Chakanaka Zinyemba (’12 BA) keenly remembers the moment he fell in love with the mbira. It was seven years ago and he was napping in his dorm room at boarding school.
“As I was waking up, I heard this music playing. It was so calming and pure – it just kind of speaks to you, inside. I thought, ‘That’s it! That’s the instrument I want to play,’ ” recalls Zinyemba, who was born and raised in Zimbabwe.
It turned out that, in an office nearby, his boarding master was enjoying a CD featuring the mbira or “thumb piano,” played by Zimbabwean musician, Chiwoniso Maraire. There are many varieties of this traditional, hand-held instrument, but most consist of a wooden board with metal prongs that are struck with the thumbs to create sounds.
At the time, Zinyemba was singing in the school’s choir and looking for an instrument to further his musical horizons. So, he approached the head of the choir who connected him with a local mbira teacher: “He said, ‘I’ll give you 10 lessons and 10 lessons only – after that, it’s your journey.”
That’s all Zinyemba needed to become smitten with the instrument. His appreciation grew as he learned more about its social and political history. Before Zimbabwe’s colonization by Europeans, the mbira was associated with the ceremonial practices of indigenous Zimbabweans. But after Europeans came, the instrument was seen as contradictory to Christianity, which became the dominant religion. “Many Zimbabweans will actually look down on the instrument,” he explains.
But in recent years, Zimbabwean youth have been reviving the instrument as part of a larger effort to reclaim their heritage. “There’s a bit of a revolution happening right now. A lot of people are taking it up, not because of the religious aspect, but because of the cultural and socio-political aspects,” says Zinyemba.
Since graduating two years ago with a degree in music and human geography, Zinyemba has continued to both play and promote the mbira, teaching the instrument to adults and children, and performing weekly at Edmonton café and lounge Cha Island.
For his efforts, Zinyemba received Mayor Stephen Mandel’s Certificate of Recognition for Community Achievement Excellence in 2011, and the Edmonton Arts Council Cultural Diversity in the Arts award in 2013.
Zinyemba hopes to connect ex-pats with an aspect of their culture, as well as foster appreciation for the traditional instrument among all Edmontonians. But he’s also hoping that the mbira will become part of Edmonton’s culture:
“At the same time, my aim is for local Edmontonians and the Edmonton creative scene to link with this instrument and create something new, something funky –something Edmontonian.”
Story first appeared as a web banner story on the Faculty of Arts website (from October 2013-January 2014)