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VALLEY LIFE | sounds

The Missing Ingredient

September 08, 2000|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the range of musical cultures from Africa, there is nothing quite like the meditative music of the thumb piano known as the mbira, an ancient tradition of the Shona culture in Zimbabwe.

A hypnotic yet vibrant quality characterizes the work of mbira player Forward Kwenda, one of the most sublime proponents of the pared-down ancient tradition of mbira dzavadzimu, which translates to "mbira of the ancestor spirits." Kwenda, who has been called "the Coltrane of the mbira" for his improvisational skills, specializes in rippling rhythms and spiritual evocations.

News about this music's appeal and Kwenda's talent is spreading.

In 1997, Kwenda released the well-received "Svikiro-Meditations of an Mbira Master" on the Shanachie label with collaborator and co-producer Erica Azim. Kwenda, in duet with Azim, is on his second U.S. tour, including a Saturday night stop at Cal State Northridge.

Azim, who is from California, became entranced with mbira and has since devoted her life to it. She studied in Zimbabwe, where she met Kwenda, and now runs an Internet organization at www.mbira.org.

Mbira music was squelched during the pre-1980 colonial era when Zimbabwe was known as Rhodesia.

"It was considered as evil, and people couldn't play it then," Kwenda said in a recent interview.

"It could have spread out many years ago if it weren't for that."

Born in an area of Zimbabwe where Shona values were held dear and colonial rule was resisted, Kwenda taught himself to play the instrument. After hearing a mbira player at a family ceremony at 10, he was hooked.

"From that day, man, I just liked the mbira in a wild way," he said. "That's a day I'll never forget."

While still in his teens, Kwenda began to record and build a reputation as one of the stars of mbira.

His style nurtures tradition and takes it to another, distinctive place.

"I wondered, 'How can I build it to go further than what everybody else is playing? " he said. "Then I was so shocked when I was playing at ceremonies. People would listen and say 'Oh, this is it.' It was like everybody else was missing it, too. I was like the man who brought the thing that was missing."

No doubt, audiences respond to the infectious sense of abandon in his music.

"I'm the happiest when I'm playing the mbira," he said. "I just let it happen through me. It's like Forward is not even there. Then the music is just happening."

BE THERE

Forward Kwenda and Erica Azim perform Saturday at 8 p.m. at the CSUN Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. Tickets: $15 general, $12 seniors, $9 students. (818) 677-2488.

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