A Shona song from Zimbabwe, praising the Mbira-player for his musicianship. The Mbira, which is sometimes called a hand-piano, is described in Lines 24-29. It has two (sometimes three) keyboards, made of metal strips, which are plucked with the thumbs, and it is set in a hollow gourd to increase the resonance. The gourd is decorated with shells, which rattle to provide a rhythmic accompaniment. It is a versatile instrument, offering the player and singer a great range of effects. In this song, the words ‘Expert With The Rattling Shells’, ‘The Mbira-Shatterer’, ‘He Who Makes The Mbira Resound’, etc, are all praise-names.

Strike the Mbira, Expert With The Rattling Shells!
It is he The Mbira-Shatterer of whom you hear nothing but praise,
The Mbira-Rouser,
He Who Makes The Mbira Resound:
He makes it resound for Nehanda and for Mukombwe. (1)

(Ho-o, woye!
Gore ndende -e!
Ho-o yewo, I’m like a wanderer, ihe, ihe-ewo!
Ho-o, the dead have left us beer and meat.
Ho-o yewo, I’m like a wanderer, ihe-e, ihe-e!
He, ndeha ndeha! Ndeha ndeha ndeha!
Ho-o, why did my father die, my father, a wanderer?) (2)

Strike the Mbira now, Master Of The Music.
By my mother, Marumbi,
Whose name is always on people’s lips.
The mother who begot you, bringing forth such a world of talent,
Had she not borne you, she would have died on your account.

Listen to the sound of the Mbira!
The Mbira-Rouser is here,
The lover of all the girls.
Where he dies it will be fertile,
Seeds of the castor-oil bean will come forth.

Set the Mbira firmly, Expert With The Rattling Shells,
And strike the Mbira calmly: First the centre pole,
Then afterwards the small roof-rafters,
And finally the smallest keys on the right;
And see that the community joins the solemn spirit of the occasion.

See the bride you have been given here:
Listen to the dance!
Strike the keys and let the forest be glad!
Look, the spirits now have honoured you!

from Shona Praise Poetry
ed. Aaron C. Hodza & George Fortune,
Oxford University Press (1979)


Footnotes

  1. Mukombwe was a king of old Zimbabwe in the late seventeenth century; Nehanda was one of his wives.
  2. The lines in parenthesis attempt to mimic the mbira-player’s song, both words and music.