World Music in Mozambique

Essays Archive
by Andrew Tracey

Xylophones are found scattered all over Africa. They are cheerful, secular, group, dancing instruments, mostly associated with chiefs and their temporal powers.

There is one type that stands head and shoulders above all, in the complexity of its music, its ancient tradition, the quality of its manufacture ..... that of the Chopi people of southern Mozambique.

The Chopi have a chiefly tradition of xylophone orchestras that was first described in writing by the Portuguese Fr. Andre Fernandes in 1562. It has continued unbroken into the 20th Century up to the independence of Mozambique from Portugal in 1975.

And what happened in 1975?
A disastrous 20-year civil war that laid waste the people, the countryside, the economy.

Frelimo government policy abolished the chiefs, the traditional patrons of timbila music, and forced the Chopi people, who live in scattered homesteads in order to be near their fields, to relocate into centralised villages. Thousands of refugees descended into Chopiland and decimated the trees and vegetation. A severe drought hit the country in 1982 to 1984. These disruptions, plus all the others of a nation at war with itself, put a virtual end to all organised music, especially large, organised musics like Timbila that need large groups to come together, thus drawing attention to themselves.

A whole war generation of young men grew up knowing nothing of their own classical music and dance. Most of the expert players and dancers are aged or dead, their instruments destroyed.

Some Chopi businessmen in the capital, Maputo, have formed a Chopi cultural organisation called AMIZAVA (Amigos de Zavala)- Address: Quinta Sao Vicente, Estrada Nacional, Maputo, Mozambique,Tel/Fax: +258-1-470284. (Zavala is the Chopi name for the capital of Chopiland, which the Portuguese called Quissico.)

Several Chopi cultural festivals have been held at Zavala in the last years. But unlike in pre-war years, only seven villages have been able to produce an orchestra or dancers of any kind, and these are mostly old men.

The Timbila tradition is in severe danger. What can be done about it?

Since the war, no new patrons have appeared to sponsor Chopi xylophone music except a few outstanding individuals whose sheer force of personality had enabled them to keep their classical Chopi music going, people such as Venancio Mbande of Chisiko, Shambini wa Makasa of Mavila, Bernardo Matimbi of Nyakutowo and Sathanyane wa Bokisi of Mbanguzi. There are occasional festivals in Maputo and Zavala; Venancio Mbande's group have toured in Europe several times. Apart from this, in the depressed economy of Mozambique, there seems little hope for the future of the Chopi timbila unless international support can be mustered. CLOSE-UP ON VENANCIO MBANDE Venancio was born in 1930, and raised at Chisiko and Homoine, in the Inhambane Province of Mozambique. He learned to play timbila from his uncle and other relatives by the age of six. At the age of 18 in 1948 he went to the gold mines in Johannesburg, South Africa. Going to work on the mines, apart from the much-needed earnings in poverty-ridden Mozambique, had for Chopi youths largely taken the place of wukwera, the traditional Chopi boys' initiation and circumcision. Venancio worked underground for ten years, by 1956 had formed his own timbila orchestra and began composing for them.

This became his life work, as he considered his mine orchestra to be a musical training ground for young Chopi men. He ruled his orchestra and dancers with a strict but kindly hand to ensure that their standard, as every Chopi agreed, was always equal or better than that of their home orchestras.

The situation for Chopi mineworkers worsened during the civil war 1975-1995. Venancio's orchestra 'in exile' was the only Chopi orchestra functioning during that time; as many as 500 musicians and dancers may have passed through his hands. He tried to ensure that any potentially musical young man recruited for the mines was unobtrusively directed towards 'his' mine, where, as he felt with justification, he was single-handedly supporting Chopi tradition.

Venancio retired from the mines in 1995, and returned to Chopiland to live in the house he had built for himself and his wives near Helene. He immediately started to put into practice his lifelong ambition to run a 'school of timbila' and set to training players and dancers from his district of (former chief) Chisiko, many of whom had been with him on the mine, some even having moved there from other districts in order to be near him and his music. His newly formed group has toured twice in Europe.

Using a Timbila MAKING A MBILA

A good mbila maker intimately knows the qualities of all the materials he uses. There are at least 15 natural materials needed for a Chopi mbila; it's an ecological masterpiece.

  1. MWENJE, or Sneezewood, for makokoma, the keys. This is the one absolutely essential item, sine qua non. Mwenje is one of Africa's most resonant woods, extremely hard and resinous, impervious to weather or insect attack. The Chopi have been living and making timbila in their homeland for so long (at least 500 years) that the mwenje wood is completely finished. So they have to buy it several hundred kilometres up the coast in an area of similar flora where no xylophones are played.
    That is not all with the mwenje. Much of it is lost after splitting and rough shaping, and then after the process of kudimba - tempering over a slow fire, when some keys always crack. But when the note is ready, there is nothing so vibrant and alive as a piece of blackened, tempered mwenje in your hand, ready to be tuned.
  2. NKUSU, or Natal Mahogany, a good furniture wood, for ditaho, the frame which runs down the centre of the mbila, and for nyamanganane, the narrow 'spacers' which lie between every second key.
  3. MDANI, a flexible wood which can be steam-bent, for mrari, the arched 'bow' from end to end of the mbila with which you control it while playing.
  4. Any really hard, strong wood for minenze, the two legs.
  5. MATAMBA, hard-shelled oranges for the resonators under each key.
  6. SIBEMBE, garden-grown calabashes for resonating the lower notes.
  7. MAKWAKWA, small gourds which protect the membranes on the side of each resonator.
  8. MAKOSI, membranes made from cow gut, which buzz on the side of each resonator.
  9. MURARA, the leaf of the ground palm, for tying the resonators and spacers onto the frame.
  10. PULA, black beeswax from the stingless ground bee, for sealing each resonator, tuning it with the key above, attaching makwakwa to the resonators, and forming titsudi, the nipples on which the makosi membranes sit.
  11. MAFURA A TIHOMU, beef dripping for softening the beeswax.
  12. DIDOWO, cowhide cords on which the keys rest.
  13. TINGOTI, leather lacing for tying the keys onto the mbila.
  14. MBUNGO, raw rubber from the vine, for tikongo beater heads.
  15. NYAMASIANE, a flexible wood, for beater handles.

Modern wood-working tools are usually used for most of the job, but there are three indispensable traditional tools needed: chivatelo, an African-style adze (diagram to be drawn), ponzi, the little conical waxworking tool (diagram to be drawn), and ntombo, several pokers for burning round and square holes. Chivatelo shapes most of the irregular wooden parts, and tunes the keys, and ponzi presses and shapes the pula beeswax for sealing and tuning the resonators and shaping titsudi, the nipples on the side of the resonators. The scale to which the Chopi accurately tune their timbila is one of the family of 'equi-spaced' scales found in scattered parts of Africa. In their case, it is a seven-note equi-spaced scale built on a tonic note of fixed pitch. Many makers have 'perfect pitch' on this note, and can tune a complete instrument without any other reference. 'Equi-spaced' means that all seven intervals are the same size, quite unlike a Western major scale for instance, which has two different interval sizes, one double the size of the other. Thus the Chopi interval is about 86% of a Western whole tone, or 14% flatter/smaller. Perhaps more to the point, a Western whole tone is about 17% sharp of the Chopi interval.

The resonators on most African xylophones are attached loosely; the Chopi ones are sealed airtight onto the frame, which accounts in part for the incredible power of the mbila's tone. Resonator tuning is part of the handed down craft; top Chopi makers not only tune accurately, but continually recheck, and even re-tune their resonators between winter and summer and between playing at home at sea-level and at 6,000ft in Johannesburg. When there is less air in the resonator in summer, or at high altitude, it sounds sharp. Another factor carefully controlled in a good mbila is the distance between the bottom side of the key and the opening of the resonator. The key should be close to the resonator for maximum volume, but the closer it gets the flatter the resonator sounds (i.e. what is called the end-correction factor). So one effect has to be balanced against the other for the best sound. Chopi players also take great care with their makosi membrane buzzers. A makosi has to be at just the right tension before you tune the resonator, because its tension affects the pitch - the tighter the sharper. An ecological masterpiece, made, tuned and played by master musicians in a tradition over 500 years old.....

Please contact:
Andrew Tracey, Director of the International Library of African Music at Rhodes University, South Africa, who had known and worked with Venancio for twenty five years. He is currently trying to raise money to fund the creation of Venancio's timbila school, and will gladly answer queries about it.
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