The indelible mark of the mbira

The thumb piano has made somewhat of a resurgence in contemporary pop music partly because of the international stardom of groups like Konono N˚1.

Image by Erik Törner, via Flickr CC.

The multi-named thumb piano is quite an important foundational instrument for contemporary music all over the world, although it’s perhaps not always recognized as such. In Congo, colonial era missionaries banned the instrument from their services, saying that its association with traditional spiritual practices sullied the sacredness of the choral music they were adopting to the musical cultures of the people they sought to convert. But, the instrument lived on in Congolese pop as guitarists in Kinshasa adapted the style to their finger picking Cuban-son infused Rumba.

The instrument has also travelled far and wide beyond Africa. I’ve seen versions of the thumb piano in historical photos of Jamaican Mento bands, and it is common in Latin American musical history as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few thumb pianos made their way to the American South helping to influence the blues guitar style that originated there.

Today in the wake of the international stardom of such groups like Konono N˚1, the thumb piano has made somewhat of a resurgence in contemporary pop music. I tend to be wary of the exoticism that sometimes accompanies the flash popularity groups with strange traditional instruments, so it’s funny to me how much that same instrument has figured so centrally in my life recently.

For the past week I’ve been touring with Sierra Leonean Kondi virtuoso Sorie Kondi. He and bandmate Ibrahim finally arrived at my house last week after his Sierra Leone based producer Luke Wasserman and I spent several months working to bring Sorie to tour in the United States. Our initial intention was to structure the tour around the SXSW music festival in March, which we raised money on Kickstarter for, but the timing didn’t work out since the U.S. Immigration office waited until the last second to grant Sorie his visa. But, I have to say the wait was worth it as I’ve been having such a wonderful time with the Sorie Kondi crew this week.

My relationship with Sorie Kondi began one morning in Oakland, California when I saw a link to the video for his song “Without Money No Family” sent by my friend Banker White. I knew instantly that I wanted to remix his song: firstly because the sound of the recording was so sparse ready to remixed; secondly because I knew that a larger audience than those interested in Sierra Leone (literally 5.5 million of us) needed to know about the musical genius of this man; and third the intelligible English lyrics carried a social message that I knew audiences in the North could understand (and perhaps transcend ideas of exoticism). I found the album available on iTunes, downloaded it, remixed the song, and passed a rough version of it to a German DJ, who put it in a mix.

The unfinished draft of the remix sat on my hard drive for a couple years, until I received an email from Luke, who had been working with Sorie since 2007. Luke had helped Sorie record his album Without Money No Family, and was now looking for other opportunities to promote his music. They had just finished recording his second studio album at Big Fad studios in Freetown. I thought about remixing the album or coming to Sierra Leone to work on some original tracks with Sorie. Luke mentioned he wanted to bring Sorie to the U.S. for a tour, so at that moment the wheels to bring Sorie Kondi to America were set into motion. I finished the “Without Money No Family” Remix, put it on my release African in New York, and one kickstarter campaign, a couple visa applications, and a trip false start later, Sorie Kondi is in America.

So far we’ve played shows in Washington DC and Philadelphia where Sorie and Ibrahim wowed audiences with their Sierra Leonean version of cultural dance music. The event in DC, hosted by Mothersheister, DJ Rat, and DJ Underdog at Tropicalia was warm and welcoming, and the crowd danced the night away to Sorie’s Kondi and his bass box boom pumped up to sound like a House music club. The show in Philadelphia really made me sink into thoughts of blurring of the lines between traditional, folk, or world music and contemporary pop, electronic, or dance music. The venue was an old church in West Philadelphia, whose acoustics made the Kondi reverberate off the walls and back into itself creating waves of tones that sounded like the rising of arpeggiated synths. There was an impressive amount of sound coming from that small wooden box.

Beyond the amazing musical aspects, the cultural exchanges that happened on the road were inspirational in themselves. One highlight of the gig hosted by the Tropicalismo crew and Sonic Diaspora in Philly, were the exchanges that happened between the Sorie Kondi team and Colombians Explosión Negra who performed and partied with us late into the night on Saturday. While neither Sorie Kondi nor Explosión Negra could communicate through spoken language, and this separated the crews in every other space, on the dance floor it was a Champeta Soukous, Temne Techno, Chirimía Soca dance celebration! Not to harp too much on the cliché but it was really amazing to be part of a such a moment where the universality of music was so evident. I really believe that it is during these types of moments that this new lightweight and mobile, do-it-yourself global bass club scene (or whatever you want to call it) is at its best.

Sorie Kondi is in New York this week, and if you are a music lover of any genre, from folk to Techno (or like me, the amalgamations that blur the lines between them) then you don’t want to miss his performance at Public Assembly in Williamsburg Brooklyn this Saturday October 13th. We’ll be celebrating the release of Lamin Fofana’s Africans Are Real project (which I have a remix on as well) who will be performing live alongside Brooklyn rappers Old Money, and DJing will be Binyavanga Wainaina, Clive Bean, GiKu, Matt Shadetek, and myself.

If you miss that one, or you aren’t in New York this weekend check all of his tour dates on Vickie Remoe’s site.

The other major way the thumb piano has appeared in my life is in the Zimbabwean form, known as the Mbira, via Shabazz Palaces beat maker Tendai Maraire. Talk about pushing the boundaries between traditional and contemporary, Shabazz Palaces have been able to challenge music fans of all backgrounds with their mind blowing videosinspiring live performances, and futuristic Hip Hop beats wrapped around Tendai’s skilled live percussion and Mbira playing. Sometime this summer Tendai called me up and said that he wanted me to do a mix for him after hearing some of my work. Just by coincidence the first mix of mine he listened to started out with the a plinking Mbira, and he said he knew right away that he knew he had found the DJ to work with.

After we discussed details of the project, I really took up the challenge to try and find any Mbira playing in the old records I have collected along the way, and may have not listened to that closely. I think the most exciting realization to make was that one record that I had once bought in the discount bin at Amoeba records in San Francisco (and later saw on sale in the premium section for $60 — I wondered, and still wonder why the vast price difference for the record) was in fact a record by Tendai’s father Dumi Maraire. This made both father and son’s music really come alive with brilliant historical context. The record I have seemed to have been from a live performance in Seattle a little after or around the time Tendai was born. The label on the record also describes the record as “Zimbabwe,” which is interesting because it was recorded at a time when Zimbabwe was still called Rhodesia. With that realization, the military-tinged images that Tendai paints in his lyrics suddenly start to fall into place for me:

When I try to do mixes I always try to base them around a central theme or concept. This one proved a challenge for me since I don’t know as much about Southern Africa as I do about West Africa. But I do know that music and a contentious politics from Mozambique to South Africa to Zimbabwe to Angola are intimately intertwined in a history of struggle against colonial rule and state-based violence. So, being an outsider to all that, all I could do was try to connect the dots across national boundaries to show how the cultures (and by extension the struggles) of Southern Africans are very much intertwined. In my record collection, I was able to find a bunch of Mbira related songs from across Southern Africa including Bonga (Angola), the Kasai All Stars (Congo), and DJ Sbu (South Africa). Of course there are plenty of Zimbabwean tracks from the likes of Thomas Mapfumo and Tendai’s father, Dumi! Lastly, I just included some of my favorite songs, like the ones from Khaled and Yossou N’Dour, that I thought fit well with Tendai’s original productions, which he in turn remixed to amazing results!

Further Reading

Reading List: Mutt_Lon

The books that the author, a Cameroonian novelist, has been reading share an ethics of political engagement, a quest for identity and cultural inventory, and an ear for the voices and harmonies of African languages.