“I am because we are and because we are, you are.” This statement encapsulates the concept of Ubuntu, a uniquely African world view which holds that an individualʻs identity is tied to the community, and the well being of the community is tied to that of the individual. This understanding of profound interconnectivity is the inspiration for The Sky That Covers Us All, the latest recording by Mahealani Uchiyama. It features the music of the mbira, an ancient instrument that has the power to comfort and protect those who experience it. Mbira (pronounced “mmm-bee-rah) is a mystical form of music conceptualized by the Shona people of Zimbabwe who refer to it as mbira dzavadzimu, or “mbira of our ancestors”. The instrument and its repertoire can be traced back well over 1000 years.
Mbira-like instruments are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa in various shapes, sizes and configurations, but the mbira dzavadzimu is quite unique, with its own exclusive canon of songs which are offered as prayers. The mbira can be played as a solo performance or in two or three parts. The “lead” part, called kushaura, conveys the melodic signature of a given song. The kutsinhira responds to and supports the lead, providing an interlocking polyrhythm which is at once complex, hypnotic and majestic. The songs are cyclical; the ending of one cycle is the beginning of the next. In this way a single song can be played over and over again for however long is desired.
The buzzing sound, which is produced by shells, rocks or bottle caps, adds texture to the music and is thought to be pleasing to the spirits.
Although the mbira can and is played for sheer enjoyment, it is the only instrument of its kind associated with ceremonies of ancestor worship, personal healing and meditation.