HomeStandard PeopleEphat Mujuru: Zim’s unsung mbira hero

Ephat Mujuru: Zim’s unsung mbira hero

There has been several mbira players in Zimbabwe over the past three decades. These range from Mbuya Beaula Dyoko to Simon Mashoko, Stella Chiweshe, Dumi Maraire, Mbira Dze Nharira, Nyamasvisva, Cosmas Magaya, Musekiwa Chingodza, Garikayi Tirikoti, Chiwoniso Maraire, Forward Kwenda, Hope Masike and many more.

By Fred Zindi

There was, however, one great man who played an active part in the long history of mbira, something that was forbidden in colonial times where mbira was considered the sound of the devil. However, this great man confronted the colonialists head-on, and against all odds, pursued his career in mbira playing.

To many people who love Zimbabwean traditional music, Ephat Mujuru is the unsung hero of mbira music.

Mujuru was born in 1950 and was raised in a small village in Makoni district, Rusape. He was taught to play the mbira by his grandfather, Muchatera Mujuru. Muchatera was a spirit medium and a prophet who belonged to one of the most important ancestral spirits in Shona cosmology, Chaminuka. Showing clear talent for the rigours of mbira training, Mujuru advanced quickly, playing his first possession ceremony when he was just aged eight. At his Rhodesian-run Catholic school, young Mujuru’s teachers told him that to play mbira was a “sin against God”. This irritated Muchatera so much that he withdrew his grandson and sent him to school in an African township outside the capital, Salisbury (present-day Harare).

In the big city, Mujuru hesitated before committing himself to the life of a musician. He recalled in a 1994 interview: “On leaving school, I worked in an accounting office. But the people there were very colonial. They had so much hate. They didn’t respect African people.” Amid excuses, the office ultimately fired Mujuru. “It was sad,” he said, “Because I thought life was beginning to happen for me in the late 1960s to early 1970s and then I had no job. I was 18 and very confused.”

All along, though, Mujuru says that there was a “silent voice” telling him that his hope lay in mbira music. Following that voice, Mujuru began spending time in the village of Bandambira, where he studied with a great old mbira player of the same name. In the highland maize fields near Mhondoro beneath Zimbabwe’s big skies full of large birds, Mujuru reaffirmed his ties to the mbira. Soon, he went to live and apprentice with another master player, Simon Mashoko.

Later, Mujuru’s path became clear — to follow in the footsteps of Muchatera, Mujuru, Mubayiwa, Bandambira, and Mashoko. “They had respect,” said Mujuru emphatically. “They were not as rich as those accounting people, but they were much happier.”

In 1972, Mujuru formed his first group, Chaminuka, in partnership with another mbira player, Charles Mutwida, the group he performed with throughout the brutal decade of the independence war. In this period, Mujuru managed to get national radio airplay for two slyly political songs How can I cross the river? and Guruswa, which means ancient Africa in Shona. Perhaps Rhodesian radio programmers heard only quaint nostalgia in the song, but future Zimbabweans got the message. “It was talking about our struggle to free ourselves,” explained Mujuru. “We wanted the place to be like it was before colonisation.”

In the context of war, the mbira became political. Thomas Mapfumo transposed mbira music onto electric instruments to create Chimurenga music, named for the Chimurenga guerillas. Mujuru says, “When we played mbira, people would come and dance with a special feeling: ‘Hey, we are going to be independent!’ Sadly, by the time the war was won, Mujuru’s grandfather Muchatera, had become one of its victims. He was executed by guerillas who thought his bira ceremonies were directed at achieving peace, rather than victory.

Mujuru played all of Zimbabwe’s five types of mbira, but as mentioned earlier, his specialty was the popular “mbira dzavadzimu”. Where mbira can have from 15 to 50 iron prongs, the “mbira dzavadzimu” has 22, arranged in three register banks that Mujuru characterised as “voice of the children, voice of the adults, and voice of the elders”.
Like any serious mbira player, Mujuru had mastered a large repertoire of traditional songs. But he was also a prolific composer, with many original titles and unique interpretations of traditional songs to his credit. Apart from his musical prowess, Mujuru was an inspirational storyteller. Over the years, he transformed the venerable art of telling allegorical tales for children into a personalised narrative and musical form that conveyed both wisdom and delightful humour to adults and children alike. In one story, a hyena confronted with a dead cow and a dead goat could not decide which to eat first, and died of starvation while pacing greedily back and forth between the two prizes.

After Zimbabwe gained independence on April 18, 1980, the work of building a new nation began. Renaming his group Spirit of the People, Mujuru recorded his first album in 1981 using only mbira, hand drums, “hosho”, and singers. He sang about brotherhood and healing.

Independence and a measure of commercial success brought new possibilities for Mujuru. He helped to found the National Dance Company and became the first African music teacher to work at the rather stuffy Zimbabwe College of Music on the recommendation of Paul Berliner who had spent time understudying Mujuru and eventually wrote a book The Soul of Mbira.

In 1982, at the invitation of Berliner, Mujuru went to the United States for the first time to study and, eventually, lecture and teach mbira at the University of Washington in Seattle. On his return to Zimbabwe in 1986, Mujuru became a schoolteacher at Mbare High School and also started live performances in nightclubs and small venues. He would also hang out at the Zimbabwe College of Music where he would give mbira lessons mainly to visiting foreign tourists.

Throughout the 1980s, Mujuru travelled widely. In the US, he released an album of traditional hand drumming, Rhythms of Life, recorded in Boston in 1989, with a few mbira tracks added from an earlier vinyl release on lyrichord.

During the 1990s, Mujuru continued to travel and perform and in the US, he recorded two albums for Music of the World, Ancient Wisdom and Shona Spirit. He went on to do a collaboration with another of Shona music’s great international ambassadors, Dumisani Maraire. Mujuru also recorded an ambitious, multi-track album he called Journey of the Spirit. Back in Zimbabwe, he released successful pop albums with a revamped, electric version of Spirit of the People. In 1992, Mujuru’s first electric album Hapana Mutorwa made its way to the top of the local charts, edging out Zimbabwe sungura kings, Leonard Dembo and John Chibadura. But as conditions worsened in Zimbabwe, Mujuru travelled and recorded less. In early September, the electric album, Musiyano, was released and got a very positive review in one of the local papers, under the heading, Mujuru Back With a Bang.

During that period, he also played alongside Fela Kuti of Nigeria and he won a Pan-African Award in Ghana for his contribution in preserving African culture. Mujuru seemed poised for a genuine comeback. But less than a month later, on October 5, he died in London, while travelling with his cousins Fradreck and Sam. He was on his way to begin a residency at Grinnell College in Iowa. Sadly, Mujuru suffered a massive heart attack that day on disembarking from an Air Zimbabwe plane after experiencing deep- vein thrombosis at Gatwick Airport and died on his way to hospital. Despite his great achievements, he remains Zimbabwe’s unsung mbira hero.

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