Ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner. Michael Zirkle
Ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner. Michael Zirkle

Playing It Forward

Ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner has devoted thirty-five years to studying, recording, and notating the traditional music of Zimbabwe, the existence of which has been threatened by war, disease, and modernization.
Writer: 
January 31, 2007
 

From the ceiling of Paul Berliner's office hangs what, at first glance, appears to be the prehistoric skeleton of a pterodactyl. The imposing artifact seems out of place, given that Berliner is an ethnomusicologist, not an archaeologist. He is quick to explain.

The skeleton, he says, comes not from a dinosaur but from a pilot whale. In the late 1960s, between completing his master's and beginning work on his Ph.D., he worked as a music teacher in the public schools of lower Cape Cod. One afternoon after work, he was jogging on the beach, and, from the surf, a grainy rock caught his eye. He began to dig. Rock became bone, and bone became pilot whale, long buried in the sand.

It took Berliner three days to dig up the skeleton, but only a single leap of imagination to recognize its possibilities: In his musician's hands, the skeleton became a whale-bone marimba, an instrument played with mallets like a xylophone. The various sizes and thicknesses of the bones gave off different pitches when struck, and he integrated the instrument into a unit on whale songs.

The museum-like relic, which now hovers over his desk in the basement of the Biddle Building on Duke's East Campus, is oddly appropriate. For the past thirty-five years, Berliner, now Arts and Sciences Professor of music at Duke, has been engaged in a preservation project of his own: collecting, recording, and transcribing the Shona mbira music that is indigenous to Zimbabwe. An oral tradition passed down from generation to generation for some 1,000 years, the music has been threatened in recent years by an array of powerful forces that include revolution, civil war, the AIDS pandemic, modernization, and religion.

The Shona people represent a Bantu-speaking ethnic group that makes up more than 80 percent of Zimbabwe's population. Shona musicians play many traditional African instruments, including marimbas, drums, and the mbira—a keyboard instrument consisting of a wooden soundboard, metal keys that are plucked with the thumbs, and rattles, usually made of shells or bottle caps. It is often placed inside a "gourd resonator" for amplification. Mbira music is played for pleasure and has been used as a vehicle for social commentary. But its primary use is in Shona religion, which is based on the worship of ancestral spirits. The music of mbira ensembles is believed to play a key role in helping mediums become possessed by the spirits. The measure of a musician's skill is based in part on how quickly the medium becomes possessed.

In the 1970s, when Berliner made his first trips to what was then the British colony of Rhodesia, native Africans were involved in a struggle for independence against white minority rule that had been in place since the end of the nineteenth century. Spirit mediums were often consulted by revolutionaries, and they and mbira musicians, seen as their abettors, fell into disfavor with the government. Some were killed. Others lost their lives in the civil war that followed independence in 1980. "You see the vulnerability of oral traditions in the face of the destructiveness of war," Berliner says.

In more recent times, Zimbabwe has been beset by other types of destruction. The AIDS pandemic has been especially prevalent and deadly in Southern Africa. The United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS estimates that more than 20 percent of adults in Zimbabwe are HIV positive. Add to that modernization, urbanization, a wave of foreign and domestic popular music, the demonization of Shona religion by some Christian churches, a deteriorating health system, the abject poverty that has come to haunt Zimbabwe over the past several years—unemployment currently stands at around 80 percent, and the country's inflation rate ballooned last year to 1,000 percent—and the indigenous tradition faces what amounts to the perfect storm.

Berliner's task, as he sees it, is to help the culture ride out that storm by translating oral tradition to written, by capturing on paper not only the music, but also the stories of the musicians that play it and the people who listen. To that end, he has enlisted Cosmas Magaya, a Zimbabwean mbira player who was one of his early instructors and has been a frequent musical collaborator over the years. "We're interested in helping to preserve the music's oral repertory and creative practices, which have been made vulnerable by multiple tragedies that have befallen the country," Berliner says. When an art form is perpetuated purely as an oral tradition, he says, "a break in one link of the chain means that the collective knowledge of the community is potentially lost forever."

Berliner first fell for the mbira while a graduate student in the world-music program at Wesleyan University. Although his research initially focused on jazz (an interest that he has maintained, even publishing a book, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, in 1994) he studied, on and off, with a visiting artist from Zimbabwe and ended up writing his master's thesis on the karimba, one type of mbira. "I was so deeply moved by the music," Berliner says, "I decided to go to Africa to find master players to instruct me." He first traveled to Zimbabwe in 1971. There, he commissioned several teachers, including Magaya, then a young member of renowned mbira player Hakurotwi Mude's band, Mhuri yekwaRwizi. Mude, says Magaya, instructed band members to treat Berliner just as they would any up-and-coming player. "He didn't want us to treat him with baby hands."

Berliner began to develop relationships with musicians around the country and learned not only about musical technique but also about the history and culture of the tradition. He says this was particularly difficult for him, a white American, during a period of struggle against a white, colonial government.

In the introduction to his book The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe, he describes the process of learning the names given to mbira keys by an elder mbira player, Mubayiwa Bandambira. Over a four-year period, he made three visits to Bandambira, who first told him the keys had no names. Then he created a system so elaborate and full of conflicting information that Berliner became frustrated trying to understand it. At the end of the third visit, as Berliner was preparing to give up, Bandambira smiled and said to onlookers, "Well, it seems to me that this young man is serious after all. I suppose I can tell him the truth now."

Magaya recalls that it was strange to see a white man so interested in the indigenous music and people. "When I first met Paul in 1971, I wasn't sure what he really wanted," he says. But, over time, he came to understand the enthusiasm and love that Berliner poured into his work.

A trumpet player by training, Berliner found the mbira difficult at first. The instrument is physically demanding, even when played for short periods. Religious gatherings, or bira, sometimes go on all night, and mbira ensembles that perform during the ceremonies are expected to play consistently and with power for hours on end. Berliner "had some very sore thumbs," Magaya says, laughing.

In addition, trying to analyze and understand a strange style of music that was never transcribed presented Berliner with a formidable challenge. He found that songs, consisting of kushaura (lead) and kutsinhira (following) parts, tend to cycle in ways that make it hard to locate a clear beginning and end. They are polyrhythmic, meaning that different musicians perform different rhythms simultaneously. The music also relies heavily on improvised variation to common rhythms. Over the course of the year, he began to develop a basic system of notation, hoping that he could practice songs he'd not yet memorized when he returned home.

Berliner's research in Zimbabwe became the basis for his dissertation, which provided the core of Soul of Mbira. During those trips, he also collected field recordings that were released on two albums that supplement that book.

While other scholars had written about Zimbabwean music and made field recordings, Berliner's work—which describes, in great detail, the techniques and significance of mbira music, as well as the culture from which it emerged—was notable for the way he connected with the people and reported from inside the community. And though it was first published more than twenty-five years ago, it remains a model study within the ethnomusicology community.

"When I wrote my dissertation [on Andean music], I had Paul's book on my desk," says Tom Turino, a professor of musicology and anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "I wasn't following the format or even the theoretical points. I just love the way he wrote about the people he worked with. It's a classic study." Turino, who went on to write his own book about Zimbabwean popular music, Nationalists, Cosmopolitans, and Popular Music in Zimbabwe (2000), teaches Soul of Mbira in an undergraduate survey class of African music.

"There are ways of talking to people," says Deborah Wong, an ethnomusicologist and professor of music at the University of California Riverside who studies Asian and Asian-American music. "It haunts all of us, trying not to treat people as bits of information—information we want them to give to us. Paul sets the bar really high, the way in which he only writes from a base of long-term friendship and relationships of the people he studies."

Cross-cultural connections: Berliner, above left, and musician Cosmas Magaya collaborate on documenting Zimbabwe's indigenous music

Cross-cultural connections: Berliner, above left, and musician Cosmas Magaya collaborate on documenting Zimbabwe's indigenous music. Les Todd

If Soul of Mbira was a first step toward describing the Shona mbira tradition, Berliner and Magaya's current project is a great leap toward preserving it. The project, which they see culminating in a book or series of volumes, encompasses thirty-five years of collaborative playing and research. It will examine the mbira and Shona culture from several angles, analyzing the music itself (they have 700 pages of music transcribed), discussing how it is produced and passed on orally within the Shona culture, and explaining their own process of developing and perfecting a system of notation.

"The way we preserve the music [traditionally] is by teaching it to our sons and daughters," says Magaya, who has taught mbira to his own son and daughter as well as legions of students. "But by documenting it, you make sure it can live for many years."

Magaya spends up to five months each year traveling and performing around the world, and, during each trip to the U.S., he tries to set aside a month or so to work on the project with Berliner.

In mid-November, the two are sitting in Berliner's kitchen, in a one-story house less than a block from East Campus. Piled on the table are manila folders containing drafts of musical transcriptions dating as far back as 1971 and Berliner's first trip to Zimbabwe. In front of Berliner are two three-ring binders, one containing part of the manuscript of the work in progress; the other, updated transcriptions of the music. Both are bristling with colorful Post-it notes, each containing a question or point of clarification to go over with Magaya.

Magaya: mbira master

Magaya: mbira master. Michael Zirkle

As Berliner silently reads a note he has penciled on one page, Magaya idly thumbs the basic kushauru, or lead, part to the song "Nhimutimu." Magaya has large hands, surprisingly smooth and free of calluses. Berliner wants to check a variation on the song he heard Magaya play during a residency at Stanford University five years ago. Carefully consulting his transcription, Berliner plays through the song. Magaya, mbira tucked under his right arm, leans back, brow furrowed. Finishing a line of music, Berliner says, "We'd talked about adding that as a substitute."

Magaya lets the music sink in. "Yes, that is fine."

Berliner tries out two more substitute lines that the two had discussed during a visit in 2005.

"I still prefer the first one," Magaya says. He says he thinks the others may have arisen during a performance in which he was responding to other players' variations.

It's common, Berliner says, to discover that variations he hears in the music are not the primary versions of a song. Sometimes, as in this case, they turn out to be unique to an ensemble performance. At other times, they turn out to be mistakes in the notating or reflect temporary preferences of the musicians. That creative process and the resulting variations that arise in different situations is "exactly what we want to capture," he says. The book will include primary versions of the songs, as well as secondary versions with explanations of where and why they might have been played, to give insights into the minds of the musicians.

On any given day, they will spend eight to ten hours hunched over notes, Berliner playing back music he transcribed last time to make sure the notation is clear and it sounds right, and Magaya approving or tweaking it. It's grueling work, but both agree that it's worth it. Only by going over songs hundreds of times, Berliner says, can they reveal "important concepts that will never be directly verbalized within the culture." They are now in the home stretch, completing a final round of edits to the music. Berliner plans to finish cleaning up the rest of the manuscript by the end of the year.

Berliner believes the longevity of their research will give it weight. "There is very little continuity in the documentation of African oral traditions," he says, making longitudinal studies difficult. "There has been a lot of great recording work, but it's been done disparately, largely by researchers working with various musicians in different regions." What Berliner has recorded during his six trips to Zimbabwe and various tours of the U.S. and Europe, as well as his collaborative work with Magaya, amounts to thirty-five years of data.

"This allows us to explore questions about the development of personal styles and about musical continuity and innovation using real data in a way that was not possible before."

In the kitchen, Berliner is back to his notes, looking for a conversation about a version of "Nhimutimu" by the legendary musician and mbira-maker John Kunaka. He finds a note about an arrangement Magaya played that combined "Nhimutimu" with another song, "Mandarindari." During a research session in the 1990s, Magaya told Berliner that he had first heard the arrangement on one of the two recordings that supplement Soul of Mbira. But in 2004 they came across a transcription indicating that the arrangement had in fact been a part of Magaya's repertory as far back as 1971 and had simply slipped his mind over the years.

"Cosmas forgot it and relearned it from Soul of Mbira without realizing it," Berliner says. This phenomenon of forgetting and relearning songs and variations, the idea of a sort of revolving repertory, is common in the oral tradition, but, because of the loss of so many musicians and contemporary threats to the tradition, there is a real risk of losing key parts of the repertory forever, Magaya says.

Thus, the goal of the project is to "in a substantive way represent the mbira tradition," says Berliner. "It's not just to document the musical structures and forms but also the process by which the structures are composed." He and Magaya want to "show the generative processes in order to show how creativity works in the tradition."

The project serves a dual purpose. First, it makes a record for native Zimbabweans and ensures that their tradition will not be lost. After independence, Berliner was invited back to Zimbabwe by the country's Ministry of Education and the Zimbabwe College of Music to help develop an ethnomusicology program focusing on indigenous music to supplement the existing Western curriculum. He and others have noted shifts in taste, especially in urban areas, away from traditional music toward a variety of cosmopolitan styles.

Second, as a result of the project, the tradition will become more accessible to music lovers outside Zimbabwe. "For composers, it will provide a treasure of ideas," he says. "This samples the imaginations of the great Shona composers who, over hundreds of years, have cultivated and refined the mbira repertory."

Playing a musical instrument

Les Todd

Though his musical resources are plentiful, Berliner faces the challenge of imposing a notation system on a tradition that has developed, even thrived, without it. The same focus on improvisation and variation that drew him to the music also makes getting it down on paper difficult, and some believe it may change the music's identity. Erica Azim, founder of the California-based nonprofit MBIRA, first traveled to Zimbabwe in the 1970s as a teenager—about the time Berliner was there. Through MBIRA, she has traveled to Zimbabwe almost every year and has recorded more than 130 musicians, helping to archive a broad variety of music and to provide financial support to musicians and instrument makers.

She has also taught traditional forms of the music to musicians of all levels of ability and from every continent, she says. "I try to discourage my students from notating mbira in any way," though she does allow them to record the music and play it back. "People have been learning this music for a thousand years without notation. Part of it is to use your ears.

"The most ancient version of the tradition is that it comes to people through spirits," she continues. "Mbira players have no idea what they're going to do until it comes out. It's difficult to preserve a tradition like that in its purest form. Our Western tradition is so much about control. This is the opposite: It's about letting go and letting something happen through you." She worries that attempts to transcribe such a fluid form will not do the music justice.

University of Illinois professor Turino, who says Soul of Mbira inspired his own study of Zimbabwean music, argues that pinpointing a specific form to preserve is difficult. "For a musical tradition that has been developing for many years and continues to develop today, all scholars can do is document the work of particular performers at particular points in time," which, he adds, "is certainly valuable." He points out that there are multiple histories and social realities, not to mention musical traditions, in the country and that "traditional" mbira musicians are still composing today, contemporary with jazz artists, religious choirs, and urban guitar bands.

But Jonathan Kramer A.M. '89, an associate professor of music and arts studies at North Carolina State University and adjunct professor of ethnomusicology at Duke, says failing to record the tradition is risky. A scholar of Chinese and Korean music, he points out that, as a result of the Cultural Revolution in China, there are "vast areas of traditional culture that are just gone. We are living in a time of great cultural die-off. They talk about endangered biological species...." He pauses.

Dynamic rhythms: in concert, Berliner and Zimbabwe musicians Magaya and Dyoko introduce audience members to the beautiful melodies and bittersweet lyrics that define mbira music

Dynamic rhythms: in concert, Berliner and Zimbabwe musicians Magaya and Dyoko introduce audience members to the beautiful melodies and bittersweet lyrics that define mbira music. Michael Zirkle

"Yes, writing it down is going to change it," he says of the mbira tradition. "It's going to fix it, like putting a needle through a butterfly. On the other hand, if you don't do it, it's simply lost." He says our knowledge and ability to recreate the works of great Western composers from Palestrina to Bach is based on written records "that have long slept in dusty attics."

"The fact is that writing it down does change it, but it's already changed. It's changed by the onslaught of modernity with all of its disruptions of new possibilities. You don't want to put societies under a bell jar, but, on the other hand, many of the changes are coming about as aftermath of colonization, the Cold War, and other forces that have a supreme negative effect."

Still, Berliner agrees with Azim that it's important to be careful. He says that in his field, there is a long history of trying to get songs transcribed on a page in a pristine form. That works well with certain modern Western styles of music, where form and song structure are paramount, but works less well with a type of music that is based on variation and improvisation. "We are not presenting the pieces as fixed compositions," Berliner says. "What we're trying to get at is how the music works as a process."

For now Berliner and Magaya's attention is focused on the task at hand, but they have on the back burner two other projects: One will chronicle the way that music is passed down in an oral tradition, using Magaya as an example. It will show how he learned songs, changed them, and taught them to others. "Putting Cosmas' knowledge and repertory at the center of the study, we are exploring the relationship between individual imagination and collective imagination," Berliner says. The second project is an oral history of musicians who died during the struggle for independence.

The theme of the projects is not surprising, considering Berliner's fondness for the metaphor of "man as library." In 2003, as a visiting professor at Duke—he was on the faculty at Northwestern University at the time—Berliner debuted A Library in Flames: A Story of Musicians in a Time of War, a one-man show about the destruction of a Zimbabwean village during civil war. "When an old man dies, a library is burnt down," Berliner says, quoting an African proverb. The piece—part documentary, part art-project, and part memoir—was "meant to pay tribute to artists who have lost their lives in the independence war and in the AIDS pandemic, and to underscore the vulnerability of the oral tradition."

Berliner has "reconceptualized the idea of what an archive can be," says Wong, the UC-Riverside professor. "He's done his research in a country that went through a period of intense violence, through civil war, and that has made him take the idea of preserving memory and repertoire quite literally, in the sense that musicians were dying, and as they were dying, the tradition was literally being lost."

"He doesn't just go out with a microphone," says Wong. "He is treating musicians he works with as a certain kind of archive, a very dynamic archive."

It is the dynamism of the music and the tradition that led Berliner to collect and preserve histories. But, listening to him perform, one is reminded of what brought him to love the mbira in the first place—the beautiful melodies and often bittersweet lyrics. The way the low wail of his voice—to an untrained ear almost indistinguishable from those of the men featured in his field recordings—mixes with the plink and rattle of the mbira is moving. Berliner is at his best when the notes are flowing.

On an early November evening, Berliner, Magaya, and Ambulah Beauler Dyoko, who in the 1960s became one of the first prominent female mbira players, take the stage at the Price Music Center on North Carolina State's campus. The three thumb through several traditional tunes. They use gourd resonators to amplify the music. During one song, Magaya stands and turns so his back is to the audience. He holds the mbira above his head as he plays so the audience can see the instrument and the intricate thumbing patterns. Dyoko sings lead vocals on most songs, her voice rising high above the melodious tones of the mbira. Berliner and Magaya sing the lower background vocals. Their nonverbal calls highlight the music's complex, interwoven melodies.

Late in the performance, Dyoko performs a song that she wrote in the 1990s to promote AIDS awareness. Earlier, as the three rehearsed in Berliner's kitchen, Berliner left the room and came back with a compact disc and laid it on the table in front of Dyoko. It was a copy of Beauler Dyoko & The Black Souls 1994. In the center of the cover was a photograph from the 1970s of a young woman in a pink blouse, holding a gourd resonator and smiling broadly.

That's Dyoko, Berliner said, "long before she was a great-grandmother." On her right was a man in a wide-brimmed hat; to her left, a woman in a purple dress. Other band members had been cropped out. "Those guys are all dead now," Dyoko said, all of AIDS. She pointed to an arm extending into the left side of the cropped photo. That's her son's arm. He's dead, too.

With Berliner's help, the mbira tradition won't die. He's a curator, an archivist, a librarian. After years of collaborative work, he's got Magaya's repertory, in his words, "well tagged and organized."