Religion, language and music are some of the key ingredients that make up most cultures in the world. It is easy for us to associate or identify cultures with any of these markers. A language can give you a window into the speaker’s culture in the same way that the music of the culture serves to market the culture to the rest of the world. Shona music was and is so much more than what Westerners associate with “music”.
The “traditional” music of Zimbabwe reveals our forefather’s spiritual beliefs, their modes of expression, patterns of communication and forms of entertainment, in as much as present day contemporary music reveals a lot about our present lives and past experiences. For example, traditional Shona songs were a medium of instruction through which young boys and girls were taught the values and expectations of adulthood.
All social relationships were sealed, bonded and regulated through songs. Through songs, a daughter-in-law would express her bitterness against a horrible mother-in-law, a bitter wife against a greedy husband, and the whole community would protest against an unjust chief, hence there is a tradition of Shona protest songs. There were songs to praise, urge, ridicule and reprimand. Most means of communication in the pre-literate and oral African societies were musical in one way or another.
When it comes to traditional Shona culture, the music most associated with the culture is Mbira music. Mbira music has been contemporarised by artists such Ambuya Stella Chiweshe and the late Chiwoniso Maraire. Both artists have travelled and toured the world playing the Mbira. Traditionally only men played the Mbira in Shona society. Women were not allowed to play the Mbira. It is a testament to the dynamic nature of culture then two of the more well known Mbira artists today are women. Some Zimbabwean electric bands also infuse the Mbira into their music. Today the Mbira is a positive symbol of cultural identity for most Zimbabweans.
Mbira refers to the name of both the instrument and the music. The Mbira instrument is a hand held piano like instrument with the keys being made of metal. Mbira the genre is mystical music which has been played for over a thousand years by certain tribes of the Shona people. The Shona form the vast majority of the population of Zimbabwe. Mbira pervades all aspects of Shona culture, both sacred and secular. Its most important function is as a “telephone to the spirits”, used to contact both deceased ancestors and tribal guardians, at all-night bira (pl. mapira) ceremonies.
At these ceremonies, vadzimu, including midzimu (spirits of family ancestors), mhondoro (spirits of deceased chiefs) and makombwe (the most powerful guardian spirits of the Shona), give guidance on family and community matters and exert power over weather and health.