February 13, 2008

The Spring Steel Magic of The Mbira

Mbira.jpgThe mbira is the Zimbabwean version of that most African of instruments, the thumb piano. Consisting of a box or gourd on which tuned tongues of metal are mounted, the mbira is played by plucking the tongues which produce a hollow metallic chime. In its country of origin, it is the centerpiece of a style of ritual trance music that uses repetitively plucked phrases to call forth ancestral spirits. An example of this type of playing can be heard in the clip below by “scandalous” mbira virtuoso, Stella Chiweshe. (Chiweshe is scandalous because she is a woman and mbira music in Zimbabwe is traditionally regarded as the exclusive province of men.)

Stella Chiweshe - Huvhimi

Here in the West, the mbira is mostly regarded as an exotic novelty; a piece of plunkable Africana that can be picked up for a couple of bucks at any weekend market frequented by dreadlocked hippies. Some serious musicians (and Trent Reznor) have dabbled with it but, to date, the only Occidental to seriously explore its potential is Richard Crandell.

A jazz guitarist who’s performed with the likes of Leo Kottke and John Fahey, Crandell learnt the mbira from a master – Ngoni Nakombe, who plays in the band of Zimbabwe’s biggest “star”, Thomas Mapfumo. In the process, he no doubt gained a familiarity with the traditional style and its emphasis on repetition, and this has found its way into his delicately hypnotic minimalist compositions, whose reference points stretch from Terry Riley and Phillip Glass to CPE Bach and Japanese music.

Richard Crandell - Etude In E
Richard Crandell - Japanese Lullaby

So far he’s produced two albums in this vein, Mbira Magic and his latest, Spring Steel (from which the two above tracks are taken). Both were released on Tzadik, and though they may not be as restlessly kinetic as more traditional fare, I’m sure the ancestors would still approve.

Posted by Warren at February 13, 2008 12:45 AM | World