This is a short description of a Zimbabwean ceremony of the Shona people called the ‘Bira’ told from the experience of Dingiswayo Juma when growing up in the tradition and playing at ceremonies as an mbira player. There is much to be said about this topic, we could write books about it! So this article is to highlight certain aspects of the ceremony. Terms provided are from the Shona language.
At the bira ceremony people come together to enjoy each others company, dance, sing and play music, pay respects and speak to their ancestors. One or more spirit mediums will be present to channel the voices of the ancestor spirits to the people. Often there are many people attending the ceremony of all ages. The Shona culture is based on ancestors and the bira ceremony is primarily held because people want to receive information from the ancestors. Maybe there has been family issues, deaths, disputes or problems that they want to solve. Another reason could be when living conditions have been good and the people want to thank and appreciate the ancestors. At the ceremony people may also ask other questions around life and seek answers for those. For example about parenthood or when it will be the right time for adolescents to enter an adult initiation ceremony.
The mbira music
The Mbira music at the ceremony will be played by 2 – 6 mbira players, 1 drummer (ngoma drum), 1 – 4 shaker players (hosho shakers) and the other people who will be participating by singing, dancing and clapping. The mbira music creates a platform to call the ancestors to join the ceremony and entertainment. It makes the people sing and dance and enables them to go into trance. For the spirit mediums the trance leads them to connect to the ancestors.
The meaning of ‘mbira’ in Shona is ‘voice of the ancestors’ and the instrument is a main feature of the bira ceremony. The musicians need to be strong players as the playing hours are long and the tempo is high. They can swop to take a break or to eat, while the music will be continuous ongoing during the ceremony. The songs that are played are according to the time of day to appeal to the spirits that are present that time of the day.
In the morning, songs for the day and water spirits would be played. For example the song ‘Chegwaya’, meaning ‘brim’ (a fish). In the afternoon songs will focus on hunting spirits such as the song ‘Nyamaropa’, which means ‘bloody meat’. In the evening, when the people talk and socialise, more light-hearted songs will be played such as the song ‘Chipembere’, named after the Rhinoceros. At night around 2 – 3am when the biggest ancestor spirits arrive to the ceremony the oldest and most traditional songs will be played such as ‘Bangiza’ (no translation available). These old ancestor spirits prefer black and white colour, so often spirit mediums will be dressed in black and white. Another song could be ’Nhemamusasa’, meaning ‘starting of temporary shelter’ that celebrates the beginning of the day. The mbira repertoire is very extensive and during the play the songs, variations, parts and vocal lines are passed on by the more experienced players to the younger and less experienced participants. This way mbira songs are aurally taught to the next generation by having them listen and improvise to the music.
Video of mbira music with musicians Ambuya Nyati (Judith Juma), Dingiswayo Juma and Ritchard Muchinkanda.
The setting of the ceremony
The ceremony will take place at the rondavel, a round house (see picture). The mbira players will sit on the side opposite the door, the drummer is in the middle and the dancers circulate around the drummer. The hosho (shaker) players stand/dance inbetween the dancers. As the people enter the rondavel the women will go to the left and the men to the right. Children under 18 years will mix in with both sides.
The ceremony often proceeds all night long and can last from 7pm to 2pm the next day. The children are allowed to stay up as late as they want as long as they are enjoying themselves. When they get sleepy the adults will bring them to the children’s rondavel to sleep. Sometimes adults fall asleep during the ceremony in the rondavel. The dancers will dance around the sleeping person. If there a lot of wild dancers they will move you to a quiet corner so you do not risk getting hurt.
Diner will take place between 6 – 8pm. Vegetables, meat and ‘sadza’ (mealie meal or ‘pap’) is the staple diet. The women prepare the sadza and vegetables. The vegetables would be a mix of vegetables such as ‘covo’, a Zimbabwean green leaf vegetable. The men will slaughter a cow, goat or sheep and prepare the meat. It is then roasted above the fire. If the gathering is big the men will prepare the sadza. To make the sadza they will choose two strong men to stir in a giant pot with two giant wooden spoons called ‘mugoti’. Traditionally all food would be made in clay pots and served in clay plates. Nowadays bone, wood and metal plates are commonly used as well and a 2 liter drum can be used to make a large quantity of sadza.
Sadza can be either brown or white. It is a thick type of porridge that is taken with the fingers to eat the meat and vegetables with. The brown, traditional sadza is made from sorghum or rapoko (‘mapfunde’) and the white sadza flour is made of maize. In the past the seeds would be crushed by hand on stone, these days machine-crushed maize/sorghum meal is readily available in most shops. The adults will be drinking traditional beer called ‘doro’. Doro is brewed from fermented sorghum (‘zviyo’) or white/yellow corn (‘chibake’).
Summary of a Shona ‘bira’ ceremony:
- invite a lot of people (the dancers and singers)
- have musicians, mbira players, drummer, hosho players
- brew traditional beer
- slaughtering of a cow / goat / sheep depending on what ritual and what is available
- preparing of the food for everybody
- paying respects to the ancestors, spirit mediums who will channel the ancestors voices
- all night ceremony where people connect and communicate with their ancestors and seek information or help from them