Strong Winds and Soft
A Musical, Migrational
by Kristyan Robinson
Will Menter first heard mbira music in 1978. Then, it seems, the seed for a
unique and exciting collaboration was planted. The slow and determined germination
and subsequent sprouting were followed, finally, by the gorgeous hybrid bloom
of the UK-wide tour of "Strong Winds and Soft Earth Landings" this year (1994).
This cross-pollination between five Zimbawean artists and five UK artists involved
music, dance, sculpture, film, and storytelling.
Will is a Bristol-based jazz musician and instrument maker and is well known
for initiating and executing ambitious cross art form performances. His earlier
works include "Community" (1980), "Overflow" (1984), and "Cān Y Graig - Slate
Voices" (1990). "Cān Y Graig - Slate Voices" began with Welsh slate. Will
constructed marimbas and other percussive instruments from the slate and composed
music to fit. He added film footage of miners removing the slate from the
earth and men fracturing the slate into splinters, while a haunting cabaret
voice sang in Welsh. The project was initially performed underground in a
Welsh slate mine and was later presented at the Institute of Contemporary
Arts (ICA) in London.
"Strong Winds and Soft
Earth Landings" is consistent, from the point of view of sheer weightiness
of the challenge, with Will's earlier hybrid works.
Will fell in love with
the sound of Zimbabwean mbira music the first time he heard it and began making
the instruments for himself and teaching himself to play. In 1983 he heard
the music live in London and in 1987 traveled to Zimbabwe for the first time.
It was then that he met Chartwell Dutiro (mbira player, tenor saxophonist,
and music arranger for Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited) and Chris
Mhlanga (longtime mbira virtuoso and well-known mbira maker). So it was in1987
that the "Strong Winds and Soft Earth Landings" project really began.
It was also at this time
that Will came up with the idea of migration - migration of people as well
as of birds - as a leitmotif for the project. Swifts and swallows cross-migrate
between Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom annually: the countries are so very
different, yet through the eyes of these birds they are the same. They simply
see 'home' or 'habitat'. This image has resonances and counter-resonances
in the migration of people between the two countries.
Will enlisted the help
of Zimbabwean writer and English professor Musaemura Zimunya to tell the stories
of three people who had migrated. The first story, "The Bird Watcher", written
by Will, tells of an English woman who travels to Rhodesia to work as an English
teacher. She writes home to her sister and reports on what she has seen. An
avid bird watcher, she describes both the exotic and the familiar and it is
in this first story that the metaphor of the migration of the swifts and swallows
The second and third
stories were written by Musaemura Zimunya. "Cultural Conflict" tells of the
problems faced by a young Shona woman who travels to the UK to study nursing
and falls in love with a Jamaican Rastafarian. They return to Zimbabwe together,
and there a conflict develops with the nurse's family who regard her choice
of husband as most unsuitable.
"Mbira Player", undoubtedly the most interesting and informative of the three
stories, tells the story of the son of an mbira player and his journey to
become a player himself. It is a story laden with all the mystery of dreams,
the challenge of struggle, and it culminates in the exhilarating joy of celebration
as the son-turned-player performs for a crowd in London who respond unexpectedly
The stories are well
written and informative and provide, like the narration in "Peter and the
Wolf", necessary exposition to the music. There is no doubt, however, that
the music of "Strong Winds qnd Soft Earth Landings" is the strongest aspect
of the performance. Along with Dutiro and Mhlanga, Menter recruited Newmas
Kunatsa, guitar player, singer and mbira player from Guruve, Zimbabwe. Kunatsa
has performed extensively with Erin Macdonnell, a UK based mbira player and
singer who also performed in "Strong Winds". As well, there were two other
Bristol-based musicians: Julian Dale, a double bass and cello player with
a background in both classical music and jazz; and Henry Shaftoe, a percussionist
who, when asked what he plays, responds, "Anything I can hit!" Shaftoe has
performed with numerous groups in the fields of jazz and South American music.
Each of the musicians
comes from a different background and it was exciting to see them lay their
respective goods on the table to come up with a feast. You had a sense as
an observer that the fusion of the music actually resulted from the literal
sharing of the goods. Mhlanga made mbira and karimba for the performance which
are played by five of the seven musicians, and Menter made a slate marimba
and a long drainpipe overtone flute.
At one point Macdonnell
stops singing to take Menter's place at the marimba (which place is subsequently
held by Shaftoe); Dutiro puts down mbira to strap on sax to play with Menter,
himself on soprano sax; Mhlanga exits stage right to reappear with chipendani
(mouth bow), to be accompanied by Dale on the double bass and Dutiro on voice
(this incidentally the strongest song in the piece - "Mbada"), Shaftoe, true
to form, playing anything he can hit, from ngoma to drum kit to marimba. The
crossovers and changes are endless and it is ironically in these changes,
which the audience are not really supposed to pay much attention to, where
one could see the essence of the project.
There was film too, edited
by Ingrid Sinclair, and sculpture made by Tapfuma Gutsa. The film footage
was fascinating -Rhodesian Tourist Board films promoting a very different
Rhodesia than that seen in the juxtaposed documentary films shot in the 'reservations'
- and provided a very interesting backdrop for the music. It is amazing to
witness the impact of the immortality of film. Those images of Zimbabwe -
white people with technicolor beach balls gallivanting by the pool, or feasting
on massive trays of luncheon meat next to buffet ice sculptures - remind us
of the narrow and limited one-sided story that was inhabited by so many before
independence. Ingrid Sinclair did a wonderful job editing the film and it
complemented the music and the stories without upstaging.
The sculpture, on the
other hand, did little to augment the interest of the performance as a whole
and it was here where one could see a lack of integration of the arts: the
hovering canvas birds and winged human figure (angel?) did not come alive
and did not have sufficient stature to wed with the other stronger elements
of the piece.
Menter created a rare
opportunity for all these individuals to meet and share ideas, experiences,
and instruments. However, because the musicians worked collectively rather
than individually, it was in their work that the collaboration was most clearly
"Strong Winds and Soft
Earth Landings" is more than a multimedia performance. It is a unique opportunity
for both artist and audience to participate in and witness a sharing of music,
word and image. And, like a Russian doll, the metaphor of migration goes on
and on, for five of the ten artists, like the mbira player in the story, traveled
to the UK in order to work on the project. There are plans to take the project
to Zimbabwe next year, like the swifts returning after a season in the UK.
And there are even plans to extend the migration further afield, to the United
States and Canada, so watch the skies.
to "Moving Towards Africa" by Will Menter
Kristyan Robinson - first published in Dandemutande, November 1994.
Photo of Newmas Kunatsa © Copyright Stephen Williams
for details of recording and book of Strong
Winds and Soft Earth Landings.
Writing about Will
Llechiphones (slate lithophones) and Mbira
Working with slate