Home » Arts & Culture » Ephat Mujuru – Zim’s Unsung Mbira Hero [column]

What happened to good old Christmas releases? In the past when Gramma Records and Zimbabwe Music Corporation were truly active, they would, around this time, release compilation albums of the singles that made hits in the year. If this tradition was still on the cards we would have had a compilation album with hits from the likes of Jah Prayzah, Oliver Mtukudzi, Sulumani Chimbetu, Winky D, Tocky Vibes, Soul Jah Love and others who also made hits in 2014. However, this is not the case this year.

Many musicians have died over the past 10 years and I think record companies should start to make compilation albums of these artistes. In my opinion, they would sell more than the current artistes.

Imagine if an album featuring the likes of John Chibadura, Leonard Dembo, James Chimombe, Paul Matavire, The Pied Pipers, Safirio Madzikatire, Simon Chimbetu, Tongai Moyo, Solomon Skuza, Jonah Sithole and others were made available, that feeling of nostalgia among the older folk would rise and such records would also sell like hot cakes.

I am still yet to discover a compilation album which includes one of Zimbabwe’s unsung heroes, Ephat Mujuru.

To many people who love Zimbabwean traditional music, Ephat Mujuru is the unsung hero of mbira music as his whole life was spent around that spiritual instrument.

Ephat Mujuru was born in 1950 and was raised in a small village in the Makoni District of Rusape.

He was taught to play the mbira by his grandfather, Muchatera Mujuru. Muchatera was a spirit medium and a prophet who belonged to Chaminuka, one of the most important ancestral spirits in Shona cosmology. Showing clear talent for the rigours of mbira training, Ephat aanced quickly, playing his first possession ceremony when he was just aged eight. At his Rhodesian-run Catholic school, young Mujuru’s teachers told him that to play mbira was a “sin against God”.

This irritated Muchatera so much that he withdrew his grandson and sent him to school in an African township outside the capital, Salisbury (present day Harare).

In the big city, Mujuru hesitated before committing himself to the life of a musician. He recalled in a 1994 interview: “On leaving school, I worked in an accounting office. But the people there were very colonial. They had so much hate. They didn’t respect African people.” Amid excuses, the office ultimately fired Mujuru. “It was sad,” he said.

“Because I thought life was beginning to happen for me in the late 1960s to early 1970s and then suddenly, I had no job. When they fired me, I was 18 and very confused.”

All along, though, Mujuru says that there was a “silent voice” telling him that his hope lay in mbira music. Following that voice, Mujuru began spending time in the village of Bandambira, where he studied with a great old mbira player of the same name. In the highland maize fields near Mhondoro, beneath Zimbabwe’s big skies full of large birds, Mujuru reaffirmed his ties to the mbira. Soon, he went to live and apprentice with another master player, Simon Mashoko.

Later, Mujuru’s path became clearer as he followed in the footsteps of Muchatera Mujuru, Mubayiwa Bandambira and Simon Mashoko. “They had respect,” said Mujuru emphatically about his idols. “They were not as rich as those white accounting people, but they were much happier.”

In 1972, Mujuru formed his first group, Chaminuka, in partnership with another mbira player, Charles Mutwida, the group with which he performed with throughout the brutal decade of Zimbabwe’s liberation war. In this period, Mujuru managed to get national radio airplay for two slyly political songs “How Can I Cross the River?” and “Guruuswa”, which means ancient Africa in Shona. Perhaps Rhodesian radio programmers heard only quaint nostalgia in the song, but future Zimbabweans got the message. “It was talking about our struggle to free ourselves,” explained Mujuru. “We wanted the place to be like it was before colonisation.”

In the context of war, the mbira became political. Thomas Mapfumo transposed mbira music onto electric instruments to create Chimurenga music, named for the Chimurenga guerillas. Mujuru says: “When we played mbira, people would come and dance with a special feeling. Hey, we are going to be independent.”

Sadly, by the time the war was won, Mujuru’s grandfather, Muchatera, had become one of its victims.

He was executed by guerillas who thought his bira ceremonies were directed at achieving peace, rather than victory.

Mujuru played all of Zimbabwe’s five types of mbira, but his specialty was the popular “mbira dzavadzimu”. Where mbira can have from 15 to 50 iron prongs, the “mbira dzavadzimu” has 22, arranged in three register banks that Mujuru characterised as “voice of the children, voice of the adults, and voice of the elders”.

Like any serious mbira player, Mujuru had mastered a large repertoire of traditional songs.

But he was also a prolific composer, with many original titles and unique interpretations of traditional songs to his credit. Apart from his musical prowess, Mujuru was an inspirational storyteller. Over the years, he transformed the venerable art of telling allegorical tales for children into a personalised narrative and musical form that conveyed both wisdom and delightful humour to adults and children alike. In one story, a hyena confronted with a dead cow and a dead goat could not decide which to eat first, and died of starvation while pacing greedily back and forth between the two prizes.

After Zimbabwe gained independence on April 18, 1980, the work of building a new nation began. Renaming his group Spirit of the People, Mujuru recorded his first album in 1981, using only mbira, hand drums, hosho, and singers. He sang about brotherhood and healing.

Independence and a measure of commercial success brought new possibilities for Mujuru.

He helped to found the National Dance Company and became the first African music teacher to work at the rather stuffy Zimbabwe College of Music on the recommendation of Paul Berliner, who had spent time understudying Ephat and eventually wrote a book “The Soul of Mbira”.

In 1982, at the invitation of Paul Berliner, Mujuru went to the United States for the first time to study and, eventually, lecture and teach mbira at the University of Washington in Seattle.

On his return to Zimbabwe in 1986, Ephat became a schoolteacher at Mbare High School and also started live performances in nightclubs and small venues.

He would also hang out at the Zimbabwe College of Music where he would give mbira lessons mainly to visiting foreign tourists.

Throughout the 1980s, Mujuru travelled widely.

In the United States, he released an album of traditional hand drumming, “Rhythms of Life”, recorded in Boston in 1989, with a few mbira tracks added from an earlier vinyl release on lyrichord.

During the 1990s, Mujuru continued to travel and perform, and in the United States, he recorded two albums for Music of the World. “Ancient Wisdom” is a solo recording, and “Shona Spirit” is collaboration with another mbira player and Shona music’s great international ambassadors, Dumisani Maraire.

Mujuru also recorded an ambitious, multi-track album he called “Journey of the Spirit”. Back in Zimbabwe, he released successful pop albums with a revamped, electric version of “Spirit of the People”.

In 1992, Mujuru’s first electric album “Hapana Mutorwa” made its way to the top of the local charts, edging out Zimbabwe rumba kings Leonard Dembo and John Chibadura. But as conditions worsened in Zimbabwe, Mujuru travelled and recorded less. In early September, the electric album, “Musiyano”, was released and got a very positive review in The Daily News in Zimbabwe, under the heading, “Mujuru back with a bang”.

During that period, he also played alongside Fela Kuti of Nigeria and he won a Pan African Award in Ghana for his contribution in preserving the African culture. Mujuru seemed poised for a genuine comeback. But less than a month later, on October 5, 2001, he died in London, while travelling with his cousins Fradreck and Sam. He was on his way to begin a residency at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Sadly, Ephat Mujuru suffered a massive heart attack that day on disembarking from an Air Zimbabwe plane after experiencing deep vein thrombosis at Gatwick Airport and died on his way to hospital. In an effort to improve mbira playing in Zimbabwe, Ephat tried to introduce tablature notation to the instrument to make it more compatible with Western string instruments, but due to the slow response at the Zimbabwe College of Music, that dream never materialised during his lifetime.

Despite his great achievements, he remains Zimbabwe’s unsung mbira hero.

Source : The Herald