Several new and upcoming re-issued records feature the sound of the African thumb piano mbira, from traditional to contemporary. And in at least two cases, Berlin plays a special role in the current popularity peak of the mbira sound among musicians, DJs, labels and music lovers.   

The mbira is a member of the family of thumb pianos or lamellophones that can be found all over Africa and beyond, as it made an outernational career under the name “kalimba”. For the people of the region of today’s Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi and South Africa, it is an essential part of musical traditions, used in different sizes and forms by, among others by Shona, Venda, and Marembe people. And it has found its way into popular music as well, most notably through the Chimurenga Sound established by Thomas Mapfumo, one of Zimbabwe’s biggest musical heroes. Before Mapfumo founded his own band Blacks Unlimited, he was part of the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, an outfit that had catered Rumba and Rock music to the people of what was back then South Rhodesia. By introducing Shona language and the sound of the mbira to their sound, often adapting the patterns to electric guitars, they became pioneers and rock stars in the final days of the decolonialisation of Zimbabwe. In 2006, Analog Africa released a CD anthology of the band which is now reissued for the first time on vinyl, complete with extensive liner notes on the band’s history.

The sound of the four piece band Urban Villagefrom Soweto / South Africa can be regarded as a direct heir to the Chimurenga mix of folk tradition and outernational influences, catapulted into the South African present, with a bittersweet rhythm foundation and and a nicely balanced studio sound. Urban Village have released two singles and an EP in 2020, to be followed in January by their debut album Udondolo on French label No Førmat.

Undeterred by the popular market, the mbira tradition has lived on in rural areas, through village and family tradition, as exemplified by the Zonke Family, master musicians of the maxi sized matepe mbira, and members of the  Malembe, an ethnic group divided by the border between Zimbabwe and Mosambique. When the band came to Berlin during their first European tour in spring 2019 they went looking for a studio and luckily hooked up with producer Max Weissenfeldt. By then, Max was running a studio in an industrial building in Berlin Kreuzberg together with Stibbo Spitzmüller. Now the studio has been relocated to Ghana. The three musicians recorded 10 songs that day, using a pair of king sized matepe mbira and accompanying percussions and vocals. Reportedly, it is the first album recording of a Matepe band ever, and has been released in September on Lokalophon, a new sublabel of Max Weissenfeldt’s vinyl imprint Philophon.

Among the rather few women to master the instrument is Stella Chiweshe, and today she might be the best known of them all, with a career spanning more than 30 years, and the widely accepted title “Queen of mbira music”. Her breakthrough album “Ambuya?” was released in 1987 by Berlin label Piranha Music. 33 1/3 years later, in February 2021, Piranha will put out a re-issue of the legendary album, now with an exclamation mark and enhanced by four tracks of Stella’s John Peel session in 1988.

Apart from that, and probably most importantly, Stella Chiweshe has recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for her current project. She has founded the Chivanhu Project with the aim of establishing a music school in Zimbabwe dedicated to the teaching and preservation of mbira music. 24.000 € are needed for basics as building houses, power and water supply. Donators will be rewarded with pretty attractive perks, including signed copies of the upcoming album, actual mbira instruments hand fabricated by Zimbabwean masters (for 250 € a piece), as well as private mbira lessons and a vocal workshop in Berlin by the Queen herself. Here’s a serious Christmas present opportunity to consider.

By Eric Mandel