HARARE, ZIMBABWE — “I was in grade four when a miracle happened in my life,” says Virimai Edmore Nhedenga, 30.
Nhedenga sits on a stool outside his house in Chitungwiza, a crowded commuter city, commonly known as Chi Town, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) outside of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. He gazes wistfully down the road with a small smile, remembering the day when, as a child, he and his brother were swimming near their home.
“My brother dove in and came up with a mbira instrument he found under the water, and he handed it to me,” he says.
The mbira, which is the name of both the instrument and the music, is an African instrument that has metal tines stretched across a wooden board, which are plucked with the thumbs.
Nhedenga, now famous locally for his mbira playing, says he didn’t know what to do with the instrument at first.
“When we got home, my father, a traditional healer, told us there was a meaning to [the find,] which he said we would see in the future,” Nhedenga says.
Today, he says his father was right, as he is one of few young people to play the traditional instrument. Now, he’s developing a following.
After the underwater discovery, he admits he forgot about the instrument for a time. He started playing a guitar he had fashioned out of a tin can, but after his reputation grew as a guitarist, his father agreed to buy him a real guitar.
That’s when he says he began dreaming about a mermaid and the mbira.
“I started having dreams of this White woman with long hair, who would come to me every night to show me how to play the mbira,” he says.
Mbira is considered a mystical music, played for centuries by certain tribes of the Shona people, a group that forms the majority of the population of Zimbabwe and extends into Mozambique. Mbira is used in many traditional ceremonies as a “telephone to the spirits,” connecting the spirit world and the physical world. The musicians who bridge this gap are often referred to as spiritual players.
Nhedenga credits the woman in his dreams, whom he later identified as a mermaid water spirit, with leaving the mbira underwater for his brother to find.
“The first song she taught me to play was an ancestral song called Chaminuka Ndimambo,” Nhedenga says, referring to the mermaid spirit he credits with his talent.
He sings a few lines of the song, whose name means “Chaminuka is King,” and it’s clear that he is still held in the intoxicating embrace of the vivid memory.
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Chaminuka is the name of a very important “gombwe,” or great spirit of all the people, in Shona culture. According to oral tradition, Chaminuka is said to have introduced the instrument to the Shona people in the 1600s.
“I started learning all I could in terms of learning how to play. I used to do it as a hobby. I never thought it was something I could make a living from,” Nhedenga says.
A few years ago, he was recruited by the Mbira DzeNharira group, a mbira group made up of mostly older men.
“I used to cook for them. They ate sadza made from a clay pot and would only eat fish that was cooked over an open flame and unseasoned. They ate from plates made of twigs and, when we went for rehearsal, we would go barefoot to the playing area, as it was seen as holy,” he says. “They felt it necessary to exit as the ancestors did in their day, as they believe it brings them closer to them.”
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
But in 2009, Nhedenga began his own mbira band, Dziva ReMbira, which loosely translates as “waters of the mbira.” He named it as a tribute to the water spirit who he believes gave him the gift.
Fellow band member Singleton Takaruza Nerwande, 28, says his relationship with the mbira is magical too.
He says he did not “learn” how to play. He recounts that he woke up in the middle of the night in 1992, when he was 3 years old, and knew how to play the instrument perfectly, as if he had extensive training.
“My father and brothers used to play,” he says. “In all my life, I remember that day clearly. It was November. I woke up very early in the morning, before the sun came out. I took a mbira and started playing it. My father woke up, stick in hand, ready to discipline my older brothers, as he thought they were behind the noise.”
Dziva ReMbira plays every Sunday in Chi Town and is available for hire for private events.