MOZAMBIQUE Venancio Mbande Orchestra: Timbila Ta Venancio
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Timbila is a xylophone-like instrument and the name of the rhythmic music that comes from the Chopi people of rural Mozambique. One of the last living masters of the timbila drum orchestra is Venancio Mbande. He is 70 years old, lives in a small village without electricity or modern amenities, but his skills as an ensemble leader, musician and master of the timbila tradition are undeniable.
In the fall of 2000, Finnish musician Eero Koivistoinen, with two engineers and a small digital recording van rented from South Africa, traveled to the town of Quissico in the Zavala district some 300 km north of Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. This is where Mbande lives and his 28-piece band is based. There, they set up equipment, made arrangements with the band about how they would record and gave a live pig to the group as part of the recording agreement. The pig became the catering during the live field recording and the resulting session heard on Timbila Ta Venancio is an intoxicating cacophony of timbila sounds and rhythm. And it is all captured live under the Mozambique sun and stars over two days during an evening session and the following morning.
Making a powerful and sublime impression with their precision and skill, Venancio Mbande's timbila orchestra is peerless. The maestro was born in 1930 and despite living in a remote Mozambique village, Mbande speaks fluent English, which he learnt working in South Africa. Under the guidance of his uncle and other relatives, he learned to play the timbila at age six (the family tradition is still going strong: several of his 14 children are in Mbande's orchestra). At 18, Mbande started to work in the gold mines of South Africa. He gathered his first timbila orchestra in 1956 and also started to compose. This is how his work as a successor of the musical tradition of the Chopi tribe began. His various bands have given education to hundreds of musicians and dancers.
During Mozambique's Civil War (1975-95) Mbande's orchestra was the only one regularly playing timbila. In 1995 Mbande retired from the mines and returned to live in the house he built for himself and his family in Chopiland where he also established a timbila school. His music is part of a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Originally it was village chiefs who maintained bands that performed orchestral series called Mgodo. Venancio Mbande is now one of the last masters continuing this tradition.
Timbila is a music that dates back hundreds of years (first documented by a Portuguese missionary in 1560). The foremost characteristic of timbila is the instrument. The Chopi people's mbila, singular for timbila, is a unique instrument in the music of the Bantus of the Southern Africa continent. The xylophone and marimba are the Western variants of this remarkable instrument, born much later than its timbila ancestor.
Made from the wood of the Mwenje tree, the timbila comes in different types depending on their tone. It uses heptatonian tuning which means that an octave is divided into seven roughly equal intervals. The music itself is a vibrant mesh of rhythms and whistles, dancing and drumming.
A group orchestral suite, Ngodo, is usually renewed about every two years. In general, the topics of the lyrics deal with current issues. But it always starts with an introduction by a solo timbila. For this live field recording session, Mbande's orchestra took its customary places in the shade of two big trees. In front of them was an open square for the dancers. Like the visual splendor of South Africa's Zulu dances, it is a remarkable feat to witness and hear. On the whole, Ngodo resembles music theatre and ballet. However, the leading role in this colourful form of art is the music.
On Timbila Ta Venancio, producer Eero Koivistoinen has achieved something truly amazing. He has caught the spirit of Timbila Music. Listening to it is almost like being there under the hot sun. If you're a World Music fan, you owe it to yourself to hear this great master of this unheralded African tradition captured in all his sage splendour.