Native Music

From left, Langley residents Byron and Dana Moffett share a musical moment with Zimbabwean musician and good friend, Cosmas Magaya. The Moffetts and other members of the local marimba community will team together to host Magaya and other renowned world musicians during a concert of traditional Zimbabwean music and dancing Saturday at Bayview. - Cynthia Woolbright
From left, Langley residents Byron and Dana Moffett share a musical moment with Zimbabwean musician and good friend, Cosmas Magaya. The Moffetts and other members of the local marimba community will team together to host Magaya and other renowned world musicians during a concert of traditional Zimbabwean music and dancing Saturday at Bayview.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

It was so much food — so much food.

Cosmas Magaya could barely believe his eyes.

Back home — the hot, arid land of his native Zimbabwe — his fellow villagers often stand in line for hours for a chance to buy a loaf of bread. Sometimes they leave empty-handed due to the large need and short supply.

When he arrived at a potluck recently, a typical Whidbey Island affair, he could not believe all the food and couldn’t stop thinking of the need back home in his Mhondoro region of Zimbabwe.

He’s hoping Whidbey residents — such as his good friends Dana and Byron Moffett of Langley — will help him bring about a change in his country.

Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, was under colonial British control until in 1965 when the Zimbabwean government declared its independence.

But the act was not recognized. United Nations sanctions and a guerilla uprising led to free elections in 1979 and independence as Zimbabwe in 1980.

According to the CIA Fact Book, the country’s first prime minister Robert Mugabe dominated the Zimbabwe’s political system since he become president in 1987 until he was pressured to retire early in 2003.

During Mugabe’s tenure, he launched a land distribution campaign in 2000 that crippled the economy and ushered in widespread shortages of commodities. In 2002 he was reelected in what was believed to be a rigged election. The following year general strikes helped push Mugabe out of office, but the repression and fallout of his presidency continues.

Once considered the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe is now economically, environmentally and politically stressed, Byron Moffett said.

“They’re not able to produce food like they did before. And there’s a large displacement of people in the current political situation,” he said.

Cosmas Magaya, 53, lives in the Zimbawean capital of Harere. He grew up in the Mhondoro region he now works to help.

He is a professional musician and co-founder of Nhimbe for Progress — a community project working with rural Zimbabweans to rebuild housing after floods, renovate facilities to be more efficient, provide medical assistance, offer business opportunities for villagers, provide school fees for children who can’t afford them, and create a community fund to support the special needs of the elderly, infants and orphans.

Nhimbe is supported by the Oregon-based nonprofit organization Ancient Ways, which has worked to learn and preserve traditional ways of indigenous people of the world for more than a decade.

This weekend, Magaya and other visitors from Zimbabwe will hold a concert Saturday at Bayview Hall that they hope will uplift the spirits and raise awareness and money to aid their native land.

Their music is bira: traditionally played by the Shona people of Zimbabwe as a way to appease the spirits. It is played for healing, to bring rain during droughts, for thanksgiving, to celebrate accomplishments and even birthdays.

Bira, often accompanied by drums, shakers, rattles and the marimba, is often played for hours if not days on end.

“Since it is healing music, it really helps people who are sick or ill,” Magaya said. “I strongly feel it is helpful to people of different cultures to experience this music.”

Since 1998, Magaya spends half the year in Zimbabwe and half the year in America and other countries. His travels are sponsored by the Kutsinhira Cultural Arts Center in Eugene, Ore.

He believes the music of his people can help construct cultural bridges.

“We will all understand each other better,” Magaya said.

That is why Magaya — one of the world’s premier players of the mbira, the instrument key to bira music — travels extensively to teach workshops and play with various groups at festivals and universities.

Performing Saturday will be high-energy marimba bands Anzanga, Ruzivo and locals Titambe.

Featured guests from Zimbabwe will be Paul Mataruse with Ruzivo, Magaya and Ambuya Beauler Dyoko, mbira masters, and Julia Chigamba, who will perform traditional Shona dance.

While it is a fundraiser for Nhimbe for Progress, organizers hope anyone who stops by the concert, or those who will take part in any of the classes before the event, will learn how great the music is and become part of the whole community experience.

“They are incredible grateful, wonderful people,” Byron Moffett said. “They never ask for things despite being so in need.”

Already, Zimbabwean visitors have left their mark on South Whidbey.

Earlier this month Jane Matiure led an introduction to the Shona Language of Zimbabwe at the Northwest Language Academy Center for World Language and Culture in Bayview. Sheasby Matiure led a choral workshop in early August at the Langley United Methodist Church. Matiure is the past director of the Zimbabwean National Dance Company, among other accomplishments.

“The response was that they’re not here long enough,” Moffett said.

Zach Norman, 18, of Langley plays with Anzanga Marimbe and often moonlights with others. He’s been playing the music since he was 10 years old and has been a fan since first hearing the music at a New Year’s party.

“It looked fun and so high energy,” Norman said.

He’s considering traveling to Zimbabwe in February to study the music and culture of the country and be a part of the energy he’s already witnessed from the Zimbabwe visitors.

“They’re going through difficult times right now and they’re alone in the world. I want to help,” Norman said.

Dana Moffett became hooked on the music after hearing and seeing some marimbe players in Seattle about ten years back.

“I’ve learned the deepness of the music and gained an appreciation of the music and its joyful side,” Dana Moffett said.

After years of performing in marimbe groups, she now teaches marimbe workshops on Whidbey under the name Rubatano Center, which was given to her by Magaya.

“People on Whidbey meet these musicians, become so attracted to them and their music and are introduced to a whole ‘nother world filled with courageous people,” Byron Moffett said. “They are very proud of their tradition and love to share it.”

The Zimbabwean musicians find it hard to believe there are so many adoring fans.

“They can’t believe there’s this collection of people here in America that love their music,” Moffett said.

The Zimbabwean players are coming off a high-energy week.

Each year there is an annual ZimFest that celebrates the music, culture and language of Zimbabwe; this year it was held close to home, in Bellingham.

Byron Moffett invites people to come and meet Cosmas, a man he says is “not only a world-caliber musician, but an incredible person who understands his people completely.” Moffett invites people to come learn about Nhimbe (a word from the Shona people that refers to a community working together to help each other in daily life), and how while other relief organizations are pulling out of Zimbabwe, Nhimbe for Progress is standing strong.

Nhimbe offers humanitarian aid to over 1,100 people in seven villages in the Mhondoro regions. The group also began a preschool and now sponsors more than 200 children.

“If these kids can get a better education than we could teach them to catch a fish and empower them to do other basic things,” Magaya said.

It costs only $35 a year to sponsor a child. That money provides uniforms, food, materials — everything needed for one school year.

“The kids go to school and receive love, attention and food they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Dana Moffett said.

The Nhimbe for Progress preschoolers filter into five different schools. And while they tend to excel past their classmates, Magaya wants to see the education and empowerment continue. He hopes to secure funding to build a first-grade facility.

“We now have teachers who want to send their own children to us because they see the difference we make,” Magaya said. “Others working for change are also using our preschool as a model.”

The aid goes beyond the preschool.

Nhimbe rebuilt huts after cyclones hit the region, it retrofits existing facilities with environmentally friendly and more efficient fixtures such as stoves, provides public health workshops, purchases sewing machines and other items so villagers can learn a trade, and plants nutrition gardens and orchards.

“In doing this we are not only saving them money, making it healthier for them but we are also saving trees from being cut down,” Magaya said.

There is no paid administration staff.

“The money goes directly into the villages and doesn’t have to sift through other agencies,” Byron Moffett said.

Founded by Jaiaen Beck and Magaya, Nhimbe for Progress works to accomplish all of this aid in an ecologically-sound, self-sustaining and culturally respectful way.

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