Reverent Strength: The Soulful Mbira of Hope Masike

Competition is distilled from survival instincts. Ironically, it may destroy our chance for survival. Can the arts help change this?

The mbira, or thumb piano is a traditional musical instrument found in many places on the African continent. It consists of a wooden board fitted with metal tines which are plucked with the thumbs, producing a sound not unlike a music box. Due to the rhythmic complexity of mbira music, some listeners get the impression that more than one instrument is being played at the same time.

Mbira dzavadzimu in a deze (Calabash shell) © Alex Weeks with CCLicense
Mbira dzavadzimu in a deze (Calabash shell)
© Alex Weeks with CCLicense

The national instrument of Zimbabwe is the mbira dzavadzimu, or voice of the ancestors. It originated among the Shona people and is identified by them as a sacred instrument, used in ceremonies that communicate with the dead. These ceremonies are called bira. Led by mbira music, participants enter a trancelike state in which the dead speak through them and may answer questions that pertain to the welfare of the tribe.  Buttons, shells or bottle caps called machachara are attached to the mbira to create a buzzing sound that is purported to call ancestral spirits. For greater resonance, the instrument is placed inside of a hollowed out calabash squash, called a deze.

During the course of Zimbabwe’s history, the mbira dzavadzimu was taken up by missionaries and converts to Christianity. A genre called mbira gospel resulted, as people combined their traditional music with new beliefs, enlisting the soothing power of the thumb piano to spread their message. This has created two camps of mbira musicians: Shona and Christian, both of which consider themselves the traditional art form and both of which are resistant to new, western inspired innovation and technology.

Here is a traditional performance by mbira artist Hope Masike. The song is called Hondo, or War, and is a lament for those who have suffered from political unrest, military action and AIDS/HIV. It is heartrending in its understatement and transparent beauty, highlighted by the calls of animals along the lakeshore in Johannesburg, South Africa. It makes me misty-eyed.

Video via Werner Puntigam on YouTube.

Hope Masike is a marvelous singer and gifted song writer. She is steeped in the traditional music of her native Zimbabwe, specifically mbira music, but reaches out to include more modern elements, incurring the wrath of those who would prefer to keep the traditional art “pure”. She is Christian, but sees great value in reaching across the divide to unify mbira music and to move people of differing faiths to prayer.

Video via Hope Masike on YouTube.

This song is Huyai Tinamate, or Come, Let us Pray, a stirring example of mbira gospel. The video couples words from the Bible that exhort the believer to pray through hardships with African mythology concerning the struggle between good and evil. Masike portrays both a benevolent spirit in white and a dark witch companioned by a serpent, as if to say that our best self is always at war with our worst self. This stunning video crosses borders. The world of the Shona and the world of the Christian is acknowledged to be the same world. Both groups seek survival and peace. Can we not find common ground as human beings? Could we pray together?

The requirements for our evolution have changed. Survival is no longer sufficient. Our evolution now requires us to develop spiritually – to become emotionally aware and make responsible choices. It requires us to align ourselves with the values of the soul – harmony, cooperation, sharing, and reverence for life.

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