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Through music and a grassroots organization for girls, ethnomusicology grad student Jennifer Kyker is making things happen in Zimbabwe.


Harare, Zimbabwe, early May 2010.
Our rattling silver Toyota makes a sharp right turn and careens to a stop on the dusty roadside near a fence constructed of old car parts. In front of us is a shabby warehouse-like building, built for male workers during apartheid, now housing entire families in single rooms. Across the street is the seething Mbare marketplace where we are headed.

“Look straight ahead,” Jennifer Kyker tells me as we shoulder through the crowd, the only two white women in sight. Everyone ogles Kyker, a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Penn. Thirty years old, long-legged, blue-eyed, honey-haired, she moves with quick authority, utterly at home here in Zimbabwe.

Like Alice sliding down the rabbit hole we’re finally delivered inside where, for the moment, we are pleasantly ignored. It is a vast, mobbed space, partly roofed, partly open-air, redolent of dust and body odor, everyone intent on the merchandise. Stalls arranged in long rows are spread with all manner of items: jeans, skirts, shoes, sunglasses, CDs, books, jewelry. In one section people rummage through a mountain of wrinkled clothing; other areas display cheap Chinese imports. It is part Goodwill, part Manhattan’s Canal Street.

I try to keep pace with Kyker, who strides ahead of me, weaving past women carrying gigantic loads on their heads, babies cinched to their backs. We make our way to the rear of the market, where the indigenous products are sold: beads and scarves for religious ceremonies, decorative spears, stone snuff bottles, herbal remedies. Fewer people browse here—we have more room to move.

Kyker is looking at musical items: the finger organs called mbira that play a central role in traditional Zimbabwean music; mateme, the calabash—or plexiglass—bowl in which the mbira is placed to help the sound resonate; and hollowed gourds to make into hosho, the shakers that often accompany mbira music. She chats with each vendor, greeting them warmly in Shona—one of the principal languages of Zimbabwe—saying things that provoke laughter. One man sits next to a waist-high stack of roots, twigs, and variously colored powders. I try to ask him what they are used for, but his English is minimal, and my Shona is nonexistent.

Soon our attention is drawn to the music streaming from a booth across the aisle. Kyker has picked up an mbira and begun to play with the stall owner; they concentrate deeply, their instruments producing a complex polyphony, resonant and meditative.

The mbira, a sacred instrument in Shona culture, is a medium for summoning ancestors and spirits. It is not easy to master. Kyker’s Zimbabwean mbira teacher, Sekuru Chigamba, tells me that Kyker’s command of the instrument is greatly enhanced by her deep knowledge of Shona.

“The music is like a language,” says Maggie Donahue, an early music mentor of Kyker’s and founder of Kutsinhira, an organization in Eugene, Oregon devoted to playing and preserving Zimbabwean music. “There’s a subtlety of rhythm. There’s a sensibility to the tonality up and down. She hears all that. When you get to engage with this music at its source in ceremonies and religious rituals, your mind stops—you’re fully concentrated, you’re fully aware, you’re fully present, and this beautiful thing happens that is spiritual.”

A small crowd has gathered. Everyone is aware that something unusual is taking place. Kyker, oblivious to the crowd, remains immersed in the music, and soon she begins to sing in Shona, her voice assertive, almost male-sounding.

After half an hour the music subsides, and Kyker chats with those who have gathered as if they are old friends. Everyone is riveted by this American woman who speaks Shona so fluently, who can enter this foreign marketplace so confidently, who picks up an indigenous instrument and plays it not only well, but with a feel for the instrument that Chigamba suggests is close to mastery.

“I often feel as if I’m a Zimbabwean stuck with an American passport,” Kyker says.

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FEATURE: Spreading Hope and Music By Cai Emmons
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

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