinhe,” or “going to mbira.”
Sekuru Chigamba names dandi (or madanhi) as another type of ngoma music played in Guruve. He describes this ngoma genre as related to another type of music, played for the mapfeni spirits. Yet, dandi is not exactly the same. As Sekuru Chigamba explains:
Madanhi, that’s dandi. That dance is like the one played for the baboon spirits. They are almost the same. It’s related to mapfeni, because if there is one who has the spirit of baboon he can start dancing. And the baboon can possess there, and start climbing the tree.
So now, madanhi is for strong people. When they say they are doing madanhi, it is to make people dance. They will be showing how much energy they have… When it is dandi, only one dancer enters at a time, jumping high in the air, spinning around, and coming back to face the drums.
The last ngoma genre Sekuru Chigamba identifies with Guruve is one called chidzimba. Chidzimba is associated with hunting spirits, which fall into a class of spirits known as mashave. The spirits of people or animals from outside the family’s ancestral line, the mashave are often credited with bestowing various talents, such as hunting, healing, dancing, and playing music, upon their chosen hosts. While chidzimba make be played differently in other areas of Zimbabwe, Sekuru Chigamba describes it as played on a single drum in Guruve:
Chidzimba, they play just one drum. Chidzimba, you dance like mbira dance. They play for the spirits of hunters. That’s the best drum for the hunters.
Other Korekore drumming styles
Just as certain types of mbira are specific to different areas, many ngoma genres are also highly localized. As a result, the ngoma genres that Sekuru Chigamba associated with Guruve may not be played even within other areas of Zimbabwe’s Korekore-speaking northeast. While visiting Rushinga with the BBC in 1995, for example, Sekuru Chigamba experienced several other styles of Korekore drumming, including the ritual ngoma genres of mafuwe and teura, and the more recreational ngoma genres of jiti and chizokoto.
Ngoma in historical perspective
There are few written records describing ngoma performance in the precolonial era. Yet available archival evidence suggest that like the mbira, ngoma has long been associated with political authority. Drawing from the sixteenth-century Portuguese explorer João Dos Santos, for example, Zimbabwean historian Stan Mudenge has suggested that the rulers of the Mutapa state had professional musicians in their employ, including singers, drummers, dancers, and mbira players.
Joining this archival evidence, oral histories suggest that ngoma has evolved in response to changing social conditions. During the early colonial period, for eample, ngoma performance was increasingly restricted as missionaries sought to transform Zimbabwean musical practice by replacing indigenous styles with European ones. Instruments associated with ritual, such as the mbira, were subject to particular scrutiny. Yet even predominantly recreational ngoma styles were widely discouraged, partly because of their associations with dancing bodies.
One particularly interesting case involves the Zezuru genre of mbende, named after a species of mouse known for quick, darting movements. Mbende reportedly emerged during the nineteenth-century Mfecane wars that broke out around the Limpopo River as a result of Boer expansion within South Africa. In response to pressure from missionaries who objected to the dance’s quick, twisting movements of the waist, the colonial government soon outlawed mbende. Yet local communities simply renamed the dance jerusarema, the vernacular Shona term for the holy Christian city of Jerusalem, and carried right on dancing. By sacrificing the name mbende, Zezuru communities were able to maintain this form of ngoma practice.
Jerusarema performance during a kurova guva ceremony in Zengenene Village, Murewa (field recording by Jennifer Kyker)
Even ngoma genres that survived missionization were subject to sweeping change both during colonization and in the postcolonial era. As their original performance contexts disappeared, for example, many ngoma styles moved into new settings such as the urban beerhalls built for a largely male colonial labor force. In this environment, music previously associated with ritual became re-coded as a secular form of social entertainment. The materials used in ngoma performance also changed, with cloth skirts replacing costumes made of skins, and durable plastic toilet floats substituting for magavhu leg shakers previously constructed of the fragile shells of wild matamba fruits.
Ngoma as social commentary
Through Southern Africa, music often holds a privileged status, enabling it both to violate normal social conventions and to sharply critique abuses of power. Even as ngoma was being reshaped by colonization, its performers thus used it to reflect upon this very experience by crafting new lyrics to protest colonial rule.
Mbira player Chartwell Dutiro, for example, recalls how the mbende/jerusarema song “Sara Regina” came from villagers’ experiences of being forced to dig contour ridges, a hated colonial agricultural practice. As Dutiro explains:
Magobo means cutting down trees, not only cutting down, but uprooting, so that you are creating the land. . . . So the people started singing songs. You know, ‘Magobo, ndakuti sara’ [Magobo, I say, ‘Stay behind’]. Mbende—jerusarema—now they’re saying, ‘Regina, stay be- hind. You don’t go to magobo.’ They are complaining about contour ridges.
Sometimes, these protest songs were banned by colonial officials. More often, they entered the public domain as shared memories of colonial experience, enabling them to both reflect and transcend their original historical contexts.
Ngoma’s participatory aesthetics
Ngoma is deeply participatory in nature, inviting audience members to engage through dancing, call-and-response singing, makwa handclapping, rhythmic dancing, mhururu ululation, and muridzo whistling.
Most ngoma songs are structured around call-and-response relationships that feature at least two singing parts, with the leading part called kushaura, and the response called kudaira or mabvumira. Yet the concept of call-and-response is not only musical – it is also social. As musicians negotiate the performance of interlocking drum patterns, call-and-response singing, and accompanying musical practices, they become jointly engaged in producing an interlocking musical groove.
Yet neither musical perfection nor social unity are required to successfully sustain this musical groove. Instead, the call-and-response relationships of ngoma are capable of accommodating what music scholar Charles Keil has referred to as “participatory discrepancies,” in which people may phase in and out of synch with each other, even as they remain within the collective experience of the musical event.