Moving Towards Africa: Strong Winds and Soft Earth Landings

Will Menter

How did Chartwell Dutiro construct his image of Europe and England? I don’t know. His name itself might offer a clue. Chartwell House is the historical home of the Churchill family in the southeast of England. Winston Churchill—could we say he was the Nelson Mandela of his time? No, of course not, because unlike Mandela, he was not a leader of a politically oppressed group fighting for their own human rights and indeed had some opinions and attitudes that were clearly racist . But all the same, he was a politician who at a certain level was almost universally admired, symbolising the defeat of Hitler’s fascism. A national leader who became a world statesman, some of whose policies transcended national interests in favour of the whole of humanity. Could his aura have been sufficient to inspire a mother in a distant colony to name her son after his house? We might infer this, but we would be mistaken. We ask Chartwell, and quickly discover that the name came not from his mother, but from staff at the mission hospital he was taken to soon after he was born. His mother named him Shorayi, as later Shorayi-Chartwell was to name his own son. But the name Chartwell stuck. And, strange to tell, years later, during negotiations for Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office still deemed Churchill’s standing in their former colony of sufficient value to send his son-in-law, Christopher Soames, to preside over the talks.
Wherever one lives in the world it is almost impossible to have a realistic notion of other continents or countries one hasn’t visited. Each of us creates his or her own world through direct experience of the near and through mediated experience of the distant. It may take many years to arrive in another continent and in the process it may be necessary to deconstruct ideas that have previously seemed useful.

Often the way we construct the distant is in response to how we perceive the near. We are able to do this in a much freer way, without risk of contradiction, than we can with the world directly around us. The distant world can feed a fantasy. It can more easily become what we want it to be or need it to be than can the near world. To take two pertinent examples: it is easy for a European addicted to the consumer gadgets of modern life to see Africa as backward or uncivilised; equally, a European who feels uncomfortable with the anonymity or soulless nature of modern urban life can easily construct an idealised idyllic and positive image of the warmth and sharing of traditional African village life.

Psychological constructs must be placed in the context of our knowledge of history. Africa and Europe—especially Britain—have been intertwined and interdependent for many hundreds of years, and of course the relationship has never been mutual or equal. But in the detail of individual lives lived in the context of an exploitative relationship between continents, there have been gains and losses on both sides. There are always choices, but the range of choices at any given time or in any given place will be distinct. Today, we talk of cross-cultural collaboration between artists. What we are actually experiencing is individual people’s lives intersecting in a way that may gradually change communities and how they relate to each other and to the world. In the modern age, each person increasingly creates their own culture as they travel through life, drawing on influences much wider than the place where they were born or the community and family they were born into.

The subject of this paper, Strong Winds and Soft Earth Landings, was a project I initiated to bring together musicians and artists from Zimbabwe and Britain. The project itself lasted only a few months in 1994 but had far-reaching effects for some of the people involved. For musician Newmas Kunatsa it was his last foreign tour before he died, later the same year. For mbira maker and musician Chris Mhlanga it was his first foreign tour and paved the way for subsequent work in the USA and for many sales contacts for his instruments. Chartwell Dutiro, already a seasoned international performer with Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, was able to use the project as a stepping-stone both to starting a career as a solo artist and for pursuing academic studies in Britain. He settled in Britain when the project ended. The Strong Winds group included three Zimbabwean musicians, four British musicians, a Zimbabwean writer, a Zimbabwean sculptor and a British filmmaker. It was a very diverse group, but even amongst the Zimbabwean musicians three very different lives were intersecting. For a project of this size, where all the individuals are being asked to give of themselves, each has a different story to relate. But, rather than speculate about the stories of others, I prefer to rest within an area I ought to have a more legitimate authority over. That is, my own life and personal culture, how from a distance I constructed my Africa, and how I arrived at the point of realizing the Strong Winds project.

As a young child, I really had very little concept at all of Africa. Actually, I had an African uncle, but I never met him. He was the husband of my mother’s sister and they lived together in what was then the Gold Coast but was soon to become Ghana, the first British colony in Africa to regain its independence. But he divorced when I was four, and I don’t remember meeting him. I knew him only through my two cousins, his children, who were about my age. I certainly didn’t have any concept of them being African—they just seemed good fun to be with. There was one thing, though, that did intrigue me. The name of my older cousin, Kofi, I was told meant “born on a Friday”. Every child born in Ghana, I learnt, had a name which referred to the day of the week when they were born. At the time this was an isolated fact that didn’t seem particularly significant, but it already suggested to me that Ghanaians had a different attitude to individuality.
How did a wider concept of Africa develop? Geography lessons at school? Not much, apart from the vague memory of a lesson about cocoa plantations in West Africa. A visiting teacher from Rhodesia (pre-majority-rule Zimbabwe) in my primary school, a Mr. Phillips I think. He seemed happiest in the open air, and my only memory of him is in the school field digging up a plantain with his penknife to show us the root, though why, I don’t know. “I shouldn’t be doing this,” he said, “but actually its good for the knife. It cleans it.” I have a vague recollection that he wasn’t too highly regarded by the other teachers.
Did I experience any African culture at school? I don’t think so. Or if I did, it didn’t make a big impression. I also don’t remember learning anything about the famous European explorers and colonisers of Africa. Anything I now know about Stanley or Rhodes or others of their ilk was learnt much later, prompted by my own political and historical investigations. No, the first serious encounter with Africa was during my teenage years, in the late 1960s, through jazz and also through a developing socialist consciousness that felt solidarity with African independence movements—especially Zimbabwe. This was the era of Ian Smith’s UDI, Unilateral Declaration of Independence, or IDI, the first ‘I’ standing for ‘illegal’, as Harold Wilson, then British prime minister, labelled it. A white colonial government declaring independence from its colonial master to avoid a negotiated move to majority rule. In Zimbabwe’s neighbour, South Africa, it was the era of Vorster and Vervoerd, apartheid was firmly entrenched, and Nelson Mandela was already incarcerated on Robben Island. In Rhodesia, apartheid was less firmly embedded in the legal system, but the significant difference was that Rhodesia was officially still a British colony, so the government had a responsibility towards it. While still at school I bought a book called The Right To Say No (London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972) by Judith Todd. Todd, then in her early twenties, was the daughter of Garfield Todd who was the last British-appointed prime minister of Southern Rhodesia. She opposed Ian Smith’s UDI and supported majority rule. To me, as I remember it, support of socialist causes was a simple matter of logical thought. How could you do anything else but support humanitarian causes? Then, as now, this was my perspective, but now I can also see that part of my reasoning reflected the social context in which I grew up: a leftish intellectual middle-class family with a comfortable and secure life in a British university city.
If the feeling of socialist solidarity with African liberation movements came from an intellectual milieu, the way that jazz led me to Africa was through feelings in my body. The excitement of jazz rhythm. The feeling that swing produced deep in my gut. My brother Ian, two years older than me, got there slightly before me, but we pursued our interests together. Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane. And a little bit before them blues singers like Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson. Our secondary school had a jazz club, named with mock pomposity “The Jazz Appreciation Society”, where we listened to records and discussed what we heard in the lunch break. Where did this music come from? I started reading books about it. The first answer was black America. New Orleans (where was that?) and then it somehow travelled on riverboats up the Mississippi to Saint Louis (sint loo-y as I pronounced it; it was many years before I discovered that Saint rhymed with quaint and Louis sounded the same as Lewis). The second answer was Africa. All the books agreed: jazz was developed from African rhythms and songs brought to America by imprisoned slaves, which they then gradually merged with European harmony and scalic formula as they learnt how to play European instruments.

Somehow, I gradually developed the belief that the more authentic jazz was closer to Africa. Without having much notion of what African music actually sounded like, I felt that the true jazz was tougher, rougher, more direct, more percussive, more intense, more ecstatic, more complex, more soulful…and therefore more African. It was, then, the sound that first drew me to Africa. I liked the feelings it gave me. But from the sound I was beginning to construct my Africa. I was constructing general ideas about how Africans feel. And eventually ideas about how Africans live. Or I thought I was, but of course it was still American jazz that I was listening to, so the inferred feelings were black American feelings, and the life was black American life. (I pause to ask myself a question: was Chartwell’s Britain built up from music in a comparable way? I very much doubt it.)

My interest in jazz led me to opinions about black people. I remember discussing racism with my mother—maybe I was twelve or thirteen, or ten, I’m not sure—Why are so many British people critical of black people, I asked? Surely, if anything, blacks are better people and more talented than whites? No, my mother quickly put me right, you mustn’t make general statements like that, that’s almost as bad as the attitudes you are criticising. There is no need to judge like that and you should look at people as individuals. Then, in the late 1960s, still in our teens, my brother and I discovered African jazz musicians working in London, the South African team of Dudu Pukwana, Chris McGregor, Mongesi Feza, Louis Moholo and West Africans like Osibisa and Guy Warren. Gradually I heard more. A few years later, travelling to Chicago and New York to further my interest in jazz, I ironically actually met African musicians playing African music on African instruments for the first time, notably the kora player Foday Musa Suso.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, from my home-base in Bristol in the southwest of England, I elaborated my concept of Africa. I read books about Africa. I played in a band led by a Ghanaian drummer and singer. I listened to lots of African music on record and at concerts. I was involved in putting on concerts of traditional African music in Bristol where I lived. And, crucially, I found my own special African music that somehow touched my heart very deeply. This was the Shona mbira music of Zimbabwe, discovered through the two Nonesuch records and book by Paul Berliner. Enamoured by the instrument itself as much as the music, I started making them, using instructions given in Berliner’s book, and I began to teach myself to play.

Why? Why this particular music? What was so special about it? What was it that touched me where I had never been touched before? I can list certain things about it, but ultimately it is a mystery that I can’t answer. Top of the list is the way the patterns played by two mbiras interlock to make multiple layers of what Berliner terms “resultant melodies”. In listening, there is always a different layer to follow, a new path through the music. Then there is the way the singing voice often picks out these melodies in wordless vocals. The jumps in register, or yodelling in the voice. The overall downward contour of the melodies. Other vocal sections express feelings and opinions with words, but even without understanding these words, the patterns and sounds produce strong emotions in me. The list continues: the way the buzzing bottle-tops attached to the resonating gourd emphasise different rhythms. And the rough edges in the sound. The slight differences in tone of each mbira key. But this list is about what rather than why. I think an approach to answering why would come more at a social and psychological level. Famously, mbira makes me “think deeply”. Overall, this music gives me a warm feeling about humanity. Yet it also acknowledges real pain and sorrow in a way that eschews sentimentality. It somehow paints a picture of peaceful coexistence of opposites. Strands weave in and out of each other; they don’t tie each other in knots. There is no quest for dominance or for achievement within a time frame. The music lasts as long as it does. No longer and no shorter. It portrays a world I would like to live in: my Africa.

In 1985, I was amazed to discover that one of the groups featured on the records, Mhuri yekwaRwizi was to play in London at the Shaw Theatre. I had always imagined that if I were to hear this music live I would myself have to travel to Zimbabwe, and yet here they were about to play almost on my doorstep. It wasn’t part of my Africa that traditional African musicians would get on aeroplanes and fly to London to perform. I went to the concert and the music was ecstatic and deeply moving. The group’s leader, Hakurotwi Mude, made a speech saying how he had never imagined that one day he would be playing mbira on a stage in London. So his Africa at least had something in common with my Africa. A week later I saw the group perform again in Cardiff. The feeling was still ecstatic and full of life, but I sensed that Mude himself was less present. He gazed into the distance. He seemed to be “thinking deeply” and it made me think too. I knew that in Zimbabwe this music is played for the spirits of the ancestors, and at this time my interpretation was that Mude’s ancestors had not made the journey with him and he was missing them. He felt he was giving his music to people who couldn’t understand it….But that was my Africa imagining, and I never had the chance to ask Mude himself.
A few months later I heard an African pop group live for the first time. Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited played at the Western Star Domino Club in Bristol, and this was my first sighting of Chartwell Dutiro, who was playing tenor sax in the band. They played late into the night. I and the rest of the packed audience loved it. The most exciting thing for me about this gig was that it was a development of my own special African music: it was mbira music played on electric guitars.

In 1987, I had reached the age of 35, and my Africa was at least 20. When I first set foot on African soil at Harare airport in July of that year it seemed long overdue, and I was pleased at last to have the opportunity to learn about African culture by direct experience. My aim was to find out more about making and playing mbira, but at the same time to soak up everything I could of the culture and environment to develop and intensify my Africa, which until then had grown principally by means of the mediated experience that I described at the beginning of this paper. Harare was the obvious place to start. Early on in my visit I made my way down to the Queens Hotel not far from the city centre and a regular venue for the Blacks Unlimited, where I was thrilled to see the band in its home environment. They played a range of music influenced by soul and reggae as well as the mbira-based music that I had heard in Bristol. Although I stood close to the guitarist, trying to understand how he was playing mbira lines on guitar, it was the trumpet player, Everson, who approached me and struck up a conversation in the interval. If you like mbira, he said, you must meet Chartwell our sax player. He also plays mbira. So we were introduced. We talked a little, and arranged to meet next day in a very smoky hotel room where the band was having a business meeting. Chartwell understood my motivation. He already had a concept of mbira as being international music and sensed my strong affinity with it. Rather than be an academic merely gathering research materials, I was keen to be involved actively with the musicians whom I met. I wanted to give as well as to take. So, I was travelling with my saxophone and one of the mbira-related karimba I had made. The actual experience of joining in would provide enough material for a whole chapter in itself, so I shall leave the retelling for a later time. Anyway, Chartwell invited me to join in with the Blacks Unlimited, which I did at a rehearsal, and even to join them on a tour of Zimbabwe, which I didn’t do because my programme wouldn’t allow it. However, as I travelled around the country independently, I shared music with two pop groups, a school choir, a church choir, a group playing ngororombe music on panpipes, a school marimba band and several mbira players in different areas who played in different styles. I found this all very stimulating and exciting, and often the question came up as to whether anything could develop from this. I was asked several times if I could help a group play in England; normally I replied that I was not a promoter, but that I would look out for any opportunities.

On this first visit, as well as developing a friendship with Chartwell, I took mbira lessons from Mondrek Muchena and spent time with mbira maker Chris Mhlanga. The general atmosphere of the country was buoyant, but seven years after the arrival of majority rule there was also some doubt developing as to whether President Mugabe was the liberating Messiah that had been hoped for. Equally, there was doubt about the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and their policies of structural adjustment, which they were imposing on struggling African countries like Zimbabwe. I found the country comfortable to be in. In most situations, I could find English speakers to communicate with, and somewhat surprisingly, I experienced less culture shock than when I first travelled to the USA.

Or, rather, that was the way it was until I attended a bira. I knew that the centre of mbira music was the bira, the name given to the extended ceremonies where spirit mediums talk to the ancestors, who are invoked by mbira music. These are community events, not aimed at outsiders, least of all tourists. I did not want to barge in, but towards the end of my visit I began to feel I would have missed something important if I didn’t manage to go to at least one bira, so I asked my teacher Mondrek if he would take me. He must have judged that I was ready for this experience and he was happy to oblige by taking me with him to a bira where he was playing the following weekend. We drove from Harare for a couple of hours to a small village near Rusape arriving in the early evening. Although I knew something of the form of a bira, as the party developed through the night and developed its own momentum I found I was unprepared for the mixture of alcoholic intoxication, physical exuberance and spiritual communication that was at its heart.

The whole village was involved, but at different levels. Some were certainly more interested in drinking and dancing than in mbira music. Although mbira was at the centre of the ceremony, I was shocked by the fact that most of the time you could hardly hear it. My Africa situated music at the centre of the culture. I had come to Africa for music and as a musician. Here I was at the heart of it, communing with my special African music and yet it seemed most of the people present were simply not giving the music the attention I felt it deserved. Three mbira players were seated on the ground playing as loudly as they could, playing their hearts out to my ears, but unless you were right next to them they were drowned out by the sounds of hosho shakers, drums, singing and general chatter and excitement. My Africa wanted to tell everyone to be quiet and listen to the music like you would at a western concert, or at the very least like you would at a jazz club. But at the same time I felt excited myself by the party atmosphere and privileged to be present, so I bit my tongue and remained silent. Most of the evening I sat with the musicians, but occasionally I walked around and struck up conversations with villagers. Once I had explained my presence, I was treated as a friend, although I remember one difficult moment when a fairly drunk young man spoke at great length on the virtues of reconciliation between black and white communities, which was indeed the government policy of the time. However, this man was so insistent to the point of belligerence, that I wondered if in fact he believed the opposite of what he was saying. This was understandable to me: I could easily draw parallels to drunken conversations in British pubs.

When it came to the time when the main spirit medium was possessed, I found very little in my former experiences from which I could draw. The atmosphere became less frenetic. The medium started shaking her body—her arms, her shoulders, her head. She breathed heavily through her mouth, her lips vibrating. She snorted through her nose. I became a little frightened. I knew in advance roughly what to expect, but to see it in reality was something for which I was unprepared. It didn’t seem to make sense to me. My idea system couldn’t cope. Was she having a fit? Was she acting? Neither, of course, but rather she was being possessed and the spirit of one of her ancestors was talking through her. I knew all this, but still I found it difficult to cope with. A small group of people around her talked with her seriously but quietly. Part of the reason for the bira was to give thanks for a three-piece suite—yes, it was as practical as that—but people were also asking advice about diverse problems. Then came another shock. Several small children were brought forward. Each in turn was held in front of the medium. She took a swig of maize beer from the bowl beside her and sprayed it at the face of the child. I had no idea at all what was going on and felt at once like a complete outsider and a helpless child out of my depth. The bira continued through the night and into the next morning, and I tried to stay with it, but when I couldn’t, I slept for a while or walked around the village talking to people. We eventually drove back to Harare the following evening, the musicians showing no sign of tiredness, but me exhausted.

My Africa had been jolted. I felt I had reached the limit of my participation. But it was a jolt I needed and wanted: it helped me define my aims. I could see that understanding the bira at a deeper level would only be possible if I immersed myself in the culture for much longer. I felt I would almost have to become a Shona myself, although this, I knew, I didn’t want to do. I wanted to be involved with Shona music and with Shona musicians, and I wanted to know and respect the social context from which the music came. But I wanted to stay a musician myself, with my own background in Western music and jazz.
When I returned to England I began to reflect on what I could do with my experiences and with the personal contacts I had made. An idea began to develop. Although I had heard much Zimbabwean music, it was still mbira music that touched me most deeply, and I wanted to develop a project that would revolve around this instrument. As a novice myself, I certainly wasn’t going to play it, but I wanted to somehow shape a project that would be unique, that could only be made by the particular people involved. Gradually, I came to the idea of making the relationship between the two countries central to the content of the project. In this way, I could actually contribute to the friendship between us. My Africa had transformed into my Zimbabwe through this first visit, and it had become a place populated by individuals, all with their own stories and their own life journeys, a few of which I could envisage intertwining with mine. I stayed in touch with Chartwell. Of all the musicians I had met, he seemed the ideal collaborator. He had been deeply rooted in mbira music from his infancy but he had also studied Western music, gathering knowledge which he put to good use in his saxophone playing with the Blacks Unlimited and the police band he had been in previously. This broad experience was exactly what I needed in at least one of my collaborators. The only problem I saw was that he was a lynchpin of the Blacks Unlimited, and I didn’t want to endanger his position there for something that I saw as a short-term project.

Two memories circulated in my head as I contemplated the project. The more recent were the concerts of Mhuri yekwaRwizi,. The more distant came from my childhood: the reason Mr Phillips came to teach at my school was that he was on an exchange with Miss Taylor, a teacher at my school who went to teach in Rhodesia. This had been in another era, at a different point in the friendship between our countries, and I kept wondering what the experience had been like for her. How did she respond to working in a structurally racist society? Did she enjoy her stay? Or, since she taught nature studies, had she been more interested in birds and wildlife? Unfortunately, I couldn’t ask her because she had died many years before, but perhaps I could create a fictionalised account of her experience travelling to Rhodesia that would parallel mbira players travelling from Zimbabwe to Britain?

I gave the project a descriptive working title ‘The Zimbabwe Britain Migration Project’, and during two subsequent visits to Zimbabwe in 1991 and 1993, I set about finding partners to work with. The writer Musaemura Zimunya was enthusiastic from our first meeting. We discussed eight or nine possible themes for short stories, and eventually settled on commissioning two. ‘The Mbira Player’ would tell the story of a Zimbabwean musician, Hakuna, whose life is dedicated to mbira and who travels to London to perform his music to a British audience. ‘Cultural Conflict’ would tell of a Zimbabwean woman who travels to England to train as a nurse and marries a black British artist. Together they travel back to live in the newly independent Zimbabwe, and there they encounter strong hostility from her family. I decided three stories could be told in an evening, and the third would be ‘The Birdwatcher’, based on my schoolteacher, and told from a British perspective. I looked for a suitable writer, and at one point even approached Doris Lessing, but eventually decided that the content was so personal to me that I should write it. I commissioned sculptor Tapfuma Gutsa to make sculptures to surround the musicians and filmmaker Ingrid Sinclair to edit archive film that would be projected behind them. The performances were to be cross-art form as well as cross-cultural. But music remained at the centre.

Part of the idea behind the project was that the stories and the music would gain extra resonance from the fact that some of the performers were actually living the story they were relating. For example, in ‘The Mbira Player’ Zimunya describes the preparations Hakuna makes for travelling to London. He asks village elders for advice: “Never go tide watching,” he is told, and this comment became the theme for a song. During rehearsal in Bristol, we took the group to look at a local landmark, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, but none of the Zimbabweans wanted to walk over it. So, back in the rehearsal room we added the line, “Don’t walk over high bridges”, to the song. Later on in the tour, we had the chance to walk on the beach at Skegness. The first thing Chris Mhlanga did was run to the sea, put his hand in, and scoop water into his mouth. He wanted to prove to himself that the sea was salty, as he had heard. He filled a bottle with sea water to take back to Zimbabwe. And, later, the Zimbabwean musicians discussed whether the bad dreams and sleepwalking that one of them was experiencing were caused by the British diet or because he hadn’t made the correct preparations before he left his country. That is, he hadn’t consulted village elders and ancestors.

Although ‘The Mbira Player’ was not specifically about Chartwell, he strongly identified with the content. The idea for the story started when I related to Zimunya my experience of seeing Hakurotwi Mude perform in London. I told him how moved I had been, and went on to explain the questions the Cardiff performance had raised in me. Zimunya, in writing the story, took a different perspective. More than anything, he emphasised the positive side, and the story ends with the ecstatic feeling of deep communication experienced by the mbira player during his first performance on a London stage. This brought together and resolved all the tensions and struggles in Hakuna’s life, and the experience was transcendent: mbira became a way of revealing our shared humanity rising above local and personal differences. This, too, is how Chartwell sees his mission.

We approached the music not in a single way but as a meeting of individuals. Chartwell helped me assemble the Zimbabwean group. We needed a minimum of two mbira players to create the interlocking patterns that generate the excitement in the music. Chris Mhlanga I knew only as a maker, but Chartwell knew him also as an expert player, so we invited him. We also needed a singer equally at home singing in Shona and English. I knew Newmas Kunatsa as a strong singer, guitarist and extrovert performer who I had seen giving concerts with his British partner Erin Macdonnell, also an mbira player and singer. I invited both to take part. I also asked two other British jazz-based but flexible musicians whom I worked with regularly, the percussionist Henry Shaftoe and the bass player Julian Dale.

I didn’t impose strict rules on making the music, but suggested some guiding principles:
· The music should help tell the stories, but should also exist in its own right.
· Some traditional mbira pieces would be used as a basis, but would have non-traditional instruments such as double bass and saxophone added to them.
· Any ideas or pieces suggested by any of the musicians would be tried out at rehearsal.
· I would write some completely new pieces, some developed from mbira patterns, and some more jazz-based.

Where did the musics meet, and what were the difficulties we encountered? To my ear, Shona mbira music is nearer to jazz than to British folk music. Most Shona pieces are based on a repeating chord sequence like jazz, and the commonest form is a four-part sequence that forms a basis not unlike the twelve-bar blues that is so prevalent in jazz. For British musicians, including myself, the biggest problem we faced was feeling the multi-layered rhythm of mbira music. We are so used to counting ‘1-2-3-4’, but this is not appropriate for mbira, or for much African music. The patterns of mbira are equally regular, but they are normally conceived as a continuous cycle rather than having a fixed beginning and end. If you listen to just the mbira pattern, it is impossible to define where it starts and ends, or even exactly what the main melody is. To my western ears, that is a large part of its beauty. Having said that, it is also true that the hosho shakers normally play a rhythm that is close to the western 12/8, and we found that the best way to play was to think 12/8. This worked most of the time, but probably lost some of the rhythmic subtlety of the music. On the traditional pieces Chartwell helped us work out marimba and bass lines, or more accurately, to extract the lines from the complex mbira parts. The soprano sax we treated more like a voice that moved in and out of the pattern as in jazz, but Chris and Chartwell both pulled me up sometimes because the lines I was playing didn’t sit properly on the rhythm. Chris, in his turn, sometimes found it difficult to remember the exact arrangements we made for each piece—the fixed details of what would happen in what order—having been used to the more flowing loose structures of mbira music.

Two of the new pieces that I wrote had written mbira parts. For one I used the traditional technique of having two instruments play one pulse apart, but over a chord sequence that was nearer jazz. This worked well, and in the same piece I wrote a pentatonic vocal melody that floated on top of the chords. I wanted Newmas to sing this, but he found it just as difficult to get into the rhythmic feel of it as we, the British musicians, had with the traditional pieces, and so, although he could do it, because it sounded stiff, I gave it to Erin to sing instead. The second piece was for two karimba, a smaller type of mbira that Chris also makes and plays. I thought I had written idiomatic lines that sounded almost Shona, but when Julian asked Chris if it sounded African to him he smiled and quietly replied in the negative. However, Chris was still happy to play it, and he and I both played karimba—I had to splay out the keys of an instrument I had made to fit Chris’s large hands for him to play it, and I played an instrument Chris had made. From the karimba line I worked in a wordless vocal melody which Newmas and Erin both sang. Even though both Newmas and Chris had to work hard to learn this piece, it was worth the effort and became a good convincing piece, possibly the most “fused” or “between continents” of all the music.

Another of the new pieces I wrote had a guitar-based chord sequence and I built the piece up from a Shona dance rhythm called jerusarema. The theme turned out to be close to a song that Newmas already knew and the three Zimbabweans between them quickly adapted new words to fit the place in the story where it came, and they and Erin worked out there own harmonies for the chorus. We used two saxophones in this piece, one soprano and one tenor, trying to imitate the way mbira lines interlock.

I loved all the music we played. My only regret was that we couldn’t do more. We toured to about a dozen venues around Britain and by the last gig we were feeling strong as a group and confident and proud of our music. Economic practicalities prevented us from taking it further. The project had only been possible because of generous support from the Arts Council of Great Britain, Visiting Arts and other organisations, and we couldn’t afford to prolong it. Chartwell, as it happens, decided to stay in Britain and develop his career here, but this wasn’t an option for Newmas and Chris, so they returned to Zimbabwe. It was, in a sense, a pilot project that would feed into our future careers in different ways. I had foreseen this from the start, but nevertheless I shared everyone else’s disappointment that we couldn’t find a way of continuing. To make a long-term project would require a company with a much more substantial administrative base than we had, as well as a much greater flow of income, either from grants or from box office and sales.

How can Strong Winds be evaluated as a cross-cultural project? Because it was set up in Britain within the framework of British arts networks, it is much easier to evaluate from a British rather than a Zimbabwean perspective. I received written feedback from all the venues, and talked repeatedly to all the participants. The performances were billed as cross-cultural collaboration, and for me one of the main objectives was that we should present material that could only be done in a cross-cultural way, but that, at the same time, none of the individuals should have to compromise. Talking to the musicians afterwards they were unanimous that we had achieved this. It would have been interesting to ask them again about the experience a year or more later, or perhaps to find a more independent way of discussing the issues we were exploring, and especially to build a more Zimbabwean perspective.

The feedback from the venues was more varied. Mostly, it was appreciative of the work we had put in and positive about the results achieved. The musicians were singled out for praise by different people. There was criticism of details and a lot of discussion about whether we had achieved an appropriate balance between the two cultural foundations, Shona mbira and jazz. Probably most of the people we performed to had never heard traditional mbira on its own and sometimes the response was that they wished we had had more of that in the performance. Other people found the mbira music unfamiliar and difficult and would have preferred more jazz. One venue proffered a more serious criticism of the balance, saying the “Africans” (the term used rather than “Zimbabweans”) had been seriously restricted by having a western concert structure imposed on them. They had, it was felt, been stifled by the formal context. I do not agree, and to do so would mean that the project was a failure. I sensed his Africa talking, one markedly different from mine, but it was a pertinent reminder that many of the people coming to the performances must have come with expectations created from their own Africas and it would have been fascinating to know more about how our work related to these, and whether it changed them in any significant way.

Projects such as Strong Winds can create a forum for personal world-views and cultures to develop and engage. At one level, such collaborations can stimulate intellectual political debate but, at another, more instinctive, level the engagement is made simply by sharing a music that is created in a cross-cultural way. Instincts can develop and change too, independently of conscious analysis, and, seen in this way I believe music can help us live and enjoy our lives together and help our communities grow.

next : the bumping of the logs

searching for a zimbabwean hocket

writing by or about will

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strong winds

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interview by Joan Parera