Born in the heart of the African continent more than 3000 years ago, the mbira is a mutant instrument, having spread according to migratory routes, genres and eras; it remains very dear to musicians.
The story goes that the mbira first appeared on the West African coast in wood or bamboo, before receiving the adornment of metallic keys on the banks of the Zambezi River 1500 years ago. Unlike the guembri of the Gnawas, or the Hindu sitar, the mbira is not the instrument of a single people. Although the Shona in Zimbabwe know it as such, it finds many homes in different forms: the likembé in the Congo, the Kisanji in Angola, the sanza in Cameroon or the marimbula in its Caribbean iteration.
As a migratory instrument, the mbira followed the pathways of slavery to Latin America and Jamaica, where it experienced rebirth as a rhumba box – not far from the bass sanza present in some calypso and rural mento in particular. According to legend dear to the Cameroonian musician Francis Bebey, the mbira is “the instrument that succeeds in annihilating the boredom felt by the Creator himself! It is the instrument that gives life to the world, to people and things.”
The small idiophone, instrument of griots (bards) and of African oral traditions, has been used by many communities in rites and ceremonies for millennia. It has been a vector of communication with ancestors and spirits. Although the mbira has not been systematically associated with spiritual practices, its sound – crystalline and intimate – seems destined to accompany the most varied of voices. Popularized in the 1950s through a Westernized version designed by British ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey (christened in this context as a kalimba), the mbira left its original land and its pure musical tradition to enter current music scenes where it has since flourished in various and unexpected forms.
Born in 1946 in the village of Mujumi, Stella Chiweshe remains one of the few women to have mastered the art of the mbira, the musical language of the Shona tribe in Zimbabwe. Though convention and the colonial regime forbade the practice, she nonetheless absorbed the soul and technique of this totemic instrument until it consumed her, like a rebel alongside men in the intimacy of traditional ceremonies. Eventually she was able to enrol in the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe in 1981 as an mbira soloist. More recently, the Glitterbeat label featured Kasahwa, a collection of acoustic tracks recorded between 1974 and 1983 – the eponymous single became a gold record upon its release – hitherto unknown outside the African continent despite Chiweshe’s iconic international career. Sculpted through the round timbre of the mbira, the ancestral pulse of the hoshos and the indomitable voice of the musician, this album sings its mystical song like a spiritual “telephone” and the chimurenga refrains foreshadow the Shona struggle for national independence.
The Cameroonian Francis Beby, who passed away in 2001, began his career as a radio journalist and diplomat for UNESCO before devoting the rest of his life to music. While he was successful in the 70s thanks to popular and humorous songs, including the famous “Condition Masculine,” this son of a Douala pastor was raised along side the repertoires of Bach and Beethoven, eventually and gradually abandoning the classical guitar for the sanza, once used by the “night watchmen who played it to keep themselves awake.”
The avant-gardist is motivated by a desire for experimentation, and he explores the vast potentialities of synthetic sounds alone in his studio, producing an unparalleled fusion of traditional and electronic music rarely before seen. Francis Bebey recorded the albums Africa Sanza (1982), Akwaaba: Music for Sanza (1984), Sanza Nocturne (1985) and Mbira Dance: How God Created the World By Playing Sanza (2000), his final record. An exceptional collection compiled in 2014 by the French label Born Bad Records, Psychedelic Sanza 1982-1984, offers pieces that pay homage to the spiritual, natural and poetic reach of the sanza.
As a refugee in Paris since the beginning of the 1980s, the Angolan singer Luleno never travels without his kinsanji talisman having inherited its sound from his grandfather. While this “guardian angel” is the backbone of each of his albums, including Mwinda (2018), Lulendo relationship with his instrument runs deeper and more intimate, having been build by hand in his Paris studio. Luleno explains: “I did not invent the instrument but I try to reinvent it through my experience as a musician in the studio and on stage. Through my woodwork and metalwork, I want to help future generations to have an open mind, to encourage them to play an instrument that is theirs: a typically African instrument. It takes a year to do it and requires a lot of patience.”
Youn Sun Nah
Miles away from expectation, the mbira made an appearance in the bewitching repertoire of the Korean singer Youn Sun Nah. In 2010, the daughter of the head of the National Choir of Seoul published Same Girl, a delightful and sensitive record that went on to receive several awards in France and Korea. In Same Girl, an album conceived like a toy box, Youn Sun Nah takes control of a music box on the title track, an elegant solo kazoo on “Moondog,” an effects pedal on “Pancake” … and a kalimba on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” composed for the 1959 Broadway triumph The Sound of Music. This tune became an oft-repeated standard, notably in Coltranian modal form in 1960. Here, Youn Sun Nah offers a purified version, plucking her four-note kalimba over and over until she achieves a state of grace.
In the footsteps of forbearers such as Antoine Moundanda and his Likembé Géant, Konono Nº1 assumes their turn to create electric fusions. Founded in the 60s by the virtuoso Mingiedi Mawangu in a small village in northern Angola, the group had to adapt to the racket of Kinshasa. They composed a thundering instrumentarium made of three electric likembés, a rhythm section halfway between traditional percussion and recycled junk, three singers and three dancers and a sono-monster equipped with “voice-launchers” inherited from the colonial era.
Surprisingly: the improvised amplification of likembés caused a radical change in their sound. Almost by accident, Konono Nº1 thereby updated the crazed energy of Bacombo trances, propelled permanently to European scenes by rock and electric shifts. Lubuaku – live with The Ex the Congotronics in 2004 paved the way for new stars of the Congolese sound-system D, which would go on to collaborate with Björk, Oumou Sangaré and Herbie Hancock, among others, despite the death of Mingiedi Mawangu in 2015.
Moritz Simon Geist
Before even thinking of composing music, the young Moritz Simon Geist marveled at the internal workings of the machines, regularly deconstructing the radios that surround him. Now, he teaches the evolution of technologies and societies at the University of New York in Berlin, while pushing the cursor of his experiments further by building a giant 4 by 2 meter 808 ahead of November 2018’s Robotic Electronic Music.
On this fascinating record, all the sounds are played by robots. Among the motorized-percussion, the psychedelic variations of its glass installations and other syncopated loops, there is also a 3D printed kalimba robot that you can here on the title “Entropy” in particular. An artisan of techno-futuristic music whose sound evokes the industrial vapors of Berlin clubs and of the Terry Riley era In C. Moritz Simon Geist explains: “When you listen to robots play, you realize that they are accurate, but unlike digital sounds, they carry a very organic emotion. They can make mistakes.”
In 2002, Bobby McFerrin celebrated his twenty-year career with Beyond Words (Blue Note), an album where he once again showcased the heights of his impressive vocal mastery. This son of the first African-American singer in the Metropolitan Opera in New York has developed a universalist musical language that extends far beyond words. It is born of his extraordinary improvisational talent and a sensitive dialogue with the instruments that accompany him. Supported by an all-star cast of musical friends including Richard Bona, Cyro Baptista and Chick Corea, Bobby McFerrin establishes the pathways of a charming meditative journey: we follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo (“A Silken Road”), onto the shores of the Ganges (“Dervishes”), while indulging in a jazz tour of Brazil on the way, invoking the muses of inspiration (“Invocation”). In “Kalimba Suite,” Bobby McFerrin honors the instrument more than ever, giving his voice to its heavenly partitions.
Between field recording and hip-hop, the Japanese sound artist Yosi Horikawa composes a world where machines and nature combine to give body to the most graceful of languages. While he makes his own instruments, Yosi Horikawa also samples the real world, augmenting his beats with the sound of cooking utensils, bird songs, squeaks, children’s voices and other’s footsteps.
An occasional companion of Dorian Concept’s since the class of 2011 Red Bull Academy in Madrid, Yosi Horikawa has built visibly lasting bridges with Europe that saw him make an impression at the Today’s Art Festival and at Barcelona Sonar before signing his first EP in 2012 on the French label Eklektik Records. With Touch, the Japanese artist straightforwardly remodels sensitive sounds, delivering a poetic interpretation of his vision of the world. “Dropping,” is a good example, where the rain melts into the aquatic rhythm of a perfectly delicate kalimba.
While the mbira can sometimes serve as an aesthetic gadget, it makes complete sense in Laraaji’s new age meditations, whose long-form folk-ambient explorations open the instrument to a new kind of spirituality. Originally from Philadelphia, Laraaji found his voice in New York: he bought a dulcimer, a mbira and a zither to use for his first electronic experiments before stumbling upon Biran Eno in Central Park, who would go on to produce his first album in 1980: Ambient 3: Day of Radiance.
Alongside Alice Coltrane, Laraaji was a disciple of the guru Swami Satchidananda. He produced dozens of fascinating pieces recorded on tapes that remained confidential for a long time. On them, he mixed inspired cosmic rágas with the synthetic sonorities of a used Casio – these have been compiled since 2013 in Celestial Music 1978-2011 (All Saints Records). Here “Kalimba” reappears, originally composed for Brian Eno’s Music For Films III, where the mbira unfolds itself in a sumptuous nocturnal iteration.
Earth Wind & Fire
In contrast to the standards of the time, Maurice White, a pillar of the soul-disco-funk outfit Earth Wind & Fire, regularly incorporated remarkable mbira solos into the group’s compositions. It acted as a symbol for some of African connections of its members and, more broadly, their interest in traditional music, borrowing rhythms and melodies from Cuban, African and Brazilian heritage. If the kalimba features openly in the shimmering orchestrations of “Biyo” and “Evil,” it is fully thrust into the spotlight on “Kalimba Story,” a title that ultimately acts as a declaration of love to the instrument that Maurice White continued to play in his very last concerts. As the song suggests: “Kalimba, ooh kalimba, I’m glad I found you.”
 Jamaica Folk Trance Possession – Roots of Rastafari: 1939-1961 (Catalogue Frémeax et Associés)
 As reported by the son of Francis Bebey, Patrick Bebey, in the liner notes of Psychedelic Sanza 1982-1984 (Born Bad Records)
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