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Students learn how to play ancient instruments

By Jeff Green | Dec. 16, 2005

A handful of Memorial University students added some international music to their repertoire this past semester, learning to play an ancient instrument from southern Africa. But they wouldn't have gotten the hands-on experience if it weren't for a key partnership between the School of Music and the Marine Institute in St. John's.

The students were taking Music 3514: West African Drumming, offered by per course instructor Curtis Andrews, who taught them how to play the mbira dza vadzimu, a popular traditional instrument of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The mbira, as it is commonly known, has been played for thousands of years at religious rituals, royal courts and social occasions.

Listen to an mbira being played by School of Music students.

The instrument consists of 22 to 28 metal keys mounted on a hardwood soundboard and are usually placed inside large resonators known as mateze which are often made from a calabash to amplify its sound. The mateze looks like a large bowl or pumpkin. The keys are played with two thumbs plucking down and the right forefinger plucking up, creating a sound similar to a xylophone.

Mr. Andrews has been studying the instrument for the past two years and wanted to expose students to it. In fact, his School of Music colleagues Dr. Kati Szego and Rob Power have been trying to get an African music course off the ground for some time. So officials were delighted when Mr. Andrews signed on for the course. But there was a small problem - he had the instruments but needed the resonators.

“The mateze are used as sound amplifiers for the main instruments that the students are learning to play,” explained Mr. Andrews. “The mateze basically make the mbira louder. Without them they would be quiet and students wouldn't get the full experience of playing them nor would anyone else listening be able to hear the mbira.”

Initially Mr. Andrews thought about purchasing several of the gourd mateze from Africa or buying wooden or fibreglass ones from the United States but they would have been too expensive. That's where officials at the Marine Institute came into play.

Students enrolled in the third year of the naval architecture diploma program helped build fibreglass mateze as part of a composite structures course offered by veteran instructor Bruce Whitelaw, chair of the program.

“When I showed Bruce a fibreglass (mateze) which I had, he said it would be easy to construct several of them. That's when he mentioned his students at the MI,” said Mr. Andrews.

With a little bit of ingenuity and elbow grease, Mr. Whitelaw and his students concocted several resonators for the School of Music. He compared making the mateze to designing boats.

“A two-part fibreglass mould was made. Then each of the new resonating chambers was created using this mould. The process is the same as building fibreglass boats,” Mr. Whitelaw explained. “First a prototype or plug of a hull is constructed (the gourd is grown). This is then surrounded with fibreglass on the outside and the original boat removed. Finally from the inside of the mould a new hull emerges.

“This looked like a nice opportunity to contribute a little of our technical experience to another school under the disguise of an educational exercise. Not a big leap to see the making of traditional folk instruments being analogous to high-tech boatbuilding.”

Dr. Douglas Dunsmore, interim director of the School of Music, was thrilled about the partnership between budding naval architects and musicians. He said the project helped promote a new awareness of African culture between both divisions.

“Bruce is a lover of music, and a lover of constructional challenges. I think he feels that when one is building anything, if it does not have curves, then it is in danger of being just plain uninteresting,” said Dr. Dunsmore. “When Curtis showed us the fibreglass shell, I felt that we were going to be fine. Bruce is the next thing to a genius when it comes to fibreglass.”

For his part Mr. Andrews said he was just glad the mateze could be made for his students and those who take the drumming course in years to come. He said his students were ecstatic about learning how to play an ancient African instrument.

“They were a little freaked out at first and excited,” he said with a laugh. “The mateze are large and yellow and playing the mbira inside of them takes getting used to, but they enjoyed the increased volume. I can't think of anyone else in Newfoundland or the east coast making these mateze.”


Oct. 26, 7-9 p.m.
DF Cook Recital Hall, Memorial University
Oct. 26, 4-6 p.m.
Jack Byrne Arena
Oct. 26, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
MUN Botanical Garden, 306 Mount Scio Road, St. John's
Oct. 26, 12-2 p.m.
Churchill Park Field
Oct. 27, 6-9 p.m.
The Landing, University Centre, 3rd Floor
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