Zimbabwe reaps benefits from Unesco’s recognition of mbira

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Features Writer
WHEN in December 2020 UNESCO listed the cultural musical instrument, mbira, as an item of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the move triggered off a host of initiatives.
The effect of the recognition by UNESCO is that it increases interest in and demand for the musical instrument.
Earlier in the same year, Google featured mbira on its pages during the month of May to coincide with celebrations marking Culture Month.
At national events, mbira is found featuring a lot, while there are conversations around introducing the instrument in schools at a national level.
Alive to the implications of these proposals, various institutions, among them the Mbira Centre in Harare, are seized with ensuring there is sufficient production capacity to meet demand for the instrument, once the green light is signalled for the introduction of the instrument in schools.
Cultural activist, Rev Dr Paul Damasane, who was with the Ministry of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture, says while he could not speak about the current position, many things had moved forward, including expansion of cultural markets.
“At every national event, mbira is found featuring a lot,” explained Dr Damasane.
The co-listing by UNESCO of the mbira as a cultural heritage instrument in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, puts the mbira in the same league as the Jerusarema Mbende Dance, listed by UNESCO in 2008.
Communities in Murehwa and Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe in Mashonaland East province popularised Jerusarema Mbende Dance. UNESCO proclaimed it a masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and the Murehwa Culture Centre acts as the reference place for the purposes of safeguarding.
The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education says it has popularised the introduction of mbira in schools through Visual Performing Arts (VPA) as a learning area, with music as a component.
“The competencies of playing the instrument therefore fall under the Continuous Assessment Framework,” explained Ministry’s spokesperson, Taungana Ndoro, during a recent interview with New Ziana.
The National Arts Council of Zimbabwe (NACZ) Director, Dr Nicholas Moyo, says since the listing by UNESCO, NACZ has been involved in various initiatives, together with other stakeholders in promoting the instrument and music.
“The NACZ has driven the crafting of the Zimbabwe Music policy, which recognises the role of the mbira and other traditional instruments as key drivers for the growth of the music sector. The strategy seeks to promote the production and training of mbira manufacturers in Zimbabwe.
“This will make sure that the instrument is produced at the community level and ensure skills transfer from the older to the younger generation.

“The year 2021 saw scaled-up support for the Mbira Month Celebration, which is hosted by the Mbira Centre. NACZ increased the prominence of September as a National Mbira Month, encouraging and supporting activities in different areas that promoted Mbira Month.”
In addition, NACZ social media pages promoted and showcased local mbira legends such as Mbuya Stella Chiweshe, Fradeck Mujuru and others in a bid to raise the prominence of the instrument.
The NACZ has taken a deliberate strategy of giving prominence to Mbira as well as Mbira Music and Artists in its activities, which include the annual National Arts Merit Awards (2022) and the launch of the Zimbabwe Music Strategy.
“All of these were broadcast on national television and social media platforms. This is set to continue going forward.”
The NACZ has also supported the formation of the Zimbabwe Mbira Guild, which is an association of Mbira Artists and manufacturers that seeks to create standards and qualifications for players and crafters.
There are also measures that the NACZ has undertaken in order to link up mbira groups with promoters, or encourage the mbira groups to take up opportunities, where these arise.
For example, NACZ linked Mbira groups with promoters for local shows, while rising traditional mbira and Afro-fusion artist, Vee Mhofu, secured a regular slot at Mashwede Village.
NACZ also seconded Duramazwi Mbira group to perform and represent Zimbabwe at the 9th Aswan International Arts and Culture Festival in Egypt in February this year.
The Council facilitated the registration and hosting of the inaugural Bira Remadzisahwira at the Theatre in the Park.
NACZ is looking at other initiatives with other Government departments, Ministries and private sector entities to further increase the prominence of this uniquely Zimbabwean instrument. In the wake of both UNESCO and Google recognition, demand for Mbira music and the instrument is expected to increase globally.
Albert Chimedza, founder of the Mbira Centre and Chairperson of the Mbira Guild of Zimbabwe, believes there is a need to align mbira’s future to the demands and appetite for an increasingly globalised world.
He argues that there is a need to build the capacity to mainstream mbira into the educational system.
“We need to prepare for, and explore the new frontiers in mbira production and practice. Our actions must focus on maintaining relevance in the face of inevitable change.”

Chimedza is concerned that there be mechanisms that protect local heritage from appropriation and commercial exploitation. He wants fair rewards for the mbira community.
The cultural musical instrument has been played for centuries, with some observing that mbira represents the music of the ancestors. It is one of the country’s enduring instruments that is played during traditional ceremonies.

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