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Google celebrates mbira with doodle

Google yesterday celebrated one of Zimbabwe’s national musical instruments, the mbira, as part of the country’s Culture Week.The global technology company shared an interactive video that allows anyone to try their hand at the unique instrument on its home page.

Zivisai Chagaka

Zimbabwe marks its Culture Week starting May 21 as proclaimed by Unesco.The recognition of the traditional instrument has been hailed as a “significant” and a “great accolade” for the country.

Mbira has been played for over 1 000 years and plays an integral role in the traditions and cultural identity of the country’s Shona people. The instrument, which originated in South America, is made up of a handheld hardwood soundboard, called the gwariva and has a series of thin metal keys affixed to its surface.
It is played by plucking the metal keys between the thumbs and forefinger, and as a result, is sometimes referred to in the Western world as the “thumb piano”.
The interactive doodle video tells a story through the lens of a Zimbabwean girl who learns to play the mbira. It offers users the chance to “play” the instrument for themselves, hovering the cursor over the correct key as notes are played.

Google said on its website “. . . the interactive doodle celebrates Zimbabwe’s national instrument, the mbira, as Zimbabwe’s Culture Week begins”. It said: “The instrument features prominently in a variety of Shona ceremonies, and it remains a vital link to the past through songs that have been passed down over hundreds of years. While the mbira was traditionally played by men, Zimbabwean women have increasingly taken up the instrument in recent years and continue to push its timeless sound in new and contemporary directions.”

Mbira remains a vital cultural emblem of the country’s cultural heritage as it is often played at a variety of ceremonies. The Shona have often associated it with tradition and invocation of their ancestral spirits, hence playing the instrument has often been referred to as mbira dzavadzimu, which literally means “music of the ancestors”.

In contemporary Zimbabwe, musicians have also used mbira together with other musical instruments. Mbira music was popularised in the 1980s following the success of musicians such as Thomas Mapfumo, who included mbira on stage alongside modern musical instruments such as electric guitars and drum kits, which he called Chimurenga music. Another musician who has taken local instrument abroad and popularised it is Mbuya Stella Chiweshe, who is now based in Germany.

However, more and more musicians and traditional dance groups have joined the mainstream entertainment industry playing mbira music. In recent years, the late Ephat Mujuru, Mbira dzeNharira and female musicians such as the late Chioniso Maraire and Hope Masike, among others, have taken mbira music beyond the African borders.

National Arts Council of Zimbabwe communication and marketing manager Rodney Ruwende said “it is a significant recognition” as the world marks World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development and that the global internet giant Google had chosen to showcase one of Zimbabwe’s iconic instruments, the mbira, on its search engine.

“For Zimbabwe, this is particularly encouraging that the world is appreciating Zimbabwean art. For the young artists in Zimbabwe, this reinforces the need to preserve and promote our cultural heritage because that is the way the world will notice them not through copying other people’s cultures,” Ruwende said. “This is also significant as Zimbabwe, together with Malawi, has nominated the mbira for inclusion in the Unesco list of Intangible Cultural Heritage and this is due for consideration and, if successful, would put the instrument on the same prestigious list that includes the Jerusalem Mbende dances.”
The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity by Unesco in 2001 proclaimed May 21 of each year the World Day of Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development.

Mbira player and songstress Hope Masike said “it is a great accolade for mbira to be featured by such a huge brand. So it’s a huge well done and thank you to Google”.

“It’s also very impressive to see how many Zimbabweans and mbira lovers across the globe have been celebrating this. I only wish we would also celebrate the actual custodians of the great instrument here at home when they produce mbira music for us,” she said.

Asked on what he hoped people would take away from the doodle, South African doodler Jonathan Shneier, who led the mbira doddle team said: “What stands out to me is the sense of community, belonging and pride associated with the mbira, and the variety of ways it weaves itself into people’s lives, from the traditional to the modern. We have tried to give people around the world a taste of a broad and deep cultural tradition that isn’t very well known outside its homeland, and to give the people of Zimbabwe a chance to stand up and be seen, to be proud of what is uniquely theirs. I hope we have given people just enough to pique their curiosity and encourage them to go out and learn more; maybe even pick up an instrument and give it a try!”

Producer Colin Duffy, commenting on what he enjoyed the most about working on the doodle, said: “Without a doubt the most enjoyable thing about working on this Doodle was being able to experience and learn about mbira from the Shona people in Zimbabwe. Prior to this project I could not tell you much about mbira, but the kindness, depth of history and open mindedness that the people of Zimbabwe showed our group was life-changing.

Meanwhile, national broadcaster ZBC-TV will tomorrow night host the Culture Week Concert 2020 live concert. The concert will be held under the theme “@40 Celebrating Our Diversity”.

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