Mbira, Violin and Ethnomusicology

Pardon me, but … Ethnomusicology? Ouch.

Why is the mbira is patronizingly kicked (or politely if condescendingly pushed) into the realms of primitive studies known as ‘world music’ and ‘ethnomusicology’? (What is ethnomusicology, and why does that term still exist)?

When people ask me these days what I do, I don’t know what to answer anymore – so many things, too many things, impossible projects, trying hard to listen, building ceremony theatre, playing music… I have my fingers dipped in so many pots (too many) and it is not me but the road that currently carries my more-often-than-not balking feet to wild places, so one-word or even one-sentence answers don’t offer the breathing room I need. But, since forms and professionalism and business development demand short and clear answers, I have recently fallen back on my professional training: “I’m a violinist by trade,” I respond. (I don’t know how true this can be – I don’t believe one can be a violinist by trade alone, there is too much heart and heart-break involved.) Still, part of the schizophrenia of my path is that – unlike many of my music school colleagues – my road veered me into music of a kind that we did not even acknowledge when I was in school. What I do now – sacred songs, ceremony music, open tone and perfect chord improvisations – was not considered at all a thing. The first time I heard any kind of African music was when I was traveling on a Watson Fellowship after I graduated from my professional violin-trade training.

I thought traveling would exile me from music forever. I thought that by not going to graduate school for performance I was ending my career. Instead, what I discovered was music, for heart-real from the real-soul. I discovered that music at its core reveals, rather than conceals. What that means is that no matter how good your technique, music will reveal character and spirit - technique is there either to enhance that experience of connection or to cover it up as best as it can (not very well at all.) 

In learning the mbira and the djembe, my musical sensibilities have come home to rigor married with Earth, and the Divine. In the meantime my violin has been crying: ‘see, this is what I meant for us to do all along!’ If there is one space where the colonial project has backfired in the worst way, where the West has clearly colonized itself and not anybody else, it is the realm of Music.

How do I mean that? We have exiled any non-Western musical expression in our music schools and musicological analyses into a category of Other, deemed to be lesser in complexity, and therefore, in how much attention it deserves from scholars. (Violin is for the elite, I am told in Harare, by a man who teaches at a private school and encourages me to find ways to pander to local visions of what European culture is.)

When we look at the history of Western Classical music, however, we find that the sources for the sounds are the same as they are anywhere in the world – local, political, collaborative, creative, sacred, profane. Antonin Dvorak recorded village songs and used them in his compositions. His symphonic poem, The Wood Dove, is based on an old story memorialized in the ballad of a Czech writer of a woman who kills her husband in order to marry another man, and is driven to suicide by the mournful singing of a dove on her murdered husband’s grave. The snippet of violin solo in this piece, meant to be the song of the dove itself, I listened to over and over and over again at music camp in high school. Nobody shoved Antonin Dvorak into that strange category of ethnomusicologist. (Why ‘ethno’?) Yet inspiration, improvisation, sacred songs – all of these used to be common in Western Musical History. Violin lore – the caprices, concertos and legends that built up the history of the gorgeous and mad instrument – was born from centuries of improvisation, both musical and on the body of the instrument itself. Concerto cadenzas were meant to be spaces where violinists could show off their skills spontaneously. The excitement of not knowing what the player will come up with rivalled the suspense at an Olympic event. In other spaces, the voice of the violin sang with the sincerity of a voice of a praying human being, just as Hildegard von Bingen sang to God as a mystic.

At some point, Western Musical Training was eaten by the stiff technological approach that characterizes Western civilization as a whole. As African Shaman Malidoma Some writes in his account of his traditional initiation after running away from a Jesuit seminary in Burkina Faso, “The contrast between (the traditional) state of mind and what I had been accustomed to at the seminary was the same as the difference between liquid and solid. It seemed to me that Dagara knowledge was liquid in the sense that what I was learning was living, breathing, flexible, and spontaneous. What I was learning made sense only in terms of relationship. It was not fixed, even when it appeared to be so. … By contrast, I could see that the Western knowledge I had been given had the nature of a solid because it is wrapped in logical rhetoric to such a degree that it is stiff and inflexible.”[1]  

And so the great improvisers and raconteurs of Western musical lore (how else to call them? they were telling stories, don’t you know?) – Paganini and his Caprices, Wieniawski and his Legend, Chopin’s quiet musings at the piano in the living rooms of Paris – they were propped up as geniuses to be imitated, to quell the playful and spontaneous genius in each violinist who came after. Western Music became the realm of conductor-dictators, and the violin succumbed, honing orchestral excerpts to become part of a machine.

And so here we are now, living in this great world of hierarchy and imitation. That we attempt to imitate people we consider the great politicians of our past – that we cling to an old outdated piece of paper we call a constitution and reference other scraps of scribbles to see if we can invite human decency into the here and now – this is sad. What is even more sad is that the natural spontaneous and creative sound of our voices has been coopted by a great need to re-create. 

They call it learning the rules. I call it zombie-fying.

(Still, I love to play the Chaconne at night, over and over and over again.

In the process of this history we have also classified all other music traditions as ‘World Music’ to be studied by ‘Ethnomusicologists’. Why music schools have not yet revised this way of viewing the world – a blatant statement of cultural superiority – when statues of Civil War generals are coming down, I do not know. Why studying the polyrhythms and polyphonics of African music is still being done by anthropologists in ill-fitting khakis and ugly hats, I do not know.

In all of this competition for complexity, I have come to a startlingly simple conclusion: anything that has genuine heart in it is considered too simple for the Ivory Tower. 

There is a worm in music schools, a worm that chews through the love students have for what they do. This is the worm that encourages a popular composition professor in Arizona to hand out copies of The Bell Curve to students. This is the worm that fuels the adoration for a professor who glorifies Western Art Music as the most complex – read: written by men with the biggest brains – in all of history. During my third year at Music School we had a handsome and charming professor. Oh, so handsome. Oh, so charming. He did not play the mbira. He did not play the djembe. He was in the hyper-intellectualized and masculinized composition department. He stood on-stage and we laughed as he compared Webern to ‘Who let the dogs out?’ We thought it was all so funny. Finally, we thought, here was the basis of why what we do is better than all of those simple feelers who express themselves in coarse sounds on primitive instruments. (Western Civilization always has to express itself in terms of better-than. Have you noticed?) Of course, the crisis in the Western soul, fueled by Western wars, and by a thoroughly Western-centric mentality could not easily give up the thing that Western Civilization has clung to since its beginnings as proof of its God-blessed dominance: complexity-based intelligence. (Legions of graduate students swoon over this kind of complexity. Simplicity is on the outs. Even African music gained approval only for its ‘complex polyrhythms’ or ‘subversive politics’ and not for its beautiful sound.)

Scholars such as Mhoze Chikowero and Robert Ferris Thompson challenge the colonial worldscape imagined by those who had to prove to somebody (who, I wonder?) that they were better-than. (Period. Better than – always, everybody.) They examine artistic and musical expression under colonialism and slavery to challenge the idea of ‘primitive culture.’ “While European colonialism was intrinsically driven by economics, it was also culturally propagated, legitimated, and popularly contested. To pitch conquest as a ‘civilizing mission’, the colonists had to systematically destroy, deliberately distort, or censor the positive aspects of Africans’ cultural life while underscoring the negative.”[2] writes Chikowero. For him, the story of musical expression in Zimbabwe is a story that challenges a political soundscape. There is another side to this however – it is the musical story that runs alongside and on par with the musical story that we tell ourselves in the Western world, where Classical audiences are dying out and Classical musicians are burning out. 

Music shouldn’t be a perfectionism, politics or complexity-competition. We have music to be authentic and to stir the soul. This is not to say that training is unnecessary or not useful, but that musical training should live along the lines of what music is: music is the way that spirits speak to us also.

Musically speaking, people around the world have all used it (dare I say, always?) for the same purposes: to come together as a community, for political resistance, for propaganda, to grieve, to connect with God, to heal, to play, to laugh, to express, to tell stories, to cry, to connect with one another, to feel. We are all equals in the musical journeys that our cultures have undertaken. Let us not let a technological culture obsessed with replication kill the soul in the sounds we create. Let us not also let an obsession with preservation of culture take spontaneity, play, culture sharing, and riddles out of all of the instruments of the world, mbira and violin included.

*this text was originally written for the Kalimba Magic Newsletter: look for kalimbas, karimbas, and mbiras on Mark Holdaway’s site, https://www.kalimbamagic.com/.

[1] Some, Of Water and the Spirit. 203-204.

[2] African Music, Power, and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe, Mhoze Chikowero. Kindle Edition, location 203