Strong Winds and Soft Earth Landings

A Musical, Migrational Flight

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 is set.

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. Newmas Kunatsa
"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 appreciatively.

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 seen.

"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.

link to "Moving Towards Africa" by Will Menter

© Copyright Kristyan Robinson - first published in Dandemutande, November 1994.
Photo of Newmas Kunatsa © Copyright Stephen Williams

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