AMI Blog


In a recent Facebook post, the Zimbabwean mbira maker, Albert Chimedza, shared Vusa Mkhaya’s history of marimbas at Kwanangoma College of Music. Vusa’s content has since been deleted, but you can read Andrew Tracey’s version of the Kwanangoma story on our website. Here’s what Albert had to say in his Facebook post:  

“Marimba are not indigenous instruments. They are colonial inventions.”

I think this is worth thinking about further, especially in the light of calls to decolonise music education.

On the one hand, Albert is right – the instruments commonly known as marimbas and played in sets in Southern Africa and increasingly in other parts of the world are not indigenous to anywhere in their particular form. And yes – the people who put their heads together in the late 1950s to come up with an instrument they thought would work well for the Kwanangoma students were all white men, and, so long as we are thinking in binaries – might be labelled ‘colonialists’.  

Certainly, in comparison to the mbiras that Albert Chimedza makes so expertly, marimbas are not ‘indigenous’ or traditional. The trouble with binaries – an attitude that says: this is this and that is that, and there is nothing in between – is that they ignore the nuances and complexity of everyday life and everyday music making.

In Zimbabwe, traditional mbiras have enjoyed a resurgence in the past 50 years. They have a place in modern Zimbabwe that goes well beyond the museum shelf. The average person in the street knows what an mbira is and also what it sounds like. They may even be familiar with the songs that form the core repertoire. This is cause for celebration because a magnificent tradition is sustained! But the same cannot be said for many traditional African instruments, where the social structures that supported music played by different instruments have changed so much that many musical traditions have been lost. In the Eastern Cape (home of AMI and this writer), traditional instruments like the Xhosa bows – uhadi and umrhube are not generally known and may not be widely recognised. Traditional bow music is not commonly heard. Despite bow performance being rare in everyday life, Xhosa listeners who have never seen the uhadi often recognise something deeply familiar when they hear bow music. This is because the tonality of bow music, and the falling melodic lines and Lydian scale live on in Xhosa singing, in the songs that are sung at big gatherings, whether a funeral, a town meeting, or a special ceremony.

A decade ago, the only place you might hear uhadi and umrhube (apart from deep in the rural areas, safeguarded by a few practitioners), would have been at special concerts that featured traditional ensembles. But something has changed and the good news is that this is no longer the case. A number of young performers (some of whom studied bow playing at university) have taken up uhadi and umrhube and are breathing new life into the instruments. Take Thandeka Mfinyongo, for example. Thandeka plays indigenous Xhosa instruments, she writes songs in isiXhosa, her music demonstrates many traditional elements of Xhosa music, but she also reinvents this tradition and gives it a fresh spin, making it relevant to today’s listeners. Her performance and interpretation of this music goes way beyond the ‘traditional’ and borrows elements that are distinctly non-traditional. Thandeka is doing something that all creative musicians have done since the beginning of time. They take something familiar and bring their creativity to it to create something fresh and new. In this way, music does not stay the same, it changes and adapts to the needs of the those who perform it and listen to it.

In Thandeka’s music, we see how an ‘indigenous’ African instrument can be used very effectively in a not-altogether-indigenous way. Coming from the other end of the spectrum – the guitar is a great example of a non-indigenous instrument being adapted to African aesthetics. Here is a ‘colonial’ instrument that has been ‘indigenised’. Guitars started to spread throughout Africa in the second half of the 1800s and early 1900. Today, the diversity and genius of African guitar styles are a spectacular example of what adaptive musicians can do with an appealing and versatile instrument. Yes, the guitar was introduced from Europe, but it has been transformed by African musicians making it their own.

Thandeka Mfinyongo Live at Sognage

Let’s get back to the ‘colonial’ marimba. As xylophones are found across Africa, the instrument type can safely be called indigenous. There are different construction methods, different tuning systems, different cultural uses for these different African instruments depending where you are on the continent. The Kwanangoma team borrowed some of the principles of construction from indigenous xylophones, and they borrowed some principles from choral music in building different pitched instruments, from Bass to Soprano. My guess is that the choice of tuning – a major scale – was a practical choice because Western scales were already ubiquitous in the area in the late 1950s.  Whatever the decisions made by that team, it is what happened next that is interesting. And if we are thinking about the colonial/decolonial debate, marimbas are worth paying attention to.  

One of the legacies of music education that is closely tied to Western classical music is that is perpetuates the values of Western classical music. Instrumental training is highly technical and narrow in its focus on Western repertoire. Musical skills like improvisation are completely absent. Anna Bull has called classical training a ‘pedagogy of correction’ – the goal is perfection, the student is constantly being corrected by the teacher or conductor who is the authority. The model of the orchestra is an authoritarian one, the conductor is the person who makes musical decisions, and the instrumentalists follow. Yes, learners become highly skilled if they stick with the programme, but there are many costs – for example, a high dropout rate, physical and emotional injury, limited skill in other musical areas to name just a few.

Thandeka’s use of Xhosa bows, and the story of African guitars tell us that it’s NOT the instrument that is the problem, or solution, but the way the instrument is used that brings change. It’s quite likely there are marimba teachers out there that behave in authoritarian ways, but I think marimbas themselves lessen this risk because of their very construction. It’s easy to get a sound out of a marimba – you don’t need years of training to play a short tune that can be part of something bigger (The ‘pedagogy of correction’ is unnecessary). Marimbas’ accessibility sets them up for inclusion. Because they are accessible, individuals and bands can use marimbas to express themselves, to say ‘This is who I am’. They can choose ‘traditional’ songs, dress, dance moves, to say who they are, or they can play the latest song by the South African star, Lira, or play the theme to the World Cup, or a Christian worship song, because we live in a multi-layered society and have multi-layered identities.

It’s inspiring to see the many different ways marimbas are used in Southern African and around the world because it shows how they can be embraced by many different kinds of musicians and for many different purposes. So, let’s not get stuck on labelling marimbas as colonial or traditional. Marimbas give you a tool – not to be traditional or colonial, but to be who you want to be today and to bring the change that you want to bring. It’s not a matter of having to choose one or the other, it’s about being free to explore the wonderful complexity of music on instruments that are playable and inviting.

Bull, Anna. (2019). Class, control, and classical music. Oxford University Press.