Zimbabwean musicians say goodbye after another summer on South Whidbey

Jacob Mafuleni of the marimba band Mbira dzeMuninga hugs Simone White at the band’s farewell party. After a summer of teaching and touring the West Coast, Mafuleni and his three fellow musicians will return home to Zimbabwe this weekend. - Rebecca Leisher / The Record
Jacob Mafuleni of the marimba band Mbira dzeMuninga hugs Simone White at the band’s farewell party. After a summer of teaching and touring the West Coast, Mafuleni and his three fellow musicians will return home to Zimbabwe this weekend.
— image credit: Rebecca Leisher / The Record

FREELAND — Americans’ free-flowing hugs startled musicians Jacob Mafuleni, Peacheson Ngoshi, Tonderai Ndava and Martha Thom when they arrived in the United States from Zimbabwe, but they were eager to open their arms Thursday evening.

The members of the marimba band Mbira dzeMuninga bid farewell to Whidbey Island on Thursday evening after an almost four-month stay in the United States, where they’ve been touring throughout Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado.

“We can travel around but we know that we have to go back home, meaning this place,” Mafuleni said one recent evening at the Rubatano paChitsuwa Marimba Center in Langley.

The return to Zimbabwe is a bittersweet goodbye to a place and people that have come to form a home away from home for the musicians.

“I am very excited to go home, to see my children,” said Thom, who is married to Mafuleni.

“But also I am very sad. We have so many wonderful friends here.”

This was Thom’s first trip to the United States, but Mafuleni, Ngoshi and Ndava have already spent two summers here with Whidbey Island as their base.

“This was our first place to come, Whidbey Island. That is our motherland in the states,” Ndava said.

Mafuleni, Ngoshi and Ndava are “gwenyambiras” — master players of the mbira, a traditional Shona instrument made of a wooden soundboard with metal keys, often played inside a natural amplifier made of a calabash gourd. Thom recently joined the band and plays hosho — shakers made of hollowed gourds with seeds inside.

Since this May, the group has been passing on their musical knowledge through workshops and camps between performances on a West Coast tour organized by Dana Moffett, owner of Rubatano and whom the band members affectionately refer to as “amai Muninga” — mother of the band.

Moffett has been playing the traditional Zimbabwean music since she stumbled upon a marimba performance in Seattle in the mid-’90s. About a decade later, on her first trip to Zimbabwe, Moffett saw members of Mbira dzeMuninga playing.

“I just went to their show and I was just taken by the whole thing — all the music. It was amazing to be there,” Moffett said.

On her second trip in 2006, Moffett met Ngoshi, Mafuleni and Ndava at a music teaching camp.

“The first time I heard them in Zimbabwe playing and the first time I ever saw their band playing I was just — I was truly moved to tears,” she said.

“You can’t really explain why the music is cutting into you so deeply.”

After feeling the connection between the mbira music and the deep-rooted Shona culture in Zimbabwe, Moffett wanted to recreate that transformative experience for others here, while supporting the band’s music.

“A lot of people can’t go there,” she said. “It just seemed like a great value to have the culture brought here, and to learn directly from them.”

Moffett and the musicians decided to organize a summer tour, and in 2008, six band members — including Ngoshi, Mafuleni and Ndava — and their manager came from Zimbabwe to the United States.

At first they were nervous about traveling to a strange and distant land.

“In Zimbabwe we are many black people — that’s the first thing, so many black people — and here, so many white people on Whidbey,” Ndava said.

“It was like ‘Oh, how am I going to fit in?’ But I’m happy we are together right now, enjoying the music.”

There were quite a few differences between Whidbey Island and the musicians’ land-locked African country.

“Here there is a lot of waters, and for my first time I was just like, oh, very scared of being [on] a ferry,” Ngoshi said.

But he and the others adjusted to life surrounded by water. Ngoshi said he’s even been out sea kayaking.

They’ve found themselves changed in other ways, as well.

While all four of the musicians are now quick to embrace friends here, Americans’ generous hugging was a bit of a surprise when they first arrived.

“The first day I was like, ‘Ahh, oh my God!’ I’m shy, you know,” Ndava said. “But I’m getting used to it here.”

The food — and who prepares it — was another cultural difference.

“When I came here, it was funny to me to see men cooking,” Mafuleni said, laughing. “Back home in our culture, women, they always cook.”

But Mafuleni and the other men went well beyond adapting to this cultural difference — they started cooking, too. Mufaleni even carried the custom back home to Zimbabwe.

Though they have noticed many differences between here and home, they’ve also found many things both cultures share.

“I think with people here they are the same with the Zimbabweans back home,” Mafuleni said. “I always meet good people here, good people. And, well, Zimbabwean people are like one.”

Mafuleni described the way Zimbabweans often share even one cigarette between three people.

“There is something I am seeing here that looks like [that], but in a different way — like helping each other. There is a lot of people who are helping us in different ways.”

The biggest surprise for the Zimbabwean band members may have been seeing white Americans playing their traditional music — and playing it pretty well.

“I did see white people playing our traditional music. That was a shock for me,” Ndava said.

“There’s always where the music comes from — the motherland — so it was a little different,” he said, pointing out that Americans have trouble with the Shona words in song. “But, oh, they are playing like, good.”

To see white Americans playing mbiras was especially shocking because in Zimbabwe, where the indigenous Shona people have been playing mbira for thousands of years, some people look down upon the music.

“Many people in Zimbabwe, they don’t like to play marimba. Some they don’t want to play mbira, so I was surprised to see white people play our traditional music,” Thom said, explaining that Christian influence has given traditional Shona music a demonic reputation among some.

“It was very interesting to come here on Whidbey Island and see a lot of people playing marimba,” Mafuleni said. “It was good for us as well to come together with those people.”

In 2009, Mbira dzeMuninga collaborated with local musicians on a CD called Sungano, a Shona word used to express deep unity.

Indeed, the members of Mbira dzeMuninga and the American students are sharing much more than music.

They’re sharing an appreciation of traditional lifestyles and forms of expression; they’re cultivating an understanding between civilizations. And in an increasingly globalized world dominated by Western influence, an American appreciation for Shona culture represents a refreshing exchange.

“Coming here and seeing Americans doing their music, playing marimba, playing mbira, singing, dancing — it was amazing to them,” Moffett said. “It shows them their culture is spreading and people love their music. It’s a really good thing.”

Leslie Yingling started playing marimba with Moffet in 1998, but her relationship with the music transformed when she met the members of Mbira dzeMuninga.

“It’s one thing to learn the music,” she said. “I’m understanding more of the culture, knowing the people, where the music really came from.”

Yingling’s son, Jacob, formed a strong bond with the musicians and has even been writing to Mafuleni and Thom’s children in Zimbabwe. Yingling hopes to take him there someday.

“We bring them the spiritual music,” Ngoshi said. “If you play this music, each and every one around the music will very much bond with this music.”

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