The Mbira Renaissance Band
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The Mbira Renaissance Band

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada | Established. Jan 01, 2013 | SELF

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada | SELF
Established on Jan, 2013
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"Mbira Renaissance brings simmering sounds of Zimbabwe to Edmonton"

At first listen, the humble mbira or thumb piano seems to be a simple artifact of global music. But catch the hypnotic grooves of Mbira Renaissance and you get a hint of the instrument’s ancient significance in the Shona culture of Zimbabwe.

For Zimbabwe-born Chaka Zinyemba, it’s a touchstone to his ancestral traditions and stories, while the gently simmering momentum behind the band’s inspired dance grooves serves as a perfect inroad to the roots of South African music for the group’s co-founder, bassist James Stuart.

“Back in Zimbabwe, the mbira was kind of neglected or forgotten for a time,” Zinyemba explains. “But more recently, people are starting to kind of reclaim that part of our past and the musical rhythms and songs that go with it. So the instrument is having a comeback or a renaissance.”

On one level, Edmonton-based Mbira Renaissance is a hip South African dance band. But “with electric instruments like guitar, bass and drum set, I guess we have some of the same ingredients of a lot of other bands,” says Stuart. “But the polyrhythms actually get pretty complex. When you listen closely, you hear that it really does revolve around the mbira at the centre of it all.”

It’s been over three years since Zinyemba and Stuart were introduced to each other by former Folkways Alive! director Jon Kertzer. Their friendship soon led to forming the group. Since then, they’ve gone on to perform regularly at the Works Festival, North Country Fair, Muttart Conservatory and various University of Alberta festivities.

The original six-piece lineup began recording their half-hour, five-song debut EP in late 2014 at Riverdale Recorders and had it pressed to CD a few months ago. The title Tisvikeiwo is a notice of one’s arrival, a sort of affirmative greeting in the Shona language.

Most of the lyrics and repeating vocal riffs are in the Shona language, though the group is gradually integrating some English. Zinyemba explains that their repertoire mixes original songs about life in Zimbabwe and Canada, themes of struggle, politics and love songs with a few traditional songs from his roots.

Variations on the thumb piano have surfaced across Africa and elsewhere under many names. Zinyemba plays a large ancestral version known as mbira dzavadzimu, which is now the national instrument of Zimbabwe. His has 21 keys and is also wired with a built-in electric pickup for amplification in performance.

Zinyemba has even made mbiras from scratch in a small foundry in British Columbia, hammering out the keys from old bed-springs or other sources of metal.

“It’s a much more complex process than I ever would have thought. When you’re hammering out each key, it takes a long time to get the correct tone and undertone, so I really gained a greater understanding and appreciation of the expertise that goes into making these instruments.”

Mbira Renaissance can feature up to eight players, with Zinyemba and another Zimbabwean Ronald Nyandoro both on mbira and vocals, James Stuart on bass, Sandy Ockenden on hosho (shakers), Chaka’s sister Rumbi Zinyemba and his wife Chiedza Nezungai on vocals and conga, set drummer Vinay Jhass, and new guitarist Mike Campbell on jazzy guitar.

Born and raised in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, Zinyemba grew up singing in choirs and began learning to play mbira in his mid-teens. He came here at 18 to take a degree in human geography at the University of Alberta. Today, he works for the Alberta government, making music in his off-hours and maintaining close ties to the 2,000-plus members of Edmonton’s Zimbabwean community.

Edmonton native Stuart is a grade school teacher who has played bass in various local bands for nearly two decades. For a couple of years now, he’s been co-host of CJSR Radio’s Wednesday night show Woza Africa!

This August, Mbira Renaissance is booked to play their first out-of-province show at ZimFest, a special celebration of Zimbabwean culture in Oregon. - Roger Levesque (Edmonton Journal)


"So Much Dancing – Mbira Renaissance!"

Rarely has rootsfan seen so many people dance, and so enthusiastically, at the Blue Chair in Edmonton. But to the “jazzed up” sounds of Mbira Renaissance, there were many dancers, indeed. Dancing at the stage. Dancing at the bar. Dancing at tables. Dancing everywhere to the great sounds from this Edmonton-based collective of like-minded musicians who have coalesced around the socialization of Zimbabwean music through the mbira instrument. The Mbira is more a symbol for Zimbabwean music than it is the central tenet of the band itself. Mbira Renaissance is all about hypnotic African rhythms, syncopated vocal harmonies, significant reggae infusion, lots of integrated sound from the musicians, and a healthy does of camaraderie and abundant showmanship. This band is fun.

Co-founded 3 years ago by Zimbabwean Chaka Zinyemba and Edmontonian bassist James Stuart, the band includes a core group as well as others who join the band for specific gigs. In addition to Chaka and James, the Blue Chair ensemble included drummer and singer Chiedza Nezungai, guitarist Mike Campbell, drummer Vinay Jhass, marimba artist (amazing) Sandy Ockenden, with additional vocals and mbira playing by Ronald Nyandoro.

The set list comprised both traditional and original compositions and had an air of social conscience, love, affirmation of life’s good moments. Even the traditional songs had some non-African influences, making the entire show both original and easy to accept. An interesting fact conveyed to rootsfan by Chaka was that traditional Zimbabwean music does not include a guitar-like instrument; thus, the guitar riffs played so well were adapted from the mbira itself, especially tuned by guitarist Campbell.

All in all, a great act; a great band. A certain truth: it’s the first time that rootsfan has ever seen a band member jump off stage and dance with the crowd. That was a nice touch and it felt genuine. Mbira Renaissance mostly plays festivals, but rumour has it they could be back to the Chair in the spring. Check that show out! - Rootsfan


Discography

In 2015, the Mbira Renaissance Band released it's first E.P, titled "Tisvikeiwo" (The arrival). The album has received airplay on CKUA, CBC Radio 1 and CJSR. 

In 2017, The Mbira Renaissance Band released "Daira", and , "Mapere/Mhondoro", singles recorded live at the Garneau Theater in Edmonton.

Photos

Bio

The Mbira Renaissance Band is a lively musical act that will have any audience on its feet and dancing! Based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada , the band delivers an afro-fusion sound that pays homage to the rich, ancient, musical genre of mbira music which has its roots in Zimbabwe. The group sings primarily in the Shona language  and the members make up an eclectic group; drawing on their musical backgrounds in jazz, rock, traditional Zimbabwean music and blues.

The music is delicate yet upbeat, the bass lines are reminiscent of the great chimurenga sounds of Thomas Mapfumo, reggae rifts are interwoven with jazzy melodies and the polyrhythm of the traditional Zimbabwean mbira sets the delicate foundation for the pieces. The group released its first E.P, titled “Tisvikeiwo” (loosely translated to arrival), in 2015, and has enjoyed airplay on CBC Radio 1, CKUA and CJSR.

The Mbira Renaissance Band regularly performs at the Blue Chair Café, Edmonton's premier venue for world music. Recent performances include:

  • Zimbabwe Music Festival 2016 (Oregon, USA)
  • The Works Art & Design Festival (Edmonton, Alberta, 2015; 2016)
  • Kaleido Festival (Edmonton, Alberta 2016)
  • The North Country Fair (Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta 2015)


Band Members