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Charlie Plehaty

My Eleanor Venture journey began three years ago when in the middle of my interview at Lyons Elementary, the principal asked if I had any interest in teaching marimba. Having just completed a semester of world percussion at the University of Northern Colorado, I enthusiastically said yes. That’s good, he replied, because we have a class set of them here for you to use. I soon learned that these instruments were unlike anything I had ever heard or played before. In fact, after reaching out to the Kutandara center in Boulder, I learned that their design and cultural history comes from Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s long history of British colonial rule had massive impacts that are still felt today, even after gaining independence in April of 1980. In an effort to revitalize interest in the music and culture of Black Zimbabweans, these marimbas were developed to teach teachers how to share Shona music and pass on the cultural heritage. After three years of studying marimba with the Kutandara Center in Boulder, I realized how important it was to continue this cultural legacy with my own students. To properly connect with this music, I needed to visit its source. Luckily, Kutandara was already organizing a trip to Harare for the summer of 2023. With the help of the Eleanor Venture Travel Grant, I was able to go along with them on a couple parts of their tour.

After spending over 30 hours in the air on a three-legged plane journey we finally arrived in Harare, Zimbabwe. The tropical grassland landscape was immediately different from Colorado’s high plains and mountain ranges, and so was the season (in the southern hemisphere, it was winter). The traffic drives on the left side of the rugged roads and the signals are referred to as “robots.” Many people walk to their destinations, while some people take big passenger vans called kombi, or big tour buses for longer distances. We arrived at the Small World hostel in the Avondale neighborhood in Harare, a wealthier suburb of the city.

At the hostel, we reconnected with other Kutandara tourers who were already in Zimbabwe and ventured out to the Avondale market, an open-air block of stalls full of art and textiles and jewelry. After haggling at the market for a few hours, we relaxed and enjoyed the local food at a cafe. City life in Harare is very heavily influenced by economic class; everyone is always hustling to make ends meet, whether that means crafting goods or even selling wares in the middle of the street or along the side of the road. Every street corner was occupied by at least one or two carts selling snacks and beverages, in addition to miscellaneous items such as shoes, vegetables, and flower arrangements.

After settling in, we loaded up the kombi for a multi-hour drive to the rural area of Mhondoro where we would stay with the family of late master mbira player Cosmas Magaya. Upon arrival we were greeted by uncles and aunts and cousins, which took quite a while. In Zimbabwe, it is customary to greet every single person before the gathering can begin. Once we had said hello to the extended Magaya family, we were invited into the kitchen hut for a formal welcome. The kitchen hut is the most important building on the stand, functionally and ceremonially. The men were seated on benches on one side of the small round room while the women sat on floor mats on the other side. Muda Magaya, Cosmas’s eldest son spoke to the spirits of those who had passed on to tell them of our arrival. Many delicious meals were served from this hut while we were at Kumusha.

But we were not only at Cosmas Magaya’s stand to eat and relax; each day we would bring our mbiras to the shade of the largest straw structure to learn from Muda and his assistant, Kuda. Cosmas had a very specific order he used for teaching mbira: you must master this part before learning the next, and then you learn this variation, and so on. This is what a typical day in the rural area looked like:

One of the most interesting parts of the whole trip was getting to interact with the students. After we got back from Mhondoro, we began our marimba performance tour where we worked with several different schools including Humwe Arts Center, Tsoro Arts, and Kyle College. Each program was dedicated to instructing their young students with distinctly Zimbabwean music, dance, and culture. These programs are vital to preserving these oral traditions in a post-colonial society. Rather than centering western music, we were there to create cross-cultural friendships and share our deep appreciation for traditional Shona music.

The first few days of the marimba tour were focused on preparing for the Friendship Fiesta, an event hosted by Kutandara at the Dutch Embassy in Harare where marimba groups from all over Zimbabwe would come together to connect and perform for each other. Tsoro Arts, Dreams Marimba, and Kutandara each collaborated to learn two songs we could play together as one huge band at the very end of the day. We wrapped up our performance tour with one final hurrah at the Reps Theater, ending with a collaboration with popular guitarist and vocalist, Victor Kunonga.

During the day, we lived and breathed marimba music. At night, we would visit different venues across the city to hear renowned musicians such as Taffie Matiure, Victor Kunonga, and Mbira Dzenharira. The mixture of traditional and modern music happening in Zim right now is electrifying. It is so cool to see how traditional instruments such as the mbira and hosho are taking their place in the music scene. Taffie’s band features typical rock band instruments in addition to marimba and mbira, while Victor Kunonga’s band uses rhythms and melodic lines that would typically be heard on those more traditional instruments. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mbira Dzenharira has been playing together since the 1980s and uses exclusively traditional instruments. The audiences at each of these shows were wildly different from audiences in the states. Even when Kutandara was playing, the audience responded vocally and was very interactive. They cheered and clapped when they heard something they liked, and sang along when they knew the words. At one Victor Kunonga show, one of the audience members (while hooting a shrill whistle) hopped up on stage and began directing the audience in a few dance moves. There is a saying in Zimbabwe that if you can walk, you can dance, and if you can talk, you can sing. That applies to everyone, not just the trained musicians.

All of these experiences made me so excited to bring this music back to my students in Lyons and to finally share some deeper cultural context for the music I have been learning for the past four years. I the future I hope to start marimba group after school.  In addition, I am looking to connect with schools in Zimbabwe, establish friendships where students can make cross-cultural connections with each other, share videos and letters. More marimba music in school performances and the Lyons Community are planned.

Thank you for the opportunity to immerse myself in Shona culture and become acquainted with the people and the land. The experiences I had and friends I made will be treasured for a lifetime.