Learning Mbira – A Beginning

    -- B. Michael Williams. Everett, PA: Honeyrock, 2001. 103 pages + 2 CDs.

This welcome addition to the somewhat sporadic body of teach-yourself-mbira writing contains, in the words of Chartwell Dutiro (a master Mbira player and my own teacher on the instrument), “a positive learning device for those without ready access to a master Mbira player” (p. 7). The device he mentions is the numerical tablature system that Williams uses throughout the book as an aid to learning from the printed page without resorting to the twelve-pitch scale.

This system uses a drawing of the Mbira with the keys represented on the page in the order that the player sees them on their instrument. Each is clearly marked with a number. From there, the player simply follows a number pattern and relates it to the keys on the mbira. The result is a far easier and more accessible way of learning this potentially daunting instrument than other, older methods such as the more traditional double stave transcription employed by Andrew Tracey in his 1970 book.1 In fact, when I used Williams’ numerical method, it proved far easier for me to learn songs that appeared in both works.

The book consists of a number of brief sections. After introductions by Chartwell and the author, Williams describes some of the heritage of the instrument and the contexts in which it is played. He then writes briefly on some stylistic aspects of Mbira music (such as cyclic patterns and interlocking parts) and gives practical tips on how to hold the instrument. The main section of the book consists of transcriptions of 8 of the most famous Shona Mbira songs. All transcriptions have a brief song introduction, and are presented first as a transcription in western staff notation and then in the tablature system. Marks are included to indicate alternative starting points, as well as hosho (rattle) beats. The accompanying CDs take the reader/listener through each piece slowly at first, and then at performance speed.

At the end of the book, we are treated to multiple useful lists with a glossary, bibliography, disc- and videography, as well as references to various internet sites. Together these form an impressive resource section for those wanting to take their learning further.

Despite the clarity of the transcriptions and the ease with which players can begin to pick up some of the songs, the book does have a few shortcomings. The most important of these is the lack of cultural contextualization, both generally and in the introductions to each piece. Although Chartwell is right when he says, “let’s all save the creation rather than the tradition” (p. 7), the lack of background information on Shona music seems to me a glaring omission. For example, in the blurb that introduces the song ‘Bangidza’, we are told only that this is “an ancient spiritual song” (p. 85). Ethnomusicologists are keen to emphasize that cultural context is of crucial importance in learning and understanding particular musics. I suspect that the readers of this journal would welcome some more information on the spiritual aspects of these songs in particular.2 Considering that Chartwell himself has always been careful to get this aspect of Mbira music across in our lessons, it is all the more surprising to see it omitted here.

The lack of contextualization may, however, have more to do with the type of audience that Williams wants to reach. Above all, this book is a practical manual for beginner Mbira players who have perhaps heard about or seen the instrument and would like to ‘give it a go.’ In this respect, the book is highly recommended and will prove useful to students and teachers alike. For those of us who want to delve deeper into the wider Mbira world, the bibliography at the end lists plenty to grapple with.

The author writes as the percussion teacher that he is, not as an ethnomusicologist, but he still provides a valuable contribution to the literature with his tablature system. All in all, this is an excellent introduction to one of Africa’s best-known instrumental traditions, especially since it includes 2 CDs with the song parts. Andrew Tracey remarks that in order to learn Shona singing, one must have “personal contact with the art itself.” 3 and although I would extend that to include learning any part of a musical tradition, those interested in the Mbira will find this book to be a good beginning… just as the title says.


1 Tracey, Andrew. 1970. How to Play Mbira (Dza Vadzimu). Roodeport, South Africa: The International Library of African Music.
2 For information on spiritual aspects of Shona mbira music, including its introduction into Christian church music via Simon Mashoko, see Paul Berliner’s 1978 book The Soul of Mbira, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
3 Tracey, page 9

    --reviewed by Thomas Preston (who studied mbira under a Shona teacher through the ethnomusicology program at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)

Published in Vol.2, No.1 of


Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony