How the mbira — an instrument with a complicated history in Zimbabwe — found a following in Western Canada
Chaka Zinyemba’s quest to master the mbira took off when he arrived in Edmonton. Now, he’s hoping for a Juno
This story was first published in April 2021.
Chaka Zinyemba never considered himself the counter-culture type, but his friends and family did.
"When I think back, I was kind of frustrated that a lot of the activities we were doing as kids had shifted from actually making our own activities and doing our own stuff to consuming," he said, remembering his childhood growing up in Zimbabwe.
"I always thought that we didn't create enough, and that we just waited to be entertained."
That desire to take the road less travelled led him to pick up the mbira as a teenager in Zimbabwe. It's an instrument Chaka's ancestors, the Shona people, have played for thousands of years.
The instrument was all but legally banned by colonial rulers since Queen Victoria's Britain seized control of the region in the late 19th century.
"The actual instrument was believed to be the portal, so to speak, through which we communicated with the ancestors," said Zinyemba. "So this was like a big no-no for the religious institutions that were coming in from England.
"The mbira was largely played for religious ceremonies, and that religion was not predominantly Christian."
Soundtrack of resistance
From 1898 to 1964, Zimbabwe was known as Southern Rhodesia. In 1965, the country's predominately white government broke from British ranks, issuing a unilateral declaration of independence from the United Kingdom.
The country's then-Prime Minister, Ian Smith, was openly using racist rhetoric about ethnic Africans. He ran political campaigns using the phrase "a whiter, brighter Rhodesia."
The climate was tense and a fight for independence from colonial rule was heating up.
Although mbira playing was largely underground, by the 1970s musicians were playing the instrument openly, using it as a beacon of pride.
"There was this whole movement of taking back what was ours," Zinyemba said. "Let's end this colonial regime."
The country finally gained independence in 1980 and the region was named Zimbabwe. By that time, Christianity had taken root in the minds of many ethnic Africans.
Although Zinyemba was born within the decade after Zimbabwe gained independence, he said there was always an understanding that people who played the mbira were operating outside of social norms.
"The mbira would never have been the one thing I picked up as a kid," he said. "If you were an mbira player it was easy for you to be ostracized."
That all changed when Zinyemba was in his senior year of high school in Zimbabwe and heard an album of famed Zimbabwean musician Chiwoniso Maraire floating down the hallway of his dorm.
"I woke up to this sound and I realize I want to learn to play this instrument," said Zinyemba. "What really got me was just how serene and how magical that feeling was."
Finding a community
Zinyemba dove head-first into learning the instrument.
"You have to find different teachers and you sit next to them and you watch over their shoulder. You watch their hands move and you figure out how to play that way," said Zinyemba. "I remember it was hard."
Despite the learning curve, Zineyemba felt like he was doing something meaningful and worthwhile.
His first mbira teacher began by encouraging Zineyemba to master a handful of basic traditional songs.
"He said to me it doesn't matter if you're good at them or not, but I'm teaching you because then you can continue learning them on your own," Zinyemba said.
It was a bittersweet experience, because Zinyemba knew he was moving to Edmonton to attend the University of Alberta the following year.
"On the plane I was like, 'Where on Earth am I going to find people who can teach me how to play mbira in Canada?' " he said.
He moved in with his eldest sister, who was born in Edmonton in the '70s when their parents had to flee instability in Zimbabwe during the years leading up to independence.
Zinyemba said he's not sure if the stars aligned or if fate was at play, but during the first couple of months at school he heard of another student, Tendai Muparutsa, who was completing a PhD about the spread of traditional Zimbabwean music throughout North America.
"[Tendai] comes from a really great musical family in Zimbabwe and so he started teaching me mbira," said Zinyemba.
Western Canada a 'hotbed' for mbira
Muparutsa spent four years studying how traditional Zimbabwean music took hold and spread rapidly throughout North America since the 1970s.
"When the British came to Zimbabwe, they demonized the mbira, saying it's for hedons and it's satanic because you should read the [Christian] bible and sing soprano, alto, tenor, bass like church songs," said Muparutsa, a lecturer and ethnomusicologist at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
"It was suppressed by the central government because they didn't want people to perform their cultures because … it allowed people to gather and they don't want people to be gathering."
Muparutsa found a link between the African diaspora moving to Canada in the '70s and Zimbabwean people in North America feeling more free to practise their culture and beliefs.
"Mbira came to the Americas because of [Zimbabwean] students and professors," said Muparutsa. "There's a big community of mbira players in the Seattle and Oregon area."
We play piano in church. People play guitars in church ... Why can't that happen with the mbira?- Chaka Zinyemba
Muparutsa said the western shores of North America are a hotbed for mbira music, stretching all the way up into Alaska. There are at least four major mbira festivals in North America each year, including one in B.C.
"Just over in B.C there's a huge community of mbira players — much bigger than here [in Alberta] — who have been playing mbira for decades since the '80s and '90s," said Zinyemba.
Since moving to Canada 13 years ago, Zinyemba has become a disaster and emergency management planner with the Red Cross.
He also formed the Mbira Renaissance Band, a multicultural group made up of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds.
The group has performed at folk festivals, local community shows and even the Calgary Stampede. It began touring internationally just before the pandemic hit in 2020.
Zinyemba said he often thinks of all of the things that happened in his life — and the lives of others — that enabled him not only to continue his mbira education in Canada, but to immerse himself in it with a large group of like-minded people.
"Unfortunately what colonization does is it strips a population of pride in their culture. Pride in who they are," said Zinyemba.
"Then you have another group of people thousands and thousands of miles away like, 'Hey, this is the best instrument of all time and we're going to learn it.'"
Reconciling faith and tradition
The British colonial oppression of African culture and heritage in favour of Christianity has also complicated Zinyemba's love for mbira.
"There's always this bit of conflict that comes through because I was raised Catholic. I'm still Catholic, so how do I resolve that Catholic upbringing with what you were always taught about this instrument as a kid?" he said."But [I know] that it's just a whole lot of nonsense.
"We play piano in church. People play guitars in church ... Why can't that happen with the mbira?"
The Mbira Renaissance Band has already been nominated for local Edmonton music awards. Zinyemba said he has aspirations of being nominated for a JUNO some day.
Ultimately, Zinyemba feels a sense of obligation to continue showcasing the music of his ancestors.
"Sometimes we don't value the things that we should value, the things that are ours," he said. "We really should take more pride and more ownership of what is ours, what belongs to us."
Tanara McLean is an award-winning producer and journalist based at CBC Edmonton. She grew up in Red Deer and has spent her entire career in Alberta, working in print, radio and television. Tanara has produced several documentaries for The Doc Project, including This woman's newfound family is a houseful of strangers in the fight of their lives.
This documentary was edited by Veronica Simmonds and Acey Rowe.
This story was supported by Being Black in Canada. For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians, check out Being Black in Canada here.