Kanurura: Touching Heaven and Earth

This post is dedicated to Chiwoniso Maraire, who passed away three weeks ago at the age of 37. May you continue to dance and play your mbira eternally with the ancestors. Fambai Zvakanaka, sister. Rest in Peace.

Chiwoniso Maraire - March 5th, 1976 - July 24th, 2013. Rest in Peace.

Chiwoniso Maraire – March 5th, 1976 – July 24th, 2013. Rest in Peace.

Kanurura: Touching Heaven and Earth.

As the Sufi saying goes, “God will break your heart again, and again, and again, until it opens.”  This song by Zimbabwean mbira master Forward Kwenda does just that. The deep, earthly vibrations, the celestial high lines, and the palpable lamentation heard in Forward’s voice speaks to the deep well of beauty that lies beneath the hardship and suffering that defines the majority contemporary Zimbabwean life. This song can be called nothing other than a prayer.

After playing this song for years without knowing its name, finally during a traditional ceremony Forward was told by a spirit medium that the name of this song was “Kanurura.” Kanurura is the name of a long stick used to pick fruit high up in the trees. On a deeper, spiritual level, it means to touch heaven and earth.

“I used to play it in ceremonies, but don’t anymore,” Forward tells me. “I’d be playing it, and all of the sudden I’d notice that I was crying. Then I’d look up and realize that everyone was crying! I haven’t played it in a ceremony for a long time. It’s just too much… Too much.” Listening to it now, three months later and thousands of miles away from Africa, it is still almost too much for me.

Having never successfully recorded this song for an album (the “spirit” was never quite there,) I was honored that Forward chose to play this powerful song on my last day in Zimbabwe, and in Africa. It is the last recording taken on this journey, and in my opinion, the deepest.

Kanurura is a reminder of why I fell in love with Shona mbira music years ago. Just one simple instrument has the capacity to touch realms of spirit deep inside of us.  This song evokes in me a transcendent joy and a deep sadness, a feeling that the mind fumbles to grasp, and deems a paradox, while the heart knows this bittersweet elixir like a beloved or an old friend. It draws on a place so deep in the human soul that words and concepts fail to touch upon it.

Perhaps we will only come to know this place once our hearts are broken open, emptied out for all the world to see.

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“Thank God for Talent” – Anania Ngoliga

Anania Ngoliga - illimba master of Tanzania

Anania Ngoliga – illimba master of Tanzania

When I was invited to sit in on a casual recording session with Anania Ngoliga, the Tanzanian musician featured prominently along side banjo master Bela Fleck in the film Throw Down Your Heart, I was excited, to say the least. Anyone who has seen the film will remember Anania’s smiling face and beautiful playing of the illimba, a thumb-piano traditionally played by the Wagogo people of central Tanzania. I remember the first time I saw the film, and feeling the joyful spirit of this man pour out of the speakers and screen. Having had the chance to get to know him and his music in person, I cannot help but feel blessed.

Notes gracefully flow off the strings as soon as a guitar lands in his hands. “I myself am not good in guitar,” he says, a modest exaggeration that becomes laughable upon hearing him play with such ease. The soul reverberating in the music played by this blind musician from Dodoma is inescapable. I cannot help but feel something elemental in Anania’s playing, no matter if he is playing blues on the guitar, or the rolling, melodically trance-inducing rhythms of the illimba. Like the warm breeze that blows on the Tanzanian coast, the red earth that surrounds Dodoma, or the bright indigo of the Zanzibari sea, the music that flows out of this man is naturally pristine.

The illimba, traditionally played by the Wagogo tribe of central Tanzania.

The illimba, traditionally played by the Wagogo tribe of central Tanzania.

Like all thumb-piano instruments (lamellophones, musicologically speaking,) the illimba (malimba pl.) is often mistakenly called “kalimba.” But to set the record straight once and for all (certainly not for the last time, I’m sure,) the “kalimba” is a thumb-piano tuned to a Western scale, so as to easily play along with other European tempered instruments. The kalimba is a European invention, an adaptation of much older African instruments that play in traditional tunings like the illimba, and the mbira. So please take heed, exotic instrument enthusiasts and world music heads. What Anania plays is not a kalimba.

To think that this bright and richly resonant instrument has its origins in the Dodoma region, an area that struck me as anything but alive, is at first glance, a paradox. Yet the more time I have spent in Tanzania, the more I have been shown a generosity and liveliness exhibited by its people that is deeply resilient and refreshing, like the rickety little wooden fishing boats that brave the open ocean, or drops of water falling on parched earth.

The Session

There is much that can be said about Anania, and his beautiful music. But truly, it speaks for itself. I hope you enjoy these beautiful tunes as much as I do.

Special thanks to Rob Weber of Woven Media/Bali Spirit Festival for putting this session together. Asanti Sana rafiki!