Thursday, 16 July 2009

Mbira camp

I've come to Mbira camp for two reasons.

Firstly, learning tunes on the Mbira smooths your brain out. It irons out the folds. It's like meditation, but there's an added bonus, which is that once you've learnt some songs you can play them with a group of people in The Tent at night, and there's singing and dancing, and gradually it gets free and wild and high.

It's organised by a robed Zimbabwean called Chartwell Dutiro.
Chartwell and I sat together today, a little away from everyone. I was playing him what I have learnt so far on the Mbira.

“You know what the Mbira is for?” He asks. “It is to call the spirits.

“In Zimbabwean culture the issues of the ancestors must be dealt with. The Mbira brings them forth so that we can do that.”

I'm puzzled by the idea of a culture where the unresolved issues of dead people are taken on by the living.

“Chartwell, do you remember the workshop you did at Tribe of Doris festival in 2007?”

I described to him my first experience of singing with him. We simply sang a song continuously for maybe an hour. I described to him how to begin with I had concentrated on getting the song, then I had enjoyed singing the song, then I got bored, then really bored, confused by what was going on, then thought about leaving. Then I slipped into something else. It was as if I had melted, I told him, dissolved. I quite forgot myself. It was as if I was the sound. I was no longer singing the sound; the sound was singing me. The sound was singing all of us, and a two part song had become a fifty part song, with nobody knowing what they were singing, it seemed, but everything working together like particles of smoke moving together in one continuous unplanned curling. Then when it ended we all sat in an endless still silence, and nobody moved or blinked or breathed. Actually we probably did breathe, I corrected myself, or we would have died.

Chartwell laughed.

“Did you like it?”

“Yes! I... really really, really liked it.”

“So you understand this music. You understand it well. People sometimes leave. They can feel the music pulling them somewhere and they don't know where, so they leave. They regain control. But I know this place.”

“Chartwell, what is going on when that happens? What is that place?”

It is the space where the spirits of the ancestors live, he tells me.

"Do you believe in a place like this?” he asks me. “Have you always believed?”

I pause for thought. Heaven? The spirits of the dead existing after life?


“Hum." He seems disappointed. "Well what do you think that place is?”

“... It's something like, pure nature, pure god, pure divinity...” “Pure spirit?” “Yes, pure spirit perhaps."

He nods, looking satisfied.

“In that space, Chartwell, do you hear the ancestors? How do you know they are there? How do you know what they want?”

“Sometimes I have dreams. Other times I feel it very strongly.”

“Are you like a shaman?”

“Yes. Some people would call me a Shaman. I like to yodel like mad! Ha! :)”

Each night we sit, about 25 of us, in candle lit circles in the round canvas tent and play and play and sing and dance and gradually it gets more wild and free. The Mbiras are quiet. Playing them inside hollow gourds amplifies them. The 'osho' (gourd-rattles) are loud. Last night we played a song and it was like lace. For a long time I sang so so so quietly, like I was trying to sing so I could only just be heard by the person on the other side of the tent who was singing the same line as me just loud enough that I could hear it, though I kept thinking maybe I was just imagining it. That was what the whole sound was like, like a living lace of sound on the membrane between the real and the imaginary.

When it finally wove itself to silence, Chartwell declared in delight, "that was Cool!" and everyone mumbled and wiggled in cheerful agreement.

On my first night in The Tent I felt tight and constrained. I need to make friends, I thought. I need to feel better in this community. I went to bed early. The next day I made friends and stayed up till midnight.

That was the night of lace music.

Tonight it's 2.09am and the music is still going. I'm in my tent. Past midnight is when it Goes Off in The Tent. In there, gradually I reveal more of myself. I can't help it. I begin to dance. This music invites a curving back. Woman is revealed. More dynamic, more powerful, more sensual, more wild, more raw female than anything revealed in the bumbling Britishness of the daytime. They play a song I like and I begin to sing more though my voice is still a little tight. In these sessions Chartwell seems to have been the only person that improvises; others seem to sing parts. I thought maybe it's not acceptable to just sing your head off, I thought, making it up as you go along. This sound is made of little regular repeated sounds like the making of a beehive or an ants nest. You can't just Nina Simone over it, but sometimes Chartwell does in a way that really really works.

They played a song I love and I Nina Simoned it a bit. By that point I was beyond caring whether it's allowed or not. Chartwell grins in the shadows and Nina Simone's along with me. I sing out. More of me revealed in this new community.

In singing and dancing it is hard to hide something that feels too potent for the everyday. Do we all feel this? Conversation can be safe but dance with someone and your raw soul is naked. Something in you is revealed that is usually only revealed in making love. Something wild and sensual and potent.

I see Denise dance. She is comfortable with letting this wild sensuality be seen, free, pretty free. It's wonderously beautiful. There are moments when she feels really free and the room gets hot; all the drummers, singers and players respond to her energy in kind and we raise the roof.

I would like to set this raw soul totally free.

This is a community of learning and teaching, people point out. We spend the days learning and teaching each other songs, and the evenings enjoying ourselves together. It's in our interest to help each other during the days, because the more that everyone can participate in the evening together, the more fun we all have. Chartwell has two roles: he teaches the songs patiently to a few people, who then spread them around the group, and he kicks off the evening playing and holds it together.

The evening (which is too dark to film or photograph) depends strongly on Chartwell and the core crew of old timers who keep the music thrusting on. It makes sense that in the community there are always old timers and newbies, elders and children. If there were a shortage of any group the community would be at risk.

Denise and I are sitting by the fire outside The Tent. We've been dancing. Free, free, beautiful wild dancing.

“I notice two freedoms in you,” I say. “You're free inside – you let your body do what it wants, what it loves – and you're free outside; you don't mind people watching you as you do that.”

She pauses for thought.

“I think, to see people go outside the normal bounds of behaviour is a blessing,” she says. “It's almost beyond whether what they're doing is 'good' or 'bad' – it's just so refreshing to see someone be honest and wild and free. It's a gift to let people see that.”

Later I'm chatting in the kitchen with Jenny and Gilbert.

“We normally behave within the bounds of our social norms because we're worried that people will think or say bad things about us if we go out of them," says Jenny. "And often, they do.” Jenny and I had had a wild dance together. For the rest of the evening people came up to each of us and said good things about it.

Communities rely on their social norms and police them actively with piss-taking, criticism, all that.
So what happens on a camp? Does a community form that has its own social norms? For me, it has been good to reveal more of myself in dance little by little, evening by evening. Each time a little praise afterwards tells me it's ok, encourages me towards freedom. Through praise, criticism, risk taking, stories and jokes, the community subtly sketches, agrees and reinforces it's own social norms and values. In this community, wild singing and dancing is ok.

But is looking stupid?

“I spend a lot of my time worrying about looking stupid,” said a man at dance camp, “and trying not to.”

People have been telling me that in Shona singing, ad libbing and Diva moments are fine. But hardly anyone does it. I point this out to Grace, an Mbira camp old-timer and beautiful singer. I like to sit in front of her in The Tent so I can hear her sing and gradually join in, following her lead.

The first time she really sang out over the noise it took my breath away. This was a Diva moment, though she was singing a part I think rather than totally making it up. I think I like Diva moments. Now and again.

“It's because people are shy I reckon,” she says. “It's totally encouraged to make it up.”

Next year I would like to do some workshops at Mbira camp in playful singing and vocal improvisation.
There's something... I still feel a sense of nervousness inside The Tent. I've literally tried to dance love into the tent, at least creating for myself a sense of it, to ease the nervousness into safety.

For this community, some games to make it ok to look silly in front of each other would be ace, I reckon. Games are the most effective way I've ever found to create that safety and freedom in a group. It's one thing to follow the parts and play the osho (shakers). It's another to license each other to really have a go at a bit of a yodel or freestyle osho, Mbira or wild dancing. Would some of the quality be lost then? Or would it be enriched? I think part of the nervousness is conscientiousness for the quality of the sound. People don't want to play around with it too much because they don't want to mess it up for everyone. I think that's good. And probably consistent with all types of music jamming. It's different with dance because if you look rubbish you don't mess it up for anyone else, but if you sound rubbish, actually you do.

So maybe the trick in music is to balance quality and conscientiousness with playfulness, deep safety and wild freedom.

That sounds like gold to me.

In the singing workshops I do with the fun fed, I've consistently found that non professional, non expert singers are amazing at making things up on the spot, totally coordinating with the other improvised sounds and together creating delicious and playful music.

We Can. Isn't that the slogan of some government sustainability campaign? Together We Can. Ha :)

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