Amidst all the negative things we hear about the government of Zimbabwe, it is easy to lose sight of the magnificent culture of the country. One of its jewels is the music of the mbira, an instrument that has been used for thousands of years for spiritual practice as well as for purely musical gatherings. It is through the mbira that that the ancestors are called upon to intercede for the supplicant. But more than this, the music enables the player and the listener to achieve a transcendental state. What is also remarkable is that this ancient instrument and its music are still capable of being modified and played in new ways.
In the "grand right and left" that is networking in NYC, I found a visiting musician who is innovating in exactly this way. When I interviewed Nora Balaban who studied mbira in Zimbabwe, she told me of a master player named Garikayi Tirikoti who was living only a few city blocks from me. And one day she showed up at my door with him. He had brought a rucksack of mbiras, a deze (a large gourd studded with bottle caps, to amplify and distort the sound) and some shakers (hosho). He sat down on my floor and immediately set about educating me in mbira lore.
I have to say that being in the same room with a master of Garakayi's caliber, listening to the mbira is pretty intense. It's not hard to imagine how meditative a state this music can put one in. At the same time, it has a minimalist feel to it, with its various repeated musical modules, and every now and then I thought of the music of Philip Glass. (I wonder if he ever listens to mbira music...) I also loved Garakayi's voice -- it has a wonderful mellow lilt to it, when he sings and when he speaks. Garakayi is in Zimbabwe now, but he is returning, and he wants to put together a 28 piece mbira orchestra. New York, get ready!