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Tale of sacred instrument mbila set for big screen

WHEN he was still a young man 60 years ago JK Mathoho spent R2, considered a small fortune during those time to buy himself the mbila – an implement widely revered as a musical instrument of the gods.

Mathoho now enjoys legendary status for his prowess on the instrument in his native Venda (now Vhembe district) in Limpopo.

Now the story of the man is captured for posterity in a documentary film titled Mutoli wa Mbila na VhaVenda vho-JK Mathoho, ‘the joy of mbila with Vhavenda Vho-JK Mathoho’ in English.

The film’s director Thivhilaeli Makatu said the documentary has received funding from the Regional Government of Flanders in Belgium, besides the seed funding from the National Film and Video Foundation (Nfvf).

Makatu said consequently, the film due for release at the end of August/beginning of September 2021, will be shown at the annual Afrika Film Festival held at the university town of Leuven in Belgium.

The mbila known also as mbira, dipela, kilembe and likembe in other indigenous African languages, is no ordinary instrument.

The mbira was apparently bestowed upon the Shona by the Great Rainmaker and its sound reminds the Shona of this watery heritage by closely imitating rain or running water. Photo: Mukurukuru Media

This is how SA’s National Museum of History: Ditsong Museum describes the instrument and its significance to people, their land and spirituality: “The mbira was apparently bestowed upon the Shona by the Great Rainmaker and its sound reminds the Shona of this watery heritage by closely imitating rain or running water. The mbira is also made from elements in nature, from a block of wood with several metal keys attached to the surface and played within a gourd resonator or on its own. The metal keys were often recycled agricultural metals initially smelted from the specific mineral. Thus, each component of this object links it to natural resources of the land.”

The Ditsong Museum also adds that “before colonisation, the mbira was regarded as a sacred instrument, especially among the Zezuru people of central Mashonaland region surrounding the capital Harare (Zimbabwe). The advent of Christianity resulted in the indigenous people demonising the mbira instrument as it was associated with profane music.”

In the last half century Zimbabwean musicians and artists Dumisani Maraire, his daughter Chiwoniso Maraire and the legendary Thomas Mapfumo have taken the mbira sound beyond the borders of their motherland to the world.

According to the makers of this documentary Vhavenda Vho-JK Mathoho, plays the ‘mbila dza vhadzimu’ artform.

The mbira/mbila is played through most of southern and north-east Africa but in Southern Africa it is widely played in the south-east of Zimbabwe, central east of Mozambique and the north-east of South Africa in the Vhembe region “to entertain, educate and as a medium to talk to ancestors.”

The film’s executive director Dolphin Mabale said the documentary was “inspired by growing appreciation of traditional music abroad and other far-flung places and, regrettably, with very little support at home.”

Mabale, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Venda worked with producer, former diplomat Thivhilaeli Makatu and director of photography and videographer Mmbangiseni Ravele to put together the 45-minute film.

They employed 10 youths to assist with the production, from camera, lighting, sound, and general managing of the project “as part of skills empowerment.” 

Mabale said the filming which started in early May was funded by the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) as part of the Presidential Economic Stimulus Package (PESP) Covid-19 relief.

The narrative follows Vhavenda Vho-JK Mathoho’s journey from when he started playing the mbila in 1960 after buying the only set he has to date for R2.00 from a Tshidumbumukwe Ramabulana, a master crafter of the instrument at the time.

“Young JK wanted to play this instrument of the gods, which is played widely in the African continent, yet not well known as many other musical instruments, due to marginalisation

“Yet mbila finds its way in many musical compositions, albeit culturally appropriated and oftentimes in its adulterated form,” said Mabale.

The story is told to the backdrop of the picturesque Venda landmarks such as the sacred Lake Fundudzi, the historical Dzata Ruins, whose stone walls are built by soap stones from Great Zimbabwe and the Thathe Holy Forest among others.

The interviews are conducted in TshiVenda with English subtitles.

The doccie on social media:

Facebook: Mutoli wa Mbila na Vhavenda Vho-JK Mathoho

Twitter: @MutoliWaMbila

Instagram: @MutoliWa

and under these hashtags:







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