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Author: Drue Fergison
Title: Chiyavayo: interior decorating with the African Mbira
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Chiyavayo: interior decorating with the African Mbira
Drue Fergison

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 2, pp. 2-3, 1991
Author Biography: Drue Fergison is a graduate student in Music at Duke University.

CHIYAVAYO: Interior Decorating with the African Mbira


"Contrary to popular belief, there are Shona words for describing a work of art. One of these is chiyavayo. It is used to describe a good, intelligent performance, a decorated pot, a well-told story, or a decorated house. The emphasis in the meaning seems to point towards the skill and intelligence of the one who is responsible for the work of art rather than to the object itself. Such a person is called a nyanzvi, or one who is an expert in thinking, expressing, or doing.

Creativity seems to be based on doing more than is necessary, and this is the point that is so often missed by those who accuse African art of being utilitarian. Chiyavayo cannot be present without decoration or adornment." [1]

In his article "Roll Over Beethoven: The new musical correctness and its mistakes," [2], Edward Rothstein offers a vitriolic attack on "the multiculturalist" agenda. A detailed critique of Rothstein's arguments must wait another context, but there is one aspect of his article that I should like to address in the present paper. This is that Rothstein interprets one of multiculturalism's main goals to be "a diminished place for Western culture." Aside from negatively defining multiculturalism in terms of its supposed failings, he assumes that this is a main goal—in sum, that there is a single, unified multiculturalist ideology. I have no clear idea of whether or not Rothstein would lump me in this group were he to hear my views. But it is true that those who advocate an increased familiarity with "non-Western" cultures in American and/or "Western" life, are not necessarily simultaneously advocating a decreased familiarity with the so-called "Western tradition."

Of course, mere logic indicates that one cannot have it both ways; the common sense of time constraints tells us so. Yet, due to the very same time constraints, one also cannot "master" the canon of the "great Western tradition" (however this may be conceived). Pragmatic compromises must constantly and continuously be made in every context. Yes, including study of the "non-West" will, of course, mean less (quantitative) time for the "West", but it does not have to diminish "Western" values. It can, instead, create a qualitatively heightened appreciation of them as well as supplementing quantitative knowledge of the "West".

Of course, to even speak in the dualizing language of qualitative/quantitative, "West"/"East", and "multiculturalist"/"non-multiculturalist" tends to promote the notion that study of this variety is indeed necessary. How are "West" and "East" defined, for example, and are they really so separate? Aren't there interconnections between them? Wouldn't our comprehension of these links (of "our" similarity to the "Other", to use Rothstein's terminology) increased by "knowledge" of both? Wouldn't this in turn heighten our appreciation of our underlying universal humanity? Or, perhaps this is exactly what we do not want to have happen, what we are hoping to avoid.

Rothstein primarily addresses music, or rather "musics"—the different kinds of "musics" that exist in the world. Because many of his arguments beg questions, I should like to discuss, in plain terms, what I believe is one value of studying "non-Western" music in a "Western" classroom, and why "Westerners" ought, in some manner, to be exposed to "non-Western" music.

This article will concern itself with the musical instrument known generically as the mbira. Classified as a plucked idiophone with or without resonator, this instrument—which assumes a variety of forms and is known by a variety of names both inside and outside of Africa—is found primarily throughout central and southern Africa. In the preface of his book The Soul of Mbira [3], Paul Berliner notes that the mbira is

a uniquely African contribution to the world of music. Although it is one of the most well-established and popular melodic instruments in black Africa, the mbira has rarely received the attention in the West that it deserves. Many Westerners have the limited view that African music consists entirely of drumming ... The Shona people of Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) are among those people in Africa who place a special significance and value on the mbira. Their mbira players have developed an intricate polyphonic music which epitomizes the beauty and subtlety of the music of African melodic instruments. An ancient instrument, the mbira has had an important function in Shona culture for hundreds of years. It continues today, as it has in the past, to play a central role in the traditional religious experience of the people. For these reasons the study of Shona mbira music can contribute a great deal to the Westerner's understanding of sophisticated African music.

I would add only that it can also contribute to our understanding of our own musical culture and heritage.

Many of us have undoubtedly shared the childhood experience of coming across an mbira (which we probably knew by the name "thumb piano") in a toy store or attic, or of having one presented to us by a friend. This small thing—tinny, out of tune, hard to play, primitive—seemed more like a toy that made odd noises than a bonafide instrument. Though apparently an exotic musical instrument, it was quite difficult to make actual music with. After a short period of initial curiosity followed by frustration, the "thumb piano"—ironically outgrown—probably went the way of many playthings—literally (re)relegated to the attic or to the ubiquitous Salvation Army box, or placed back on its shelf in the store. After all, it was certainly not the equal of the violin, piano, trumpet, flute. Whereas the latter were real instruments and exciting icons of adulthood which created music, the "thumb piano" was merely a sound-emitting childhood toy.

At school, in the "whole earth" store in a college-town, a number of instruments are sold. There are lots of "thumb pianos" (perhaps now called mbira) but by and large it is a motley collection: various kinds from a smattering of (trendy) geographic locales. Right now, Africa, South America, and Indonesia are "in". Often (and unfortunately) inexorably priced, one must wonder what the purpose is in marketing these instruments, and who buys them. Out of reach of the most modest pocketbook of a typical student lover of music, ethnomusicology or anthropology, they seem destined to remain as ornaments to the shop, or—if lucky—they may go to decorate a home.

Chances are great that in either case they will be mostly displayed and only occasionally played (or, tinkered with) for (or by) their audience. This is not dissimilar from the fate of the childhood "thumb piano": it is show, not tell, toy rather than tool. Of course, this kind of diminution—from making/playing/using to buying/displaying/owning—is not necessarily "bad". After all, the whole phenomenon connotes a valuing of the unknown, the "non-Western", the "Other". Perhaps, never having heard the music, one values an instrument's appearance alone, or perhaps, having experienced the music through concert, recording or radio, one values a commemorative physical symbol. Note the similarity here to households that contain a (non-thumb) piano—symbol of nineteenth century "Western" bourgeois culture—that is very rarely played and whose function appears to be primarily decorative.

Significantly, however, the piano is more likely to be played, and certainly one would know where to find a teacher if one so wished. Perhaps in part because of the difficulty in finding a "thumb piano" teacher, it cannot be similarly "mastered" by us. But is this not to some extent also its charm? Do we not value the "Other" in part because we do not (and cannot without concrete effort) "know" it? And doesn't this silently passive valuation further absolve us of the responsibility to actively "know" it better, to listen to its voice, so to speak? After all, might not knowledge destroy some of its charm? Further, if we did "know" it, and it seemed "superior", what would this say about "us", about "our" culture? And if we "knew" it and it seemed "inferior", might it not just confirm some underlying hope or conviction on our part that "the West" is indeed "better"?

Of course, "us", "them", "superiority", and "inferiority" are not the "real" issue here. To some extent, these dichotomies are only forged in realms of not knowing—of not knowing about actual and specific points of similarity and contrast. Sometimes students who love and listen to "Classical" music express concern that by taking a course in "music appreciation" their very real personal "appreciation" will be lost in the methodology of the intellect. This does not have to be the case, but we may be forced to confront and discard some of our old preconceptions along the way to a new way of seeing the music.

Older, one might travel to Kenya. In Nairobi shops and dotted throughout the outlying tourist circuits one sees very many musical instruments—including these small "thumb pianos"—adorning the walls and shelves of their respective stores. In a children's school book (Musical Instruments: A Resource Book on Traditional Musical Instruments of Kenya) one finds that the "thumb pianos" are called adongo. Do they sell well? Who buys them? These questions remain unanswered, but the fact of their existence as a tourist commodity suggests a belief that they will be valued by prospective buyers. Interestingly, the merchants who sell them do not seem to be either players or makers since they possess no more than the most cursory sense of how to play the myriad of different instruments that they sell.

Three additional observations occur. First, an mbira at the artsy and popular Heritage store in downtown Nairobi sells for not much less than in Durham, North Carolina. This is potentially intriguing, given the fact that African baskets (and much else) generally sell for much less anywhere in Kenya than they would in the United States. Second, if a Kenyan were to come to the U.S. and frequent any of "our" comparable tourist establishments, it is most unlikely that he or she would find violins, guitars, flutes, horns, drums, pianos and other common instruments so readily "lined up along the wall," as it were. In fact, in the U.S., it would require a more concerted effort to sleuth out a merchant of musical instruments (who, it should be noted, still might not be a maker—though would probably be a player—but would likely specialize in that trade). Finally, one notices in Kenya that many of the instruments are decorated in ways that do not appear essential to their "function". It is true that "Western" instruments are also often decorated. It could be significant, however, that mbiras—presumably manufactured as tourist commodities—are individually decorated with a variety of different carved- or burnt-in criss-cross patterns. This would likely not be the case in a comparable American context. These three observations seem to point to valuation of the mbira (and other assorted instruments) on the part of the Kenyans and/or to their perception that "we" (their market) will value it.

A number of additional questions (which cannot be answered without further research) raise themselves: if the merchants did not make these mbiras, then who did? Players? The same people who usually make them? People especially involved in the tourist industry? How do these mbiras differ from those that would be bought/made/played by a "native" mbira player? And what about the decorations? Are they the same as those that would be found on a "native" player's instrument? If not, how not, and why not? If so, is this significant? What, if anything, do these decorations symbolize?

The majority of mbiras for sale in Kenya appear in their basic construction to be "good enough" so that the instrument will sound well, but they are not necessarily polished and perfected. For example, the lamellae (keys) may be slightly rough, uneven, rusty, bent up and down at differing angles and may lack certain visual symmetry. And yet, decoration per se is still an essential component that complements the basic functionality.

It would seem plausible that if these instruments were manufactured for tourists that they might be devoid of decoration, or that the decoration might be more standardized. After all, either of these options would undoubtedly save time and money. (Perhaps the "basic functionality" of the lamellae results from makers knowing that their instruments are for the tourist industry and will not be "played.") Whatever the case, one thing is certain: whoever the makers were, they deemed the decoration to be somehow a necessary part of the instrument, of the process of making the instrument, other potential buyer's perception of the instrument, or of some combination of these. To me these are signs of valuing the instrument. To the makers, however, the decoration may not connote value per se, but may be, simply, essential. For the makers, there may be no essential distinction between "the decoration" and "the instrument." Thus, my initial view equating decoration with value may be ethnocentric. Perhaps decoration is valued, but not necessarily separate from "the instrument" in functional terms.

For example, many mbiras have calabash gourd resonators which serve an important musical function (to amplify sound) and which may be overtly decorated. But what about the plain resonator, however, whose surface is burnished through use and natural body oils to a warm, glowing patina? Is this "beauty" a product of the player's love for or use of the instrument? Or, does it become part of the embellishment/decoration of the instrument? Or, both? If a Westerner purchases an instrument with an "artificially" (or non-)patinaed plain gourd resonator and hangs it on the wall, is not its value less than if its patina resulted from the owner/player's long and loving interaction with the instrument over time? As with the Velveteen Rabbit, does not the very process of using the instrument to play and create music actually bring it to life and make it "real"? Can the instrument ("the soul of mbira") really exist if it has not been subject to this? How can one really separate the instrument, the player, and the music?

Another example of this so-called "functional aesthetic" is the vibrators which are attached to mbiras and/or to their gourd resonators in order to create a resonant buzz. Formerly, shells pebbles, beads, and other natural or traditional materials were used for this purpose, but nowadays soda bottle caps are often preferred since they are readily available, durable, and sound well. The buzzing quality—whose exact intensity is a matter of personal taste—is desired, and valued as a necessary, and as an emotionally intensifying aspect of the music itself. Yet, it is achieved—as is amplification from the calabash—through means that possess a visual component. However, as much as "Western" ears may appreciate the sounds, it is unlikely that "Western" eyes will equate the pragmatic functionality of soda caps or a gourd resonator with the non-functional "beauty" of mother-of-pearl inlay on a violin.

For one thing, we throw soda caps in the trash. They represent popular culture, the commodifiability of everyday life. To an mbira maker or player, however, such an item (or a comparable "scrap" of metal) not only admirably fulfills the aural aesthetic of the instrument, but it may also visually represent a "Western" value. Even though soda caps ostensibly sound better (according to one musician in Berliner's book), natural or traditional materials may partly have lost popularity because they are "natural" (common, valueless) and not "man-made" (with all its corresponding connotations). Just as "we" tend to value the natural (leather, fur, wool, feathers, mother-of-pearl inlay on a violin), perhaps an African value of technology manifests itself in the soda cap (though it should be noted that just as "we" still utilize the "man-made", so is the "natural" still utilized in Africa). Maybe the very commercialism of soda bottle caps enhances their beauty. If not, then their use (and that of sardine, gasoline and other tins, brass tacks, umbrella springs, bicycle spokes, and so on) is at least resourceful.

While pictures of mbiras with gourd resonators and bottle caps abound in the published literature, they are not readily found on Kenyan mbiras for sale. Is this a matter of geographic distribution, or of Kenyan makers appealing to a tourist clientele who would not be thrilled to take home an mbira with Coke caps on it? If the latter, this might explain the scrap metal vibrators wrapped around the lamellae of many Kenyan mbiras, but it would not explain the absence of gourd resonators or natural vibrators, which, if makers tailor their wares so much to "Western" tastes (for the natural), one might expect to find.

To the "Western" owner who wishes to interior-decorate with the mbira, the soda cap embellishment may seem a humorous oddity, an amusing addendum to the story of the "thumb piano." It may even detract from the mbira's desirability as a wall artifact. To the native maker/player, however, this embellishment is part of the show and tell of the story of the mbira and its music.

It is instructive to note at this point the similarity between the functional aesthetic of the resonator and vibrator and the one that operates when one purchases an instrument in the "whole world" store in order to hang it on the wall, arrange it on a shelf, or enclose it in a glass case. For the interior decorator in "our" world, as for an African musician, it does not matter so much whether the instrument is "decorated" or not per se. Since the instrument itself is to some extent decoration, its possible plainness does not have to detract from—indeed, can still serve—an embellishing function. The difference is that whereas for "us" plainness (i.e., the "[beautiful] instrument itself") can articulate embellishment/decoration (which is the function of the instrument for many of "us"), for an African decoration (whether overt or covert [e.g., plain]) can embellish/enhance the "instrument itself" while further merging with the performer and the music—which are all components of the instrument's total socio-cultural function (one thinks here of plain but richly patinaed gourd resonator that engulfs the player in a vibrant, spiritual sound world). In other words, embellishment (as defined by context) is a functional aesthetic in both worlds.

And what about the "music" created by this instrument and its players? [4] The familiar "Western" epithets of denigration (repetitive, non-developmental, through-composed, improvisational, static and so on) could be applied to this music. However, it goes without saying that these kinds of characterizations merely subject mbira music to "Western" standards against which it is doomed always to fall short. Other aesthetic vantage points might appreciate the complexity and richness of subtly varied but non-codified instrumental, vocal, melodic, and harmonic repetition, decoration/embellishment, and improvisation which are so aptly detailed by a number of writers. For example, Kauffman notes the Shona word manyawi which indicates a kind of musical decoration (a specific form of chiyavayo) articulated through variation and improvisation. [5]

Elsewhere John Blacking [6] discusses the intriguing issue of how repetitive motions of thumb patterns are intimately linked to both the instrument and its music. He notes that:

... unity within the different tunes is assured more by the physical properties of the instrument and the way in which it is played, than by purely musical factors [26] ... The most significant common factors of the kalimba tunes are not their melodic structures, but the recurring patterns of 'fingering' which, combined with different patterns of polyrhythm between the two thumbs, produce a variety of melodies. Tunes such as V, VIII and IX are variations on a theme, but the theme is physical and not purely musical. [29]

Kauffman notes that Maraire concurs that this is also true of Shona music. [7] He also notes,

Maraire states that feeling is more important than hearing when one plays the mbira. The vibration complex of each note is enjoyed as a pleasant sensation, and thus each lamella gives a different feeling to the fingers. [509]

Thus, in aural and tactile—as well as the previously discussed visual—realms, it is not easy to distinguish (a) between what is embellishment/extraneous and what is not, and (b) between the instrument, the player and the music. Furthermore, the ethnocentric limitations of Blacking's "purely musical" become obvious. For the mbira/kalimba player, the "purely musical" is an anomaly: either everything is part of the "purely musical," or the "purely musical" does not exist as a cognitive construct.

This point is brought home in one of Berliner's Shona oral history accounts of the origin of the mbira. The analysis of it is my own and perhaps betrays its "Westernness" as such. However, it is offered in the spirit that an mbira participant might adopt in sharing his or her personal interpretation (one of many possible) of a musical-poetic text. I trust that it will be received in the same spirit.

According to Mujuru (a professional spirit medium), the mbira first came from a place white men have never seen, called "Zimba Risina Musuwo" ("Houses Without Doors") ... At first the mbira mysteriously sounded from inside a large rock near a circular stone house with no door. People gathered whenever they heard the mbira's music emanating from the rock. A disembodied voice told the people the name of each song as it was played. The people believed that the voice was that of Chaminuka, the principal Shona spirit and great rainmaker. Later, Chaminuka took possession of a man named Nyadate, through whom he told the people to make mbira. Nyadate showed the people how to make mbira, which they learned to play by listening at the rock. Nyadate informed the people that mbira music was the favorite music of the spirits. He later disappeared into the sea, never to be seen again. [8]

In coming "from a place white men have never seen, the mbira is freed from whatever (negative?) connotations might otherwise arise (houses with doors?); it becomes an intimate part of Shona shared cultural heritage. This traditional historical value is further enhanced (1) by the mbira's association with Chaminuka, (2) by the order to make mbira coming from a religious/spiritual "commandment" arising out of a spirit possession, and (3) by the fact "that mbira music was the favorite music of the spirits." Note that all of these are seemingly "extramusical" factors.

The fact that the mbira is associated with space (open and enclosed), showing/seeing, sound/listening, and spirits/possession is highly significant. Kauffman notes that while the Shona words for the sense verbs "to see," "to touch," "to taste," and "to smell" are straightforward, the verb most associated with music ("to hear": kunzwa) is much more comprehensive. It means "'to perceive by touch, sight or hearing; to understand'." [9]

The mbira's place of origin has freely open houses ("without doors") and yet music is paradoxically "trapped" within a rock. How are we to understand this cryptic state of affairs? The music is enclosed in space—perhaps as mbira music is enclosed in the space of the gourd resonator and in the player's spirit. The image of "listening at the rock" conjures up the patience (alluded to by several players in discussing their intimate relationship with the mbira) which allows listeners and players eventually to penetrate the mystery, wisdom, and knowledge held within the rock/music. Perhaps, too, there is a sense of music as an essential foundation or rock for the culture—something that is theoretically accessible to all. Hence, the open doors. The paradox resolves itself in the realization that though the doors of mbira music are theoretically open to all, only those with diligence and patience will reap the wisdom that comes from listening at the rock. It is this which will actualize the accessibility of the open doors.

"Our" houses have doors, too. However, their potential mysteries are not sealed in a rock, but instead reveal themselves without requiring such patience and intimate contact on the part of the viewer. Through "our" open doors, viewers can see the "thumb piano" hanging on the wall. Through the rock in the village of "Houses Without Doors", the seer (who is more than a viewer) can feel, see, hear, learn, know, and understand how to make and play the mbira. It is only at this point of totally committed involvement (as with a friend, as Maraire would say) that the mbira seer can begin to see into and move through the open doors. Since Nyadate showed the people how to make but not how to play the mbira, this may imply that the instrument is easier to make than to play; making the instrument can be taught, but playing it is a personal journey. Playing (moving through the doors) can only occur when one's inner ear is able to penetrate the inner voice of the rock. While this is theoretically accessible to all, it is not actually so. This is perhaps the greatest difference between interior decorating with the "thumb piano" in the "West" and with the mbira in Africa.

In conclusion, I should like to propose that when these two types of interior decoration are viewed side by side it is the "Western" which can appear limited and static, while the African is comparatively multi-faceted and dynamic. As the "Western" "thumb piano" hangs on the wall framed, still, silent, open to all viewers, the African mbira lives, moves, and vibrates as part of a mysterious personal voyage—providing even literal travelling or working music and companionship to its player.

However, and this is crucial, its view of itself is more fluid than "our" initial view of it. After all, "we" are conditioned to regard "non-Western" as primitive, limited, and static while simultaneously and ironically being contextualized with instruments, performers, music, and audiences which can be analyzed as separate and identifiably enclosed elements. The latter point is brought home nowhere more clearly than in a performance by an artist such as Dumisani Maraire. In addition to the aforementioned synaesthesia of mbira, player, and music, the mood of joy and spirituality, and the real encouragement of both individual and collective audience interaction and participation (all of which, it should be noted, audiences tend to savor), force us to confront some striking differences from "Western" musical contexts (which, as Kauffman says, tend to "isolate sound from context.") [10]

Buying recordings, listening to the radio, and attending concerts are important facets of exposure to the music of "Other" cultures. Concerted academic study can only help us make further sense of the sound. Both will stimulate our view of mbira music to become more fluid. And both can also significantly enhance our awareness of our own musical culture. In all cases, contact is a catalyst. Cultural boundaries can never be totally dissolved, but after having decorated our own interior with the mbira and become nyanzvi, we can begin to put it back up on the wall and to see it through open doors. The only difference is that it will now be both more and less "ours". It will be chiyavayo ... interior decorating with the mbira instead of with the "thumb piano." [11]

1. Robert Kauffman, "Some Aspects of Aesthetics in the Shona Music of Rhodesia," Ethnomusicology 13, 3 (Sept. 1969), 509-10.

2. The New Republic, February, 1991, 29-34).

3. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, xiii.

4. For details on this complex subject, readers are referred especially to Paul Berliner's excellent book The Soul of Mbira, and to Dumisani Maraire's booklet accompanying his album The Mbira Music of Rhodesia (Seattle: University of Washington, 1971).

5. Kauffman, 510.

6. "Patterns of Nsenga Kalimba Music," African Music Society JournaL 2, 4 (1961), 26-43.

7. Kauffman, 509

8. Berliner, 45.

9. 508.

10. 511.

11. Ideas in this paper developed in graduate seminars with Professors Tilman Seebass and Barbara Herrnstein Smith at Duke. Special thanks to Dumisani Maraire for his willingness to speak with me after performing at Durham, North Carolina, February, 1991.

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