2014 OneBeat Fellow Blessing Chimanga on traditional music, education, and the legacy of the marimba: “I want to put a footstep in the history of Zimbabwean music”

Found Sound Nation’s Nyokabi Kariuki talks to the first round recipients of OneBeat’s Accelerator Grant

Blessing at OneBeat, 2014, Arcosanti, AZ | Photo by Hannah Devereux

Blessing ‘Bled’ Chimanga, a 2014 OneBeat Fellow, is a percussionist and music educator from Zimbabwe, who has toured extensively throughout Africa, Asia and Europe. He will be using the Accelerator Grant to publish and distribute a comprehensive educational and historical teaching guide for the marimba, an instrument central to the cultural heritage of Zimbabwe, in the form of a book, album, and series of videos.

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Nyokabi: You’re a musician of many trades: you play multiple instruments, have performed all over the world, and you’re also an educator. How did you get into music?

Blessing: I strongly believe I was born a musician. I started playing when I was young, with tins and empty things at home in the backyard, right up to then getting an opportunity to play a real drum kit at church when I was eight. I taught myself piano, I taught myself the national anthem. It was known as an instrument that only white people were playing, so I was the first black child to play piano in that school. My school gave me the opportunity to start playing it in assembly, [which was] a recognition that a black child has taught themselves this instrument. From there I kept teaching myself general songs and playing in assembly.

My high school [after that] had a very strong music department. I got straight into the school jazz band. We were learning to play Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Oliver Mtukudzi… the band got an opportunity to perform in different events in the country for commercial reasons, and that money supported the school and got new equipment for the students. And for you to be recognized as one of the key musicians in the school, you had to do a Western instrument and an African instrument. I took up drumset as my first love, and then I took up marimba as my African instrument — marimba is the Zimbabwean national instrument — with no idea that at some point in my music career these two would merge.

Blessing at OneBeat, 2014, Albuquerque, NM | Photo by Hannah Devereux

I learnt with Sam Mtukudzi, son of Oliver Mtukudzi, a global icon. Sam really inspired me to take this professionally, and that helped me find my purpose and my mandate in the music industry. I grew up with a single mom, in a family of three as the last born, and in our country, sometimes it’s very difficult to get what your older siblings got because the economic situation was getting worse by the day. By the time I finished high school, there was no more money for me to go to university, so I became a session drummer straight away, for Sam Mtukudzi. We recorded a couple of albums and he pushed me and gave me the resources. From there I was just jamming and playing with everybody, including Oliver Mtukudzi — all I know music-wise, I really credit Oliver. I also played with Chiwoniso Maraire, the queen of mbira, another of our main traditional instruments. It became a lifestyle for a good seven years.

After, to be very honest, I got bored of being a session drummer. As a creative you want to keep on being inspired and doing new things. So I started working as a music educator, coaching marimba at a local school, which grew from just being an ordinary band right up to being the best band in Africa. And then I did one of the Italian jazz festivals. I got to meet an amazing Italian drummer, Max Covina. And with him we started a collaboration called Zimbo-Ita. We’re no longer touring as extensively, because all three of us are now also venturing into our own brands and doing our own stuff. I released my album in 2015. And then I established my own Zimbabwean band. It’s been an interesting journey the past 5 years, really getting opportunities to travel the world.

Nyokabi: And you’ve been in the process of writing a teaching guide for the marimba, which is what you’ve received the OneBeat Accelerator Grant for. What is special to you about the marimba?

Blessing: Well, the past 5+ years, marimba has been putting food on the table. Whenever I play drums I feel at home, but marimba has always overtaken drums on the financial side. The other key thing is, in Zimbabwe, it’s one of the most popular instruments; yes because it’s our national instrument, but also because it accommodates more people to play, so the schools are interested in investing in it because they know more students are going to register. But there’s nothing written about this instrument in terms of how to play it in the whole of Zimbabwe, so for me, I’m seeing a gap. I learned from some of the best teachers of my time, but my generation of guys, who are teaching in the schools, are taking the contemporary songs that are on the radio and putting it on the instrument, rather than teaching the students the [traditional] groundwork and then allowing them to experiment from there. I want the next generation to benefit but with the right knowledge: I’m not saying everything I’m gonna write is the right thing, but at least it’s gonna be my personal testimonial saying, ‘this is what I understand about the instrument, and these are some of the things that worked for me’. I’m not going to be able to cover everything in this first book, but at least it can be a starter of the conversation on this instrument. I see it as being able to leave a legacy, more than just doing a project that will have my name out there.

“In the history of Zimbabwean music, I’ve been able to put a footstep with this guide.”

Moreover, having traveled to places like America, this instrument is growing, and so many Americans come to Zimbabwe to learn the instrument. So what if we’re able to reach out to people who are interested in this instrument, but may never get the opportunity to come to Zimbabwe? Maybe creating some resources online so that they can get some lessons around it. So for me, that is where the heart of the book is coming from. Having benefited from the instrument, I want the next generation to also benefit.

Nyokabi: So what should we expect to see in the guide in terms of content?

Blessing: I’d already started, but I’m nowhere close to finishing. I was in the middle of deciding, is it going to be for beginners or is going to be something intermediate? Or am I going to do a general thing that’s called the history of the book? I’m trying to mix all these things. Maybe a chapter or two about the instrument, because there are different marimbas — a Malawian marimba, a Mozambican marimba — so what is special about the Zimbabwean marimba, what it is made out of, the creation of the sound; what would people believe when they heard its sound? And then maybe the last chapters will deal with the musical side: how do you compose, what is a soprano marimba, or tenor marimba, or alto marimba, and what are their roles in an ensemble? Something like that.

Nyokabi: That’s so interesting to hear, because my introduction to the marimba was because of how it’s been adopted into the contemporary Western classical music world — from Apple ringtones to all these marimba concertos. But the instrument is from Africa and is still alive in music on the continent, and so it’s really important that you, as an African who is intimate with this instrument and understands its history first-hand, is taking the initiative to write about it. This leads into my next question. Who do you want the book to be for the most?

Blessing: That is a very tricky question. Okay, I’m gonna answer it in two ways. The first way is I would really want to penetrate the local market. I would love to go and present it to the Ministry of Arts and Culture in my country and see how to get it to the schools. I was also thinking of doing a schools tour, where I go to a school myself and say, ‘this is what I’ve done, I’ve brought 10 copies of books for your students’. It might not have immediate impact, but if five of those students actually read that book, I’ve changed the perspective of the instrument on those five kids. Of course, that’s dependent on the budget and things like that, but I’d really want this product to really hit the local scene.

And then on the other side is the international sector, musicians who are learning music in general or music history of Africa. Maybe the financial benefits of the book can come from that direction. From the international sector, I’m not looking at the general person; I’m looking at people who are in the university that might need this for their thesis, for their research. But the first bridge is this one that we’ve crossed, to be able to get help from this from this grant.

Nyokabi: Now rewinding to 6 years ago — you’re a OneBeat 2014 fellow! What was the experience like for you? What have you carried with you from that time?

Blessing: OneBeat was one of the greatest exchange programs that I’ve ever done in my life, it carried a different feel. One of the greatest things I learned from it was just the whole power of collaboration, of being able to tap energy from the next person into your art because at OneBeat you’re bringing good musicians into one space, and normally, having everyone in one space means there’s gonna be fights of trying to get your space, but OneBeat lessons would really take you through finding your lane — how do you collaborate? How do you gain from each other’s strengths? You need each other, and everyone’s got their own space in the music industry.

I left OneBeat with friends all over the world. Whenever I travel, I always think, with the country I’m going to, is there a OneBeat Fellow? Because that way, I’ll be able to get free accommodation, or might be able to do a collaboration concert with them. One of my close friends for my year is Barry Likomahuwa, a bass player from Indonesia. He played on my first album, he hosted me in Indonesia once, he came to India at some point to do a gig with me. I’m so grateful to OneBeat that I got to know him. Also Esteban Copete from Colombia — we’re also still tight, he always plays saxophone or brass on all my songs. Same thing with Alex Asher from New York. He hosted me in New York just last October.

I also learnt the business strategy of being a musician, changing the music to money, or benefiting from your art. It was very eye opening for me to know my value and my worth financially. I got to see a lot of the US on that trip, and it was my first time to see certain equipment, like in-ear monitors. Yeah. I really carry the friendship and just the heart for music. I mean, that is something you can never trade in for.

Nyokabi: From a teaching guide for marimba, to your winning ‘Best Marimba Coach in Africa’ at the International Marimba and Steelpan Competition in 2013, it’s evident that music education is something that you pour a lot of labour and passion into. Is there any advice that you would give to other music educators?

Blessing: I think teaching is a calling, and once you know that, you go beyond the norm. I can tell you freely that I’ve never been paid enough for the amount of time that I’ve had to spend in coaching. Don’t look at the dollar sign because you may be discouraged. But if you are motivated more with what’s within you, and knowing that 10 years from now you can look back and say, I pushed this one, I changed this; is more satisfying than money. You never know which life you are transforming, which future you are building. And it’s a matter of time until you start seeing those results. So when you do it, do it with all your heart.

Nyokabi: On a similar note on teaching, I’m thinking about how earlier in the interview, you mention a lot of marimba coaches and students in Zimbabwe turning away from traditional style of playing in favour of adapting Western ‘pop’ music for the instrument. How do you talk to people around you about valuing Zimbabwean musical traditions in the contemporary world?

Blessing: I think everything boils down to identity. It’s very key. For anybody in anything, not even necessarily music, to be very aware of your identity, and to be proud of your identity. As long as you’re not proud of your identity, you’re always going to be colonized in your mindset and in everything that you do. I have nothing against pop songs, get me right. I traveled the world and I appreciate all these musicians. But it’s very key for you to have ground roots which come from identity before you take somebody else’s identity. You’d be very shocked that the people we are copying music from are actually so keen to learn our own music. So be proud of who you are. Be proud of the sound that comes from your country and spend some little time just having an interest around it. And then even try to combine the pop sound that you love with your sound and you’ll be shocked by the kind of magic you’re gonna produce. Yeah, it comes back to identity.

“I think everything boils down to identity…For anybody in anything, not even necessarily music, to be very aware of your identity, and to be proud of your identity. As long as you’re not proud of your identity, you’re always going to be colonized in your mindset and in everything that you do.”

Blessing and Alex Asher at OneBeat, 2014 | Photo by Hannah Devereux

Nyokabi: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s so interesting, albeit complicated in many ways, because many African countries — including Zimbabwe for you, or Kenya, for me — were colonized, and the process of colonization involved writing over our cultural traditions, calling them ‘ungodly’ or ‘inferior’ or ‘primitive’ in some way, as a method of oppression. So today there’s a lot of art and music from African societies that does not exist the same way anymore, or that might be difficult to access for one reason or another.

Blessing: Yes. I do think that our generation still has a chance, not necessarily to go to the roots, but we have a chance to change the perspective for the generations to come. I may be recognized as one of the best coaches, but if I’m not able to put out a resource that says, this is what I think is the best way for our instrument, it means the generations to come are still going to come and fall into the same spot.

Nyokabi: True. It’s definitely in our hands. I’ve also been thinking about the fact that you’re still on the younger side of life — you’re not even 30 yet — and you already have foresight to identify all of these issues and say, I need to write a book on the Zimbabwean marimba. Do you think the learning ever stops, though? Do you see yourself adding more and more to your teaching guides the older you get, and the more you play and learn about this instrument?

Blessing: Yeah. I’m one person who does not want to stop learning. The more you’re creating around it, the more you discover. This year I got to know which wood is stronger than the other, and for years I’ve been playing! So I’m starting to go even deeper than just the playing of the instrument, into the actual making of it, the history of it, what sound it’s supposed to achieve. I think I’m still on the journey, and I’m going to continue to be on the journey. Maybe after manufacturing, I’m going to go into labelling, you know — how did Yamaha start? Maybe one day we’ll have ‘Bled Marimbas’.

Nyokabi: As we come to the end of the interview, are there any other projects coming up in the future that you’d like to share?

Blessing : Of course, COVID has done what it has done. This year was really looking to be a big year for me in terms of traveling, but also in terms of taking every project that I do yearly to a new level. So for example, Let the Drums Speak Festival this year was going to host 10 different drumsets on stage and just honour four different generations in those 10 drummers. And then with the marimba camp, it was going to be the first year doing a live DVD recording and we were going to stream it live on our platforms. I was starting to get corporate attention because of the productions we have been doing with the camp.

But anyway, I’ve tried to move things online now. I’ve been producing shows for different organizations during this lockdown. One new show I’m starting to produce is called ‘The Music Journey’ for Alliance Française, where I’ll be interviewing Zimbabwean artists on their journey, from when they started up to now, and they’ll give a 30-minute performance as well. The beauty of this is I’m producing the whole thing, from the filming, to the sound, to the editing, to the design, etc. It’s a lot of work but I’m excited because it’s also growing my knowledge in those different areas. I’m still trying to see how I can just translate a lot of the ideas that I’ve had over the years into online [resources]. Right now, I’m getting to focus back on the book after the good news of the grant came.

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OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, in collaboration with the groundbreaking New York-based music organization Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation, that employs collaborative original music as a potent new form of cultural diplomacy.

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Found Sound Nation is a collective that designs collaborative music projects. www.foundsoundnation.org