|MODERN HISTORY OF TIMBILA
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
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Any really hard, strong wood for minenze, the two legs.
- MATAMBA, hard-shelled oranges for the resonators under each
- SIBEMBE, garden-grown calabashes for resonating the lower
- MAKWAKWA, small gourds which protect the membranes on the
side of each resonator.
- MAKOSI, membranes made from cow gut, which buzz on the side
of each resonator.
- MURARA, the leaf of the ground palm, for tying the resonators
and spacers onto the frame.
- 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.
- MAFURA A TIHOMU, beef dripping for softening the beeswax.
- DIDOWO, cowhide cords on which the keys rest.
- TINGOTI, leather lacing for tying the keys onto the mbila.
- MBUNGO, raw rubber from the vine, for tikongo beater heads.
- 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
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.....
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.