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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Ephat Mujuru: Journey of the Spirit

Ephat Mujuru
Journey of the Spirit

Suddenly, after reviewing the Stella Chiweshe album and this one, I feel like an expert on the mbira. This instrument, which has a wood frame attached to metal strips that are plucked with the thumbs and fingers, is one of the key elements of Shona music — and, therefore, Shona religion and Zimbabwean culture as a whole. But you know how cultural traditions work. Eventually, they lose steam in their own time and place, only to be echoed around the world. The great mbira masters are getting older, and there aren’t a lot of young bloods rising up to seize the mantle. In fact, as the informative liner notes to this album (some of them adapted from the great mbira website) speculate, there will soon be more mbira players outside Zimbabwe than inside.

That situation is not likely to be helped by the death of Ephat Mujuru. This genial, grand-hearted man was a living legend in Zimbabwe. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who was considered to have a direct line to the Shona ancestor spirit Chaminuka, Mujuru had been making hits in his home country since 1972, when he was just 22 years old. His band, also named Chaminuka, was very important in the struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence. After guerrillas killed his grandfather for not supporting their war aims, Ephat renamed his group Spirit of the People, but continued to teach and direct and spread his talent and musical knowledge all over Africa, Europe, and the U.S. His death in October 2001 came just as he was traveling to the U.S. to begin a residency at Grinnell College and to celebrate the international release of this record, which was originally recorded in 1994.

Okay, now that I’ve told you the important stuff that is contained in the liner notes, let me talk about the music on this record. Like all mbira music, it’s beautiful and hypnotic and avant-garde sounding. Whether this is because the masters of this kind of music consider themselves as only channeling the music that is around them all the time, or because the mbira functions as both a rhythm and a lead instrument, I don’t know. I only know that the constant pulse and the ability to shift between the primary and secondary melodies makes for a spooky-great noise that I am starting to hear in my dreams.

Some of these songs, like the opening track, “Nyamaropa” (which translates as “Journey of the Spirit”), are traditional Shona tunes which may be hundreds of years old. On “Nyamaropa” itself, the pace and the circular structure of the song are set by the mbira, before the other percussion or the vocals even come in. Mujuru croons for the first passage of the song, and then shifts to a kind of jazz scatting for a bit. What he’s saying, I have no idea — maybe he’s channeling Chaminuka, maybe he’s reciting a shopping list, but my money’s on the former — but it sounds mystical and cool, and provides a nice break before Mujuru returns to his caramel-sounding singing voice.

These traditional tunes are certainly hard-hitting. Another one, “Mabweadziwa”, utilizes the spare single notes of Banning Eyre’s acoustic guitar line (sounds like a heavy South African influence on this, but it might have worked the other way and I’m not exactly a historian, here) to underscore the slippery melody. And an unusual sound is achieved on the closing track, “Taireva”, when Mujuru attaches a line of bottle caps to the top of the resonator gourd. The buzzing noise adds an edge to the song, which calls for Zimbabweans to respect their older cultural traditions. Using “modern” technology in a song that talks about a return to the past? How punk rock!

But Mujuru’s original compositions are nothing to sneeze at either. “Imagination” sounds all traditional, with its single mbira line, until Mujuru’s voice comes in overdubbed on top of itself. There are at least two different vocals happening here, and sometimes it sounds like more. They intertwine, they diverge, they come together again, and it’s charming and captivating. “The Train” uses Melvin Dean on Trinidadian pan drums to add Afro-Caribbean flavor to Mujuru’s mbira stylings and vocal imitations of a steam train. The piece slows down, speeds up, a train whistle sounds periodically, and goes on for a glorious six minutes. Somewhere, Chaminuka is smiling.

But by far the most radical song here is “Africa Meet Africa”. This song is spoken/sung in English as well as Shona, and the lyrics I can understand mark Ephat Mujuru as an impressionistic poet. “Africa, meet Africa / Sometimes the world seems like a mirror to me / Reflecting all the leaves and branches of the great family tree / Africa, please allow me / To introduce myself to me”. The most striking aspect of the song, however, is the rumba groove laid down by the Cuban group Mezcla. This gentle but insistent rhythm meets the mbira and highlife guitar perfectly, and forms one of the most unimpeachable rhythms I can remember hearing in a long time. It was here that I started feeling very sad that Mujuru will no longer be spreading his music to all the people of the world, except on records like this. Here’s hoping that Alula, or someone else, is able to re-release his many Zimbabwean albums, so that his incredible career can continue after his death.