71. Not African Enough

Published on 4 July 2024 at 12:45

© 2024 Robert Sickles

The first musical instrument I ever made was an African mbira. They are also known as thumb pianos because you play them by plucking the metal reeds as shown in the photo. I had met some South African musicians in New York when I was a teenager and learned a bit about their music and how they made their own instruments. They were performing on Broadway in a revue called “Wait a Minim!” Manhattan was a short bus ride from my home, so I travelled into the city several times to hang out with the troupe during and after their performances. I thought it would be so cool to “run away with the circus” and become African!  (If you’ve been reading, by now you know I was a weird kid.) After the show ended and they returned to their homeland, I kept up correspondence with a couple of those guys for many years.

I began tinkering at Dad’s workbench in our cellar and after a couple of tries I had a somewhat playable mbira. There was a whole lot of noise in the project because the metal reeds made of heavy-gauge wire had to be tempered by hammering and made into the tapered shape. Obviously, I could only work when Mom and Dad were not home. I was in high school then and gained a solid Oddball reputation because I performed a few times for my fellow students. Shout out to fellow Morris Knolls High Schoolers… do any of you remember?

Moving on to college, I made my first friend on campus because he saw me playing my mbira and had to come see what I was up to. That was Kelly Mulford, the artist I wrote about a while back who had a very big influence on my life and career.  More about Kelly in a minute.

On campus, I made the acquaintance of recent arrival Abraham Dumi Maraire, teacher of music and a native of Zimbabwe. He was delighted that I had experience in mbira making because he was planning to teach it in a new class at the U and needed help producing several mbiras for his students. We had a few discussions about setting up a shop and a business plan, when suddenly he told me we couldn’t work together, the deal was off. He was very apologetic, saying he was not fully aware of the reality of things in the US. He’d been leaned on by some powerful and politically correct university folks, informing him that I wasn’t African enough to be involved in the project. All right, I had to give them that. There was no way I could hide the fact that I was 100% northern European.  I regret missing my opportunity to partner with Mr. Maraire. He went on to be a very popular teacher. Later, he was very well known in the Northwest for introducing African rhythms and dance with the marimba bands that now pop up around the country.

After we were out of college, my buddy Kelly wanted to help me start making mbiras so we could sell them at this newfangled idea, a big sidewalk art and craft event in Seattle, the inaugural University District Street Fair. Sounded good to me.

Early one chilly spring morning we headed off with our tools and supplies to the railroad tracks along the canal near my apartment. “Why railroad tracks?” you ask.

Well, as I said, there’s a lot of metalsmithing work to be done with heavy hammers. The lack of both an anvil and the money to buy one led us to the idea of using the lovely hardened steel of the rusty rail siding for our work.

We were happily pounding away just under the old Fremont Bridge when were heard the bullhorn command to “stop what you’re doing, drop your weapons and get down to your knees with your hands on your heads!” Six Seattle policemen in full protective armor fanned out to surround us with guns drawn. Kelly and I were shoved to a cement wall where we were frisked and interrogated. It was surreal when the cops finally realized we were just a couple of bozos trying to make musical instruments, and the energy shifted to jovial. One cop revealed they had gotten a hot tip. “An elderly lady was walking across the bridge, looked below and saw a band of radical hippies tearing up the railroad tracks!” Mind you, this was 1970, in the era when bands of radical hippies were indeed tearing things up. I shouldn’t fault the elderly pedestrian nor the police for jumping to that assumption.

Kelly and I were released with a pat on the back and a friendly suggestion not to trespass nor deface railway property, and to save up our money to go buy a proper anvil. But that “up against the wall, mother***er!” stuff still infects my nightmares.

Kelly and I were flat broke at the time, so the production of mbiras came to a stop and our will to sell them at the street fair or anywhere else evaporated. Yet another opportunity to be a professional mbira maker drifted by!

The thought of manufacturing them is gone. I still have three different types of mbira, all "in the shop" for maintenance or overhaul.

In some unlikely scenario, I still see myself playing my mbira, entertaining an audience with my riffs of African music.  Is it OK that I’m sort of technically, uh not exactly… mmm not at all, actually… African?


Sound of the Mbira

Africans sometimes play mbira in a group. Each player takes a different path, adding layers of complexity and syncopation within the beat and melody. Percussion and singing join in for all-night sessions that aim to focus spiritual connection to ancestors.

This example is from Zimbabwe.

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9 days ago

Well I'd agree that you are not African enough. Too bad about that. Do you still have your mbira? African or not you could still play for us, or least for me.

Kathy M
9 days ago

You've always been so creative with musical instruments. I remember you making something fun while in your Kirkland apartment...around the time you were doing your beautiful scrimshaw. Seems surreal that you couldn't work with that U professor due to your "pale" color!

Miss Mary
8 days ago

This is a hoot! Another unplanned adventure.
My first intro to the mbira was on my first date with my ex-husband. We went downtown to a club to hear Taj Mahal who was at that time heavily into his African roots. He played the mbira and African music with finesse. His music has evolved over the years to more of Caribbean blues vein. Perhaps that’s why he is permanent guest musician on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruises that sail the islands in the Caribbean! 🤔😄