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The Art of Mbira

Musical Inheritance and Legacy

Growing out of the collaborative research of an American ethnomusicologist and Zimbabwean musician, Paul F. Berliner’s The Art of Mbira documents the repertory for a keyboard instrument known generally as mbira. At the heart of this work lies the analysis of the improvisatory processes that propel mbira music’s magnificent creativity.

In this book, Berliner provides insight into the communities of study, performance, and worship that surround mbira. He chronicles how master player Cosmas Magaya and his associates have developed their repertory and practices over more than four decades, shaped by musical interaction, social and political dynamics in Zimbabwe, and the global economy of the music industry. At once a detailed exposition of the music’s forms and practices, it is also an indispensable historical and cultural guide to mbira in a changing world.

Together with Berliner and Magaya's compendium of mbira compositions, Mbira’s Restless Dance, The Art of Mbira breaks new ground in the depth and specificity of its exploration of an African musical tradition, and in the entwining of the authors’ collaborative voices. It is a testament to the powerful relationship between music and social life—and the rewards of lifelong musical study, performance, and friendship.

608 pages | 302 musical examples | 7 x 10 | © 2020

Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology

African Studies

Music: Ethnomusicology, General Music


“A major landmark in ethnomusicology. These books represent decades of systematic and highly focused research by one of the most astute, tenacious, perceptive, respected, and inspiring scholars in the field. There is a wealth of information here, systematically organized and presented, with few precedents in music scholarship.”

Eric Charry, Wesleyan University, author of "Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa"

“Stunning. I can think of no other work like it in the history of ethnomusicology, and very few that approach it in contemporary humanistic or musical scholarship. Its contribution transcends the author’s disciplinary affiliations in magisterial ways. There is, simply, nothing else like this in the literature. It owns its own category. It creates a new category of musical ethnography. And might I say, there is no example in the ethnomusicological literature of collaborative research on this level, either. I came away with a concrete understanding of the stunning complexity of the aural texture of mbira music, the playfulness of its performance practices, the seriousness of its pedagogical traditions, and the obviousness of the claim that Magaya is an artist on the level of a Charlie Parker or a Ravi Shankar—one of the world’s great musicians, a living treasure for the Shona people, and someone who has contributed enormously to ethnomusicology through his long collaboration with Berliner. This is a unique, powerful, singular work. Berliner is a master of ethnomusicological scholarship in exactly the same sense that Magaya is a master of the mbira. To have such a document of his career’s work is astounding. It shows what our discipline could be, and what we could achieve. It’s a real magnum opus.”

Aaron A. Fox, Columbia University. author of "Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture"

"Berliner and Magaya have been working on this project since the 1990s, and it is unlikely that the world will ever see a deeper dive into the beauties and mysterious nuances of mbira. These volumes mark an extraordinary collaboration between meticulous scholarship and virtuoso musicianship, and also, the fruit of a profound and enduring friendship."

Banning Eyre | Afropop Worldwide

Table of Contents



Part A         Components of the Mbira System

1          Collecting Ideas in an Improvisation-Based Tradition: A Longitudinal Approach
2          The Mbira Repertory: Central Concepts
3          Representing Mbira Music in Notation
4          Sounds Ringing in My Head: Mbira Parts’ Designs
5          Hand Dance: Keyboard Polyphony and Polyrhythmic Templates
6          In the Shadows of the Imagination: Harmonic Motion
7          Composed Variations
8          Variation Techniques
9          The Fluidity of Perception in Performance
10        The Interlocking Aesthetic: Kushaura-Kutsinhira Combinations

Part B         A Biography of Knowledge: The Cultivation of Cosmas Magaya’s Personal Style

11        The Acquisition of Repertory, and Its Associations
12        The Path from Re-creation to Invention
13        Musical Arrangements: The Systemization of Aural Preferences
14        Musical Influences: Incorporation and Modification of Others’ Styles

Part C         The Application of Knowledge in Performances

15        Improvisation and the Individual Mbira Player
16        Narrative Tours of the Magayas’ Individual Kushaura and Kutsinhira Nhemamusasa Performances
17        Narrative Tour of Kunaka’s Solo Nhimutimu Performance
18        Comparative Analysis of Individual Players’ Nhemamusasa and Nhimutimu Performances
19        Improvisation and Kushaura-Kutsinhira Interplay
20        Narrative Tours of the Magayas’ Kushaura-Kutsinhira Interplay in Nhemamusasa Performances
21        Comparative Analysis of Collective Resources and Creative Processes in Nhemamusasa Performances
22        Social-Musical Relations in Improvisation: Performing at a Bira
23        Conclusion

Part D         Music Texts

Filmography/TV Programs/Videography

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