13 Jul 2016

The magical mbira

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 13 July 2016

Sarah Hoskyns and Julian Raphael are a musical couple based in Wellington.

Sarah is a music therapist, while Julian runs the Wellington Community Choir.

They also play instruments together, including the mbira - an ancient instrument from Zimbabwe.

Traditionally the mbira is an important part of community, encouraging well-being and connection between people.

Sarah and Julian joined Eva Radich on Upbeat to talk through the basics of how to play the instrument, how it's tuned and why it's used in the development of modern day health and wellbeing.

Sarah Hoskyns and Julian Raphael playing the mbira

Sarah Hoskyns and Julian Raphael playing the mbira Photo: Supplied

The Mbira is a traditional instrument from Zimbabwe from the Shona culture. The literal translation is “little singing thing”, but it’s also been called the thumb piano and is technically a lamellophone.

An mbira has 24 keys in total and takes only three digits – two thumbs and a finger – to play. The left hand does most of the work.

Julian has been playing the mbira for six years and has traveled to both Bali and Zimbabwe to undertake special training. On his last trip to Africa, his wife Sarah came along.

They were able to see how mbira were made and tuned. Each village has a different tune, and while each mbira might look similar, the sound emanating from it depends on where it was made and by whom.

The instruments are made of a plethora of materials including car parts and bottle caps. The caps create a buzzing noise and according to Julian the resonance of the mbira represents the voices of ancestors and spirits.

Two mbira - traditional Zimbabwean instrument

Two mbira - traditional Zimbabwean instrument Photo: Supplied

Eva Radich: How are mbira used traditionally in a village?

Sarah: They’re very important for preserving the well-being of the village and community members. When we visited Zimbabwe we went to a village where there was a sacred meeting and we spent the whole day playing the mbira. You get into this aura. The pieces are often very longer.

Julian: They have healing ceremonies that last all night long. It’s an old form of healing in the spirit world. It’s an instrument of trance, which puts you in a difference space.

How have you transferred the traditional aspect into your work here?

Sarah: I’m a music therapist and I’m very interested in the possibilities of students gaining experience of other musics and people. Recently we had a health and wellbeing week and discussed how music can change your state. We all have exposure to the idea of stress so we are finding ways of reducing that. The reduction of stress can occur by playing circular repetitive, calming music created by the mbira.