“Mbira” is the word for “thumb piano” in the Shona language of Zimbabwe. Mbira is also the name of a trio of musicians created in the spirit of the Shona story-telling tradition by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Joining him in the trio is Min Xiao-Fen, Japanese pipa player and singer, and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff. The title of Mbria’s recording, Dark Lady of the Sonnets, stems from Smith’s poem of the same title referring to Blues singer, Billie Holiday.
As with anything he does, Smith approaches the music making with the utmost integrity. Smith’s choice of instruments to include the four-string wooden lute-like Japanese pipa to play in combination with the trumpet, flugelhorn and standard drum set, is more concerned with how distinctly different sound voices relate to each other than with their ethnic origins.
The high-pitched non-resonant quick strumming of the pipa matched with the elegant slow tempo unraveling of a melody from the trumpet becomes the first piece, “Sarah Bell Wallace,” the name of Smith’s late mother. Its opening and closing bracket a lively, rhythmic body which serves to magnify the timbral differences as well as the similarities among the instruments. The latter is proven throughout the recording by the ways in which each instrument is played: Smith rings in vibratos, trills, and tremolos over the taut incessant plucking of the pipa. The drums continue with as much intensity as is transferred by the pipa with, for example, the closed-off claps of the hi-hat coordinated with the rattling of the cymbal in endless cascades.
The evolution of the tunes is unpredictable, but careful listening can unveil the conversation that is occurring. The instruments answer to one another, correspond in sonic intention, and come together in joyful glory. More than once, “Zulu Water Festival” bursts open with exuberance, not so much in pace and volume, but with the spiritual shape the major thematic tune assumes.
The Blues are contextual. Min Xiao-Fen vocalizes more than once on the album and, especially when she sings Smith’s poem “Dark Lady of the Sonnets,” she is singing in a manner that is out of context in relation to how Billie Holiday would sing. From this perspective, Smith is saying that no matter how the blues sound, they exist in every culture. It is the web of how the music grows around the idea of the blues that reveals what they can be…that tells the story that can be told.
copyright 2012 Lyn Horton
Sarah Bell Wallace; Blues: Cosmic Beauty; Zulu Water Festival; Dark Lady of the Sonnets; Mbira.