Mbira lesson No. 1: Begin

Traveling all the way to California has brought together our spirits, says Ambuya Jenny Muchumi, Grandmother Jenny Muchumi.


When Ambuya Jenny was a child, her grandfather’s spirit wanted to speak through her. That’s when she started whistling as she played mbira in her native Zimbabwe.  When Jenny learned she would be coming to the United States, she went home to talk to her elderly father and mother. Her father had to clap to talk to the spirit of her grandfather about her upcoming trip. Jenny’s father and mother also clapped to the grandmother’s spirit, telling her, “Our child is going to travel.” When they finished clapping to the spirits, Jenny had no choice but to come to the United States.


Mbira lesson No. 6, which in mbira music’s cosmic carousel ride translates as the first lesson of mbira: Start at the beginning, even though the beginnings, middles, and ends of mbira songs fluctuate like ripples on the surface of water. A more accurate lesson might be: If you lose your way, go back to where you started.


It may have been my imagination. With her limited English, she may have said nothing at all, but merely gestured with her thumbs on her own mbira. Whatever. The message I got was clear, and the way I remember it still: Ambuya Jenny instructs me in her deep iron bell of a voice. “Begin,” I hear her say. I play and forget a portion of the third sequence. “Begin,” I hear again. I try to pick up at the start of the third sequence, but she stops me. “Ah-ah,” she says in the universal language of scolding. “Begin.” I begin. Over and over, until my thumbs and I play all the way through the four sequences, cycle back, and do it again. She says, simply, “Yes.” Then Ambuya Jenny, Grandmother Jenny, smiles at me in such a way that I feel as if all is right with this world.  And the next.


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