CULTURAL VAMPIRES: White Exploitation of Zimbabwean Mbira Music
By Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa
I woke up this morning to my phone buzzing at the news of today’s Google Doodle focusing on mbira. Thank you to everyone who recognizes that this music is my calling and respects my voice in this discourse. With that great responsibility at heart, I do want to share why today feels like a loss for me.
When I was a senior at Princeton, I was in a “Music of Africa” class. The focus, unbeknownst to me, was Zimbabwean mbira music, and the class was taught entirely by a white man.
In Zimbabwe, I attended a Catholic school established by missionaries 1892. Christian missionary education was an arm of colonialism used to destabilize and eradicate our Chivanhu spiritual cultural practices. N’anga (healers), Gwenyambira (mbira musicians), and Svikiro (spirit mediums) were hunted and killed. Any families seen performing these ceremonies were beaten and publicly humiliated. This fear and trans-generational trauma, is what drove drove Chivanhu practices “underground.”
My grandmother was a Svikiro. I remember a third grade Shona class where I excitedly shared our family’s spiritual practices. My teacher took me outside and said, “We don’t talk about those demonic things here.” I felt ashamed and confused. I didn’t realize I was evil, and from that day on, I vowed never to play mbira.
My father always asked me when I would start playing mbira. I was classically trained in piano, cello, voice; I conducted our church choir and was beginning to carve out my professional musical career. My father kept asking and I would strongly object. I would have dreams of my ancestors begging to speak through me, and I refused vehemently. But my ancestors are incredibly strong and their will is the only way. You don’t choose to play mbira, it chooses you.
I left Zimbabwe on an educational scholarship to the USA when I was sixteen. I was totally uprooted at an age where I was still formulating ideas about myself. My ancestral dreams intensified and I was also starting to question the colonial rubric that educated me. In an act of self-liberation, I asked my father to send me a mbira.
I have no words to describe what happened the night played my mbira. I played all night in my dorm room, and I played songs no one had ever taught me how to play. Mbira had chosen me.
And so began my arduous and painful journey of unlearning and relearning. I was at Princeton at this point, and the first place I looked for the knowledge I was seeking, was the library. I read book after book and not one of them served me. They were all wrong. Spellings were wrong, the understanding of the cosmological and spiritual grounding of mbira practices were wrong. The level of misunderstanding was offensive, and all these books were written by white men.
Imagine the discomfort I felt when a white man walked in to teach the “Music of Africa” course on mbira music. This lecturer grounded his teaching in the very texts I found lacking. The Zimbabwe education system has a high teacher-student power difference so I struggled to find a way to express my discomfort in a way that would still be respectful. There was a lecture where every translation from the Shona language was wrong. I voiced these errors and this lecturer said, “Your language and knowledge were passed down orally; no one really knows anything, not even you.” This lecturer destabilized any ownership or authorship of my mbira epistemology in the same way colonizers and missionaries had my ancestors 120 years prior.
These experiences informed my call to scholarship. I learned, in a difficult way, the importance of centering Zimbabwean self-articulation in all mediums of cultural production. My father always said, “The tales of the hunter will always glorify the hunter until the lioness learns to write.”
As a scholar, healer through mbira music, and professor, creating a liberated-zone for Chivanhu-centered epistemologies is my calling. I see the keepers of our traditions as national treasures. I myself was once lost, and had it not been for the surviving mbira families who still hold our cultural secrets, I would still be lost. I also feel called to protect and defend our cultural community from the very same cultural vampires whose progenitors wreaked spiritual havoc in our practices. With this in mind, I pay very close attention to who holds decision-making positions in any act of cultural reproduction vis-a-vis mbira music.
Today’s Doodle embodies all these complexities. My first action was to look at the production team and see who was driving the articulation of the project. This Doodle was driven by the culturally vampiric, white mbira community that has systematically exploited our cultural richness for their own monetary gain. I know these people personally, and I know the artists they have preyed on.
I pray the mbira musicians in the Google Doodle were compensated fairly and I pray that the artists whose voices we hear singing own the rights to that music.
There is so much more to say on this, but I do want to urge all guardians and practitioners of Chivanhu traditions (mbira and otherwise) to be wary of white faces behind black cultural production and to proudly take ownership of our self-articulation.
(Zimbabwe-born Tanyaradzwa is the granddaughter of the late George Tawengwa, who founded the legendary Mushandirapamwe Hotel in Harare.Her compositions and arrangements have appeared on theatre stages including Yale Repertory Theatre and Soho Rep.)