The Zimbabwean musician bringing the marimba and mbira to township youth

In Dzivarasekwa, Jacob Mafuleni hopes music can help break the cycle of drugs and teen pregnancy plaguing the settlement.

Children play marimbas
Children gather around marimbas at the Tsoro Arts and Social Centre in Dzivarasekwa [Percy Zvomuya/Al Jazeera]

Harare, Zimbabwe – Dzivarasekwa, a nondescript township on the southwestern rims of Zimbabwe’s capital, copies the 1907 template of the first ghetto, Harari (now Mbare): grim, monotonous, matchbox houses laid out on grids.

Driving on its streets, one often sees skeletal silhouettes of young men – sometimes women – in a drug-induced haze who look at you with a tortured grin as they trudge along in a slow, vaguely meditative gait as if their next step is the last. Sometimes it is.

Their circumstances are the result of the drug plague that has haunted Harare for more than a decade.

Easily available on the township’s streets are cheap moonshine and the dregs of narcotics that find their way into Zimbabwe. Even diazepam, known in local slang as Blue, a drug prescribed for anxiety and seizures, is consumed.

Yet it is also in Dzivarasekwa where one finds the Tsoro Arts and Social Centre, an initiative run by the Zimbabwean musician Jacob Mafuleni, 46, from the front yard of his house.

Jacob Mafuleni
Jacob Mafuleni plays a mbira [Percy Zvomuya/Al Jazeera]

Every Saturday afternoon, about two dozen young people from the ages of 6 to 23 – including Mafuleni’s son Abel, 23, who is following in his musician father’s footsteps – gather around half a dozen marimbas.

The marimba is a percussive instrument whose origin is sometimes traced to present-day Mozambique, where it was a court instrument before the arrival of the Portuguese, the country’s former colonial ruler.

The traditional marimba is made of wooden slats placed over resonant calabash gourds that produce a buzzing, polyrhythmic sound when hit with a mallet. Today, resonator pipes of different lengths are a substitute for the gourds.

In Mozambique, the instrument is known as the timbila and is closely associated with the master musician Venancio Mbande, who died in 2015. Iterations of the original instrument can be found all over the Americas, where it was brought by enslaved Africans.

The Tsoro Arts and Social Centre is not only about the marimba but also the mbira.

The mbira is an instrument in the lamellophone family in which long and narrow metal keys are attached to a wooden sound board and played in a calabash gourd. The instrument comes in a variety of forms, sizes and number of keys, including the nyunga nyunga, njari, mbira dzevadzimu and matepe.

Marimba to mbira

Although the terms “marimba” and “mbira” may, to ears not used to Southern African languages, sound similar, the two instruments are very different.

Mafuleni is skilled at both – with expertise in playing and making the two instruments. He also plays the African drum.

Until September, Mafuleni’s front yard was also a workshop for both the marimba and the mbira, where he worked with a team of assistants into the night. Now, due to the demands of an expanding operation, he has moved his workshop to the Tynwald Industrial area, less than 15 minutes away.

Although Mafuleni is as likely to get a commission to make a marimba as a mbira, he told Al Jazeera about his longer history with the former.

Jacob Mafuleni
Jacob Mafuleni, 46, works in his front yard [Percy Zvomuya/Al Jazeera]

Mafuleni was first exposed to the marimba in 1990 when he joined the Boterekwa Dance Troupe, a group founded and led by the late bandleader and musician David Tafaneyi Gweshe. In the dance troupe, he initially became acquainted with Zimbabwe’s various dance styles before he mastered the marimba.

When he joined Boterekwa, the band was already a fixture on the world music festival circuit, so he had to be content to be in group C, the third tier of the band. Being in group C meant you were an afterthought, a hapless extra caught up in the matrix of ambitions of senior protagonists in the ensemble.

“If you were in C and you handled the marimba, you could even be barred from attending sessions for two weeks,” he recalled. Then one day he found himself moved from the back of the class right to the front row – the holy of holies. The promotion happened by a confluence of luck and his keen ears – and hands – for music.

Gweshe had been trying to teach a melody on the marimba, but no one quite knew how to do it. Because the marimba was off limits for people in group C, Mafuleni could only watch Gweshe’s tirade, his heart throbbing, thinking, “But I know how to play that tune.” Eventually, he summoned his courage and stepped up: “And then I took the sticks and then went and played what he was telling us to play.

Riidza tinzwe, Jacob,” Gweshe said in Shona, the majority language in Zimbabwe. “Play, Jacob, so that we can hear you.”

“He was ecstatic at my playing and started to play together with me,” Mafuleni recalled.

A mbira
A mbira crafted by Jacob Mafuleni [Percy Zvomuya/Al Jazeera]

This moment is what democratised the instrument for the rest of the band, the reasoning being, “all this while we didn’t know we had this genius”.

Sometimes when the instrument didn’t sound the way he wanted, the temperamental Gweshe would demolish it in a huff and then make a brand new one. When the new instrument was being made, Mafuleni would help out. “I wanted to learn and was watching all that was going on.”

He wanted to know the measurements of the slats, how to make the grooves, how to place the resonators. Once, while Gweshe was away on tour, one slat broke and he managed to repair it. On his return, Gweshe was none the wiser that the marimba had been repaired. “This means I had done it well,” Mafuleni deduced.

Musician to craftsman

But Mafuleni’s real break with the marimba came much later in the United States, where Southern African instruments have been studied with religious devotion for more than half a century. He was visiting the US on tour as part of Mawungira eNharira, a Zimbabwean drum and mbira group.

At some of these festivals, they shared stages with bands with Shona names but whose members were all white Americans who knew how to play all the marimba standards. “I was happy about this, but what came to my mind was, ‘Do the people at home know that marimba is being played like this?’”

Marimba players
Musicians play a marimba in Guatemala [File: Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

He then told himself that when he got back home, he wanted to assemble a marimba band.

During a break in the tour, he hooked up with an American master marimba maker, Rob Moeller, who for a token fee (only $300)  gave him an expedited curriculum on the intricacies of the craft: selecting the timber, measuring and cutting up the slats, how to affix them to the stand and how to tune the instrument. On the last day of the course, the teacher not only gave him the marimba he had made but also a Seiko tuner. And so his journey as a marimba maker had begun.

Similarly, his transformation from being a mbira player to also being its craftsman happened through happenstance, his adventurous spirit and an unhappy encounter with a tardy but expert producer of the instrument.

In 2003, when he was in a band called Sweet Calabash, a drum and mbira ensemble, the group found a promoter who wanted to get them mbira instruments and costumes. Mafuleni placed an order with a well-known mbira maker in Harare, paid the fee but the instruments wouldn’t come.

A child plays a marimba
A child plays a marimba [Percy Zvomuya/Al Jazeera]

Every day for two months, he went to sit with the mbira craftspeople. But they kept on coming up with excuses why their instruments were not ready. Yet he was watching what they were doing.

“And then I started asking the makers what to do if I want the instrument to sound in a certain way, and they would tell me. I was always asking them questions.”

And then he took a hiatus from going to pester the mbira smiths.

He got a board, some metallic metal keys and put them together. Just like that – he had made his first mbira.

When he took it back to the master mbira makers to show them and to resume his vigil, they didn’t believe it was him who had put it together. “The way they didn’t believe I had made it was proof that I had done it properly.”

Because of his experience with playing in Western-style band formats, he already knew the language of music: G sharp, octaves, etc. It is this knowledge that he has brought to his practice, giving him a distinct advantage over the traditional mbira maker.

On the Saturday Al Jazeera visited, amid the sound of the marimba and the animated hubbub of the children, Mafuleni expanded on the social role Tsoro plays in the community.

“At the centre, we don’t only teach music but a lot of other life skills. When we were still here after practising, I would urge the boys and girls to come help with the making of instruments. Even where we are now [in Tynwald], some still come to help out and learn.”

During the April school holidays, he took nine children on a day’s retreat to Mukuvisi Woodlands, a lush forest on the eastern outskirts of the city, to teach them marimba, mbira and life lessons.

In Dzivarasekwa, it may be music that will play a key role in breaking the cycle of drugs, teenage pregnancy and associated ills – especially among the township’s youth.

Source: Al Jazeera