Making Musical Connections

The Zimbabwe Mbira Ensemble welcomes all members of the community to engage with and experience music in new ways.

October 26, 2023

Tim Schmitt

A traditional instrument of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, the mbira consists of a wooden board with attached metal tines that are plucked with the thumbs and fingers to create melody. Though the instrument’s roots lie nearly 9,000 miles away on a different continent, the mbira is used to build community and encourage musical exploration in Grinnell through the Zimbabwe Mbira Ensemble.

“When I was hired by the Music Department in the Fall of 2012 the school gave me money to purchase instruments prior to my arrival,” says associate professor and department chair of  music Tony Perman. “I have been teaching the Zimbabwean Mbira Ensemble every semester I have been in residence ever since.”

In that time, Perman has taught the instrument to students, alumni, staff, community members, and faculty, all of whom are invited to join the ensemble. While the main purpose of the ensemble is to create a space in which students can make music together, it is also a way of  providing space that prioritizes participation over concerts and invites students into a musical way of thinking that is unlike anything they have previously encountered.

In addition to teaching how to play the instrument and to make music with and for one another, Perman uses the instrument as a way to teach participants about the role this music plays in social life in Zimbabwe.

“I want them to develop a sense of familiarity and connection to Zimbabwe and the communities there’” says Perman. “My teacher, Chartwell Dutiro, tasked me many years ago with building bridges between musicians in Zimbabwe and my students here. Hopefully learning the music brings out the humanity and vitality of the music and musicians in Zimbabwe that can shape lifelong relationships.”

To that end, Perman attempts to bring at least one mbira expert, known as a Gwenyambira, to campus each year to teach students and perform — often with the students. Musekiwa Chingodza taught a short course on dancing and drumming in conjunction with the ensemble a few years ago, and Tute Chigamba jointly taught a course with Perman several years ago on the impact of colonialism on the music.

“These moments of connection between Zimbabwean artists and Grinnell students are always the highlight of my year,” says Perman. “This music matters and is important to a lot of people,” says Perman. As students gain comfort, familiarity, and joy in the music it is important that they also acquire a sense of the deep and sacred musical history that comes with the music itself. I want them to develop a sense of responsibility to the people, the music, and to the spirits for whom it is played.”

While these connections are important and educational, Perman says it is the performance of the music that is most meaningful and important to students, one of the reasons the ensemble prioritizes participation over concerts.

“We do offer performances, and I think these are well-received by both the student musicians and the listeners,” Says Perman. “But the most important contributions are to the students and community members who commit their time and effort to learning this music.

“There are few musical spaces that are truly inclusive and participatory,” he adds. “I think the students who find themselves trying it often realize it provides them with something valuable that they didn’t know they were missing”

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