Q&A by Birikiti Pegram, Songlines intern
Traditionally, mbira is a sacred instrument used to communicate with ancestral spirits in religious ceremonies and social gatherings. From the 1980s it became popularised by artists such as Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi who began to incorporate traditional sounds into their contemporary styles, including transcribing mbira music onto electric guitar. Chikwata.263 are a Zimbabwean band taking mbira music into uncharted punk territory. Band members Hector Rufaro Mugani (mbira) and Tomas Brickhill (guitar and vocals), talk to us about their ‘mbira punk’ sound.
How did Chikwata.263 form?
Hector: It started at The Book Café Open Mic in Harare where we just started jamming. We got a gig with Alliance Francaise Harare before we even had a name. Then the came the name – chikwata means ‘team’ in Shona, one of the three official national languages, and ‘263’ is Zimbabwe’s international dialing code. We started the punkalicous gigs and the band started happening.
Tomas: The band quickly became noticed because we had a very original sound from the start. We came together in the spirit of a band where no one individual had ultimate say over our playlist, our sound or anything, but rather each band member brought something to the table that added to the whole chikwata sound.
You describe your style as ‘mbira punk’. How is that different from popular mbira music in general?
Tomas: There are contemporary mbira players like Chiwoniso, Hope Masike and Netsayi whose styles include traditional, jazz, Afro-pop and reggae. We also have a lot of different influences in the music but the defining elements of our sound are the mbira and punk rock guitar.
Hector: The mbira is being used as an instrument rather than a genre of music. We also apply distortion to the mbira to give it a rock sound.
How do people react to your music?
Hector: They usually just stand in utter surprise and then go wild. We have played for elite crowds as well as rural folks and we have had an awesome response. One Italian fan had to go for knee surgery after she broke it while dancing, but she kept on dancing with a broken knee.
Tomas: We opened for a lot of bands in our first year including Andy Brown, Suluman Chimbetu and Victor Kunonga and although we began some of those shows with a few bemused looks, by the end we always managed to win the audience over.
What about the mbira ‘purists’ who champion the spiritual role of the instrument in more traditional contexts?
Tomas: We’ve actually had a lot of love from people we didn’t expect and last year the Mbira Society even voted us ‘Mbira Band of the Year’.
Hector: I’ve had a mixed reaction with mbira purists. Some have accepted that is the route I have decided to take with the mbira and support me, with the understanding that I have high respect for the mbira and the spiritual world. Some have not received it well. It’s like politics, some people don’t like you and some do.
What was the most memorable gig you have ever played?
Tomas: For me, the most memorable show so far has been our performance at the Zimbabwe Youth Festival last year. The crowd had never heard of us and the stage manager wanted to cut our set short before we even got on, but we played one of our best performances and the crowd went crazy.
Hector: The Afro. Rock. Reggae. gig last November where we played with Mathias Julius and Mokoomba. That is the last gig we played with the legendary Zimbabwean lead guitarist, the late Andy Brown, who was a great inspiration to the band.
I hear that you ‘punked’ Chiwoniso. What does that involve, and how did she take it?
Hector: We played her music our way, how Chikwata.263 would play it. I am not sure how she took it but she was smiling, dancing and singing. She did not get off the stage and wants to play another gig with us, so I think it worked well.
Tomas: Chiwoniso is very close to Chikwata.263 and has made surprise guest appearances at a number of our shows before we punked her. It went down really well, both with her and with her fans. We recently did the same thing with Jazz diva Dudu Manhenga [photos here] and have plans to continue that series of shows by punking Alexio Kawara, Victor Kunonga, Hope Masike and eventually hopefully even Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi.
You recently played a gig with Mokoomba. What was it like to perform with them?
Tomas: We actually played a lot of our early shows with Mokoomba and there’s a lot of love between the two bands. I personally find their performances full of energy and fun on stage and that’s really our attitude too.
Hector: It was nice sharing the stage with them after a long time. Really amazing band! Looking forward to have another gig with them
What are future plans for the band?
Tomas: We are trying to get our debut album finished for Christmas but there’s already a demo album, which people can download for free from our Reverbnation or Facebook pages. We’ve already had a couple of mini-tours in Zimbabwe, but we’re hoping to tour South Africa towards the end of this year or early next year and hopefully more possibilities might open up for us after that.
Hector: Rocking the world! A studio recording is underway and we will soon be planning to jump out of Zimbabwe to face the world.
Do you think you might inspire a new brand of mbira music?
Hector: Maybe not a new brand of mbira music but we have triggered a lot of mbira players to start thinking in a different way. Find your own signature, a new way, your way.
Tomas: I think there’s a whole lot of untapped potential when you look at the mbira as a musical instrument – I’ve heard mbira versions of classic jazz standards and Hector has already played reggae mbira on Mannex Motsi’s album so I think there are already a lot more options than just thinking of traditional mbira music. But if people start claiming we inspired a new brand of mbira music that would be just fine.
Where can we non-Zimbabwe-based music fans hear or watch Chikwata.263?
Tomas: We started with the view that we should concentrate on our live shows, because there’s nothing worse than hearing a track you love by some band and then when you see them live they suck, so for the moment there’s just a couple of videos on YouTube and our demo album on our Reverbnation or Facebook pages, but we’re working on our online presence at the moment so that we can start to reach more people.
Hector: Visit our website, chikwata263.blogspot.com. You can also fly to Zimbabwe for one of our shows.