A project in Africa is sustaining traditional skills and the environment, says Tom Deveson
In his invaluable study The Soul of Mbira, Paul Berliner, an ethnomusicologist, quoted the Zimbabwean singer Simon Mashoko: "Dombondipa hangu mbira ndimbokutambira." ("Just give me my mbira please so that I can dance for you.") Trade Plus Aid, an organisation that is helping to kick-start small businesses in the Third World, can help you to set your classrooms dancing, by supplying varieties of the African musical instrument.
The mbira comes in many forms, shapes and sizes which include the calimba and marimba. It is made of several materials and is called by various names.
Though best known as part of the tradition of the Shona people, it is found from Ethiopia to South Africa, from Niger to Mozambique. Three common features of the mbira are some kind of soundboard, a method of sound amplification and a set of keys to be plucked by the thumbs - hence the inexact English designation "thumb-piano". There is usually also some way of producing the characteristic buzzing resonance that accompanies the pure notes.
Trade Plus Aid was set up seven years ago. It aims to preserve traditional craft skills among communities in developing regions and also promotes the use of environmentally sound materials. Producers are provided with craft and agricultural training for their immediate family and a small plot of land for growing food. Secure markets for their products are found in richer countries. In this way, philanthropy and entrepreneurship combine as the opening steps on the way to self-sufficiency, which is the project'sultimate aim.
Trade Plus Aid's mbiras are made from organic and reclaimed materials, from fruit gourds that are grown on the project's land and from bits of wood and metal discarded by industry. The metal keys are cut and straightened by people with learning difficulties as a form of therapy and a source of income. They are then set into the instruments by a music-maker who burns into each one a unique set of identifying marks.
Clearly these are real musical instruments, not toys. Though they seem robust, they need to be treated with care if the hollow resonators are not to be damaged, and the sharp keys can hurt if flicked carelessly or poked with a thumbnail.
It isn't likely that many children in Britain have direct access to someone with the immense skill and polyrhythmic dexterity with which the mbira is played, but it has become better known through recordings on labels such as Earthworks and Cooking Vinyl being more widely available, as well as through influencing contemporary composers such as Nigel Osborne. It is also worth looking for a copy of the Channel 4 film Mbira Music, shown some years ago, which showed the instrument in a wealth of cultural and political settings, from nightclubs in Harare to liberation celebrations in villages.
But the instrument's characteristic and special sound has a role to play in classroom composition. Its biting clarity can be used to pierce through other instrumental textures for evocative effects. It is not hard to find ways of producing brief rhythmical and melodic ostinatos that can be used to sustain and support more elaborate ideas on xylophone or keyboard.
The patterns of pitches can't easily be represented in traditional staff notation, offering stimulating exercises in listening. As the singer Hakurotwi Mude says: "Ona, teerera zveita mbira!" ("Listen, how sweetly the mbira is playing!") * Trade Plus Aid, 17 Paxton Close, Kew Road, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2AW. Fax: 0181 255 3881