Ephat Mujuru & the Spirit of the People - Mbavaira

Ephat Mujuru & the Spirit of the People - Mbavaira


“When the mbira is played, it brings the two worlds together, the world of our ancestors and the world of today.” Ephat Mujuru (1950-2001)

Ephat Mujuru exemplifies a unique generation of traditional musicians in Zimbabwe. Born under an oppressive colonial regime in Southern Rhodesia, his generation witnessed the brutality of the 1970s liberation struggle, and then the dawn of independent Zimbabwe, a time in which African music culture—long stigmatized by Rhodesian educators and religious authorities—experienced a thrilling renaissance.

Ephat was raised in traditional Shona culture in a small rural village in Manicaland, near the Mozambique border. His grandfather and primary caretaker, Muchatera Mujuru, was a respected spirit medium, and master of the mbira dzavadzimu, a hand-held lamellophone used in Shona religion to make contact and receive council from deceased ancestors. There are many lamellophones in Africa, but none with the musical complexity and spiritual significance of the mbira dzavadzimu. Ephat’s first memories were of elaborate ceremonies, called biras that featured all-night music and dancing, millet beer, the sacrifice of oxen and a profound experience of connecting with ancestors. Under the tutelage of his grandfather, Ephat showed an early talent for the rigors of mbira training, playing his first possession ceremony when he was just ten years old.

But from the moment he entered school, Ephat experienced Rhodesian racism and cultural oppression. Nuns at his Catholic school told him that to play the mbira was “a sin against God.” Enraged by this, Ephat’s grandfather sent him to school in an African township near the capital of Salisbury (present-day Harare). By then, guerilla war was engulfing the country and Muchatera tragically became a victim of the violence, a devastating blow to the young musician. Lonely and alienated in the city, Ephat reached out to other mbira masters—Mubayiwa Bandambira, Simon Mashoko and an “uncle” Mude Hakurotwi.

In 1972 Ephat formed his first group, naming it for one of the most beloved Shona ancestors, Chaminuka. In the midst of the liberation struggle, mbira music became political. Singer and bandleader Thomas Mapfumo began interpreting mbira songs with an electric dance band, creating chimurenga (loosely “struggle”) music, named for the independence fighters.

Ephat and Chaminuka had their first success with the single “Guruswa.” Ephat once recalled, “We were talking about our struggle to free ourselves,” explained Ephat. “In ancient Africa, in the time of our ancestors, they had none of the problems we have today.” The problems he spoke of—subjugation, cultural oppression and mass poverty—were purely the results of colonization. “We wanted the place to be like it was, before colonization.”

The Rhodesians were defeated, but rather than return to the past, the nation of Zimbabwe was born and a new future unfolded. Ephat threw himself into the spirit of independence, helping to found the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe and becoming the first African music instructor at the formerly all-Western Zimbabwe College of Music. Ephat renamed his band Spirit of the People and recorded his first album in 1981, using only mbira, hand drums, hosho and singers. He sang of brotherhood, healing, and unity: crucial themes during a time when the nation’s two dominant ethnic groups, the Shona and the Ndebele, were struggling to reconcile differences.

Ephat’s band would eventually follow the popular trend and add electric instruments. But before that, he and Spirit of the People released two all-acoustic albums, and they may well be the most exciting and beautiful recordings he made in his career. Mbavaira, the second of these albums, was released in 1983. The title itself is not easy to translate. A Shona speaker with deep cultural knowledge observed that he could not find an exact English counterpart, but that it was “something like ‘chaos.’”

Mbavaira came out on Gramma Records, the country’s only label at the time. Gramma was still finding its way in a vastly changed music market. Guitar bands were ascendant and lots of new talent was emerging. As the independence years moved on, there would be fewer and fewer commercial mbira releases. But for the moment, Ephat had the required stature and reputation. Also, with the energy and drive we hear in these recordings, the album could easily rival the pop music of its day. (Text by label.)