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  • Lorraine Johnson

[42] The Mbira Speaks

When João Agostinho Bras was 15, he started to sing and play mbira while herding cattle in the village of Degwefora. And at the end of the day, though tired he was, he would continue to strike its haunting tines, alongside an orchestra of players—creating traditional perfection through the giving of its inharmonic, ethereal sounds. He had the power and strength to play for hours because the listeners—mostly the elders—would fill with joy. And some nights, when he and his friends returned from drinking badwa, they would pick up their fingers again and sit and play the mbira while his parents, listening to the enchanting sound, clapped hands and sang—their presence once again encouraging him to continue, to continue—as the tone and melody of its sound cleared aways thoughts and worries of a day and filled souls with the meaning of life.

Much time passed since the days of herding cattle, and his parents long gone. But continue he did. He continued to play his mbira, to speak to the spirits of his ancestors—his people, to let them know he was here. And he continued to play his mbira to ask for rain, climbing to the holy shrines that live on the top of hills, for it is only after one comes down from the hill, the rains will come and wash away the footprints of the one who called. Elders, they used to know. They used to know exactly why the rains didn't come, and why the mbira must be played. But now it was 1993, and Bras was living in Chimadzi. And he spoke of the many who preferred the contemporary sounds of a modern tune, then to sit and listen to him playing tradition on his mbira—which sometimes sat in a calabash, to amplify the buzz of its enduring lure. Yet despite the movement of time, and even through war and perhaps when the rhythms of modernity are no more, the mbira, he knows, will remain and play on. So he continues to play, even in the darkness working as a night guard at Pensão Alves. Sometimes people would come to his side to listen, and sometimes it was just him, sitting alone. And then he played his songs for me, and transported I was to the top of the hill.


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