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The Sole Mbira: An Ecomusicological Critique of Singularity and North American Zimbabwean Music

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Ethnomusicological institutions transform traditional Zimbabwean musics into what is practiced in North America and understood by thousands as “Shona music.” This process produces a false narrative within North America of endangered and scarce
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  157 T OP I  A 3  7   Andrew Mark The Sole Mbira: An Ecomusicological Critique of Singularity and North American Zimbabwean Music ABSTRACT Ethnomusicological institutions transform traditional Zimbabwean musics into  what is practiced in North America and understood by thousands as “Shona music.”  Tis process produces a false narrative within North America of endangered and scarce traditional Zimbabwean musical practices, and these ends serve neocolonial imaginings of the need and right for white stewardship over and charity towards traditional Zimbabwean music(ians). Such a history strikingly reflects dominant and reductive North American settler conceptions of the wilderness, national parks and Indigenous peoples as ecologically vulnerable and in need of protection.  Tough this process has also fostered a worthy musical bond between Africans and North Americans, it has come at the expense of unfettered economic, artistic and political agency for Zimbabwean musicians and instrument builders who transact their traditional musics internationally. Working towards an anti-oppressive, ethno-graphic, ecocritical and ecomusicological approach to interpreting the phenomenon of North American Zimbabwean music, this article addresses the proposal that North America could be an archive for scarce authentic traditional Zimbabwean musics. RÉSUMÉ Les institutions ethnomusicologiques transforment les musiques traditionnelles du Zimbabwe en ce qui est pratiqué et reconnu par des milliers, en Amérique du Nord, comme « Musique Shona ». Ce processus produit, en Amérique du Nord, un récit erroné des pratiques musicales traditionnelles du Zimbabwe en voie de disparition et nourrit l’imaginaire néocolonial sur le besoin et la légitimité d’une intendance blanche et de charité envers les musiciens et les musiques tradition-nelles du Zimbabwe. Une telle histoire souligne les conceptions dominantes et réductives associées à la mentalité coloniale en Amérique du Nord. Les espaces naturels et sauvages, les parcs nationaux et les peuples autochtones sont considérés comme étant écologiquement vulnérables et ayant besoin d’être protégés. Bien que ce processus ait créé un lien musical louable entre Africains et Nord-Américains, il  158 T OP I  A 3  7  s’est développé au détriment du libre-arbitre économique artistique et politique des musiciens et des luthiers zimbabwéens qui ouvrent leurs musiques traditionnelles à l’international. En développant une approche anti-oppressive, ethnographique, écocritique et écomusicologique pour interpréter le phénomène de la musique zim-babwéenne nord-américaine, cet article aborde la question de la constitution d’une archive des musiques authentiques traditionnelles rares du Zimbabwe, en Amérique du Nord. KEYWORDS: ecomusicology; Shona music; mbira; Zimbabwean music; ethnomusicology; conservation; endangered music ¤ Let’s stop pretending it’s all about helping poor mbira players and poor Zimbabweans or altruistically “preserving” Zimbabwean music and music culture. Tis is about the monetization, corporatization and privatization of mbira.—Albert Chimedza, interview, 2016 Introduction In this article I consider “the Zimbabwean Music of North America” (Mupa-rutsa 2013) and narrow North American conceptions of traditional Zimbabwean music. I ask how North America understands Zimbabwean music. Te piece is an ecomusicological, critical anti-oppressive work in that it relies upon discourses of environmental conservation to reveal oppressive norms within the North Ameri-can Zimbabwean music scene. Ongoing extractive violence from North American settlers 1  towards Africa and Africans though material resource exploitation—such as precious metals, diamonds, oil mining and even game hunting—mirrors the dynamics of sociocultural exploitation between these groups (Edmondson 2012; Meintjes 1990; Veal 2000). Tese exchanges are echoes not only of colonization, but of the trauma of slavery, reverberating loudly in the present through the Black Lives Matter movement. Te dynamics of exchange I discuss in this article are not exclusive to Zimbabwe, Africa, or ethnomusicology, or even to music festivals. Rather, my account serves as an example of a much larger set of issues: our ethical obligations to the agency of others in an era of globalization. More to the point, this article is focused on the gaze of northern institutions towards southern cultures. Ethnomusicology’s arbitration of the authenticity of a given music relative to its iterations in festivals, camps, museums and academic programming is a defining problem for the discipline.  159 T OP I  A 3  7  In describing the relationship between environment and music, I advance the idea that the full meaning of music is entangled in processual social production (Becker 1982, 2014). My interests are in the social group-life environmental consequences of musical interaction. I am not alone in this. Musicologists move beyond the imagined aesthetic purity of music or the score as abstracted from participation in order to appreciate the social conditions of musical production (Finnegan 1989; Shepherd 1991, 1998; Small 1998). Additionally, while many ethnomusicologists have worked to achieve Mantle Hood’s bimusicality (1982)—learning a new musi-cal instrument and tradition as a research methodology in what can be a highly abstracted manner—they also recognize musical value as arising from relative cultural tastes. As such, there are numerous (ethno)musicological scholars who tackle issues of differential power within the social dynamics of musical production (among others, see Agawu 2003; Averill 2003, 2004; Rice 2011). In that tradition, I offer an ecocritical approach to explain the social production of North American Zimbabwean music. I look for connections between musical-cultural phenomena and environmental thought by examining social interaction. o this end, in this article I employ three deconstructive environmental and economic justice frame- works: stewardship, charity and resource scarcity.I begin by considering how colonial thought informs environmental stewardship, and I connect stewardship to the early history of Western interest in Zimbabwe and its music. I then discuss aspects of North American patronage and attempted stew-ardship of Zimbabwean music(ians) today. I present evidence that North Americans market the preservation of traditional Zimbabwean music(ians) and instruments as cause-related consumptive charity, not unlike the sale of pink-branded products for breast cancer research (Sweeney and Killoran-McKibben 2016). I then argue that these above processes contribute to an overstated and vague sense that traditional Zimbabwean music is scarce, a narrative that, according to Zimbabwean accounts (Chimedza 2016), is not accurate, and yet is consistent with a much older colonial project of “native administration” (Chikowero 2015). In environmental thought and North American history in particular, the idea of scarcity is attached to roman-tic notions of a diminished natural world including the vanishing or “Ecological Indian” (Sturgeon 2004). I draw out how such frameworks are replicated between North American and Zimbabwean actors. I conclude that North Americans should set aside delineating the authentic parameters of Zimbabwean music and should instead seek allied or accomplice positionality (Osler 2017) on the framing, crea-tion, distribution and economic benefits of Zimbabwean music. Tey should begin this work by listening to what Zimbabweans think about North American repre-sentations of Zimbabwean music(ians). 2   Tis paper advances such goals by inter-rupting dominant North American norms of discourse about Zimbabwean music. For aspects of my argument, I rely heavily on Albert Chimedza, founder and direc-tor of the Mbira Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, “probably Zimbabwe’s only insti-tutionalized mbira outfit” (Chimedza 2016). He and I have held countless hours  160 T OP I  A 3  7  of consultation since 2008. Chimedza’s efforts at the Mbira Centre are singular in promoting mbira music within Zimbabwe. Among so many activities, he has actively lobbied the Zimbabwean government to promote mbira and recognize its significance for Zimbabwe as a resource, helped put mbiras into over twenty-five schools and teacher training colleges in Zimbabwe through the Mbira Centre’s Mbira in Schools project, developed chromatic mbiras and mbiras that work with  Javanese gamelan ensembles, established an annual Mbira Month festival series of activities including an inter-schools mbira games and competition festival, and even overseen a performance of the Zimbabwean national anthem using his chro-matic mbiras for the European Union Day at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare (Chimedza 2012—see minute 10:45). He has worked with rural and urban, traditional and modern mbira practitioners, and significantly, his efforts are not tied to North American patronage.Several authors have recently articulated the healthy—if predictable—fear that ecomusicology might encourage scholars to waltz romantically backwards into a problematic modernist salvage of the naturalization of musical practices and peo-ples, particularly through the potential use of charged descriptors like music ecol-ogy, music sustainability and endangered musics (Gautier 2016; Grant 2014, 2015; Keogh and Collinson 2016; Ochoa 2016). My hope is that with abundant aware-ness of the rhetorical ramifications of such language, ecomusicologists will be able to do quite the opposite: to critique and improve on the ethical progress of all music studies by deconstructing those problematic tropes that remain within the field. Stewardship Ethnomusicologists struggle with the idea of preserving musics (iton 2009), and similarly, environmentalists struggle with preserving nature (Cronon 1995). In both these cases, the public uses ideals of preservation—often abstractly articulated in institutions such as universities and museums—and puts them into everyday prac-tice. For example, Gifford Pinchot helped establish both the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the USA’s National Parks Service, both models of environmental theory and preservation replicated around the world. His grand narrative and ethic translated into the pragmatic management of private and com-munity backyards by individuals and authors such as Aldo Leopold (2001).  Just as ethnomusicologists are responsible for producing and informing North  American Zimbabwean music enthusiasts and the pedagogical institutionalization of Zimbabwean music, the ecological sciences have produced and informed envi-ronmentalists and environmental texts. As with Pinchot’s experience of authority through an academic platform, Dumisani Maraire, sponsored by the University of  Washington’s ethnomusicology program, brought Zimbabwean marimba music to North America. Universities are at the centre of the explanation and production of Zimbabwean music in North America. For example, North America’s Zimfest  161 T OP I  A 3  7  is generally hosted on university grounds, in university dorms, and features eth-nomusicologists as instructors. In both cases—forestry and Zimbabwean music— with respect to conservation and tradition, academics help arbitrate the values, norms and needs of these idealized practices, and universities provide the training grounds for the students to discover what deserves protection. For environment and for culture, then, individual subjectivities and histories become amplified by institutional legitimacy and in turn produce cosmologies that can help power-fully determine what phenomena are considered natural or cultural, and which of these phenomena qualify for protection, replication or eradication. Te very discus-sion of what is recognizable as worthy of protection (Mark and DiBattista 2017) requires political arbitration relative to the contexts in which these environments and musics are situated, abstracted and imagined on campus and how they are then represented to the public sphere as needful of protection more broadly. As political and subjective recommendations for preservation expand outside the theoretical confines of the academy, scholars help determine the stewardship of media several times removed from the context in which they srcinate. As with multitudinous narratives of colonization (see Chikowero 2015; Said 1978), academic abstraction is a dominant manner in which North Americans acquire knowledge of traditional Zimbabwean music.Consider Zimbabwe’s earliest example of ethnomusicological preservation shift-ing to commodification: in the early twentieth century, colonists such as Hugh  racey (1932) began to show systematic interest in documenting a diversity of Indigenous Zimbabwean musics. 3  Tese initial publications set a tone of urgency and interest in universalized aspects of diverse local traditions and the need for documentation in the face of corrosive colonization (racey 1932; 1948; 1961; 1963; 1969; 1970a; 1970b). Garnering a global audience, eventually the racey family began to profit financially and socially from the Indigenous knowledge, instruments and media they collected, fabricated and sold. For example, they devel-oped an internationally successful African-music Broadway show, Wait A Minim!   (Kalimba Magic 2016). Symptomatic of the confluence of charismatic, academic, archival, musical and financial factors I am describing, the International Library of  African Music (ILAM, collected by Hugh racey), African Musical Instruments (AMI, a manufacturing company the racey family founded) 4  and the Hugh racey Kalimba all bear the same iconic lamellaphone logo (ILAM 2013). 5  In the early 1960s, having “lectured on African music around the United States,” Hugh racey met with the executives at Creative Playthings and got his first order for 10,000 kalimbas (Kalimba Magic 2015). oday one can find the Hugh racey Kalimba on  Amazon and eBay, and in most any musical instrument shop in North America, some with a ¼ inch electric pick-up. How should we reconcile the racey legacy of concern for the preservation of authentic African music with the marketing of invented African-Westernized instruments and development of a musical catalogue for export? Te organology of the Hugh racey Kalimba is unquestionably based
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