MBIRA JUMPSTART

The Mbira Jump Start consists of transcriptions of the basic mbira parts to several Shona songs in standard notation. You will need to be able to at least decipher music if not read it. If you don't have a clue about notes and staves there are many good texts out there, get one. The parts are quite simple and this is a great opportunity to learn these music basics. These transcriptions will not take the place of a competent teacher but at least you won't spend valuable class time just to learn a basic pattern and a few lines. Like all music, Mbira music comes from the head, the hand and the heart. Use your head to get this information to your hands so the music can come from your heart.

Take a look at the Mbira Map. This is the Mbira dza vadzimu in what is known as Nyamaropa tuning. Your instrument will probably not be in the key of C. Don't worry about this, just be sure you have an Ionian scale (your basic do, re, mi) on the keys I have labeled C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C - then pretend your instrument is in C to learn these patterns. At first the key arrangement will seem awkwardly (or charmingly) non linear, after a while it just is the way it is. As you progress with Mbira playing you will be introduced to other tunings, principally the Aolean/Gandanga tuning. If your instrument layout is significantly different than this map you probably have one of the many other types of lamellophones found throughout Africa. These songs may not work very well on these other instruments, but feel free to try them anyway.

Traditionally, the lowest pitched key on the Mbira and all keys to the left of it are played with the left thumb. The three keys to the right of the low pitched key are played with the right thumb and all keys to the right of that are played with the right index finger. Some modern players mix this up a bit with the right thumb grabbing anything convenient, and the second finger of the right hand also playing some notes. In some of these transcriptions the fingering is notated "Lt" is left thumb, "Ri" is right index, "Rt" is right thumb. The Mbira is frequently played in a duet situation. One player playing a part called Kushaura and the other Kutsinhira. A loose definition of the terms is; the Kushaura is the leading, on the beat, part, and the Kutsinhira is the following, fill in, part. It's more of a feel than a hard and fast rule, a bit like the blues, where a vocal line might start a phrase and a guitar riff finish it. Sometimes the Kutsinhira is identical to the Kushuara except for the placement of the beat, one being an eight note ahead of the other.

Look closely at the Shona Lines given for some of the pieces. They are usually comprised of selected octave inversions of notes in the original pattern. In general, you can substitute or double any note with its octave. Looking at both the Kutsinhira and Kushuara parts and the possible octave inversions, there is a broad pallet of possible melodic and rhythmic phrases. Play around, look for them, listen for them, accent them, play with them.

The 12/8 meter is quite common, usually played as four sets of tuplets with some overlaying lines in six quarter notes. The tuplet figure is played loose, somewhere between a triplet and an eighth/sixteenth/sixteenth rhythm. Bar lines are placed for reference to what are the commonly taught phrases and different teachers might begin with different phrases. Mbira songs have no specific beginning or end, they repeat ad infinitum. The melodies in the Shona Lines sometimes start in the middle, without reference to what you may have thought was the beat, or the beginning. If you start to hear your own odd melodies in the music, that's good, you're getting the hang of it.

Finally, find a friend and play these as duets, and don't miss the chance to get a few lessons with an African teacher.


The Songs

Mahororo
Nyamamusango
Nhemamusasa

Ochi
Taireva

Kariga mombe

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