A small audience gathered this year at a small theater on Duke’s East Campus to hear the story of Moyo, a fine musician and a fine man who was murdered during Zimbabwe’s civil war in the 1970s. The story was told by one of his students, who described returning to Moyo’s village after being away for many years, drawn by rumors that Moyo had died in the war. Sadly, the rumors turned out to be true.

At first, the dispirited family simply tells the student that Moyo went missing. But there is more to the story than that; the weight of gloom that hangs over the family is not only because of the loss of the patriarch, but because they’ve had to live for years with the terrible secret of how he was betrayed by neighbors, who murdered him with the blessing of Robert Mugabe’s army. In time they lead their visitor through the fields to a bare concrete tomb. The student addressed his master’s spirit in formulaic terms of respect, begging forgiveness for having taken so long to return.

On stage, the student picks up an mbira (pronounced m-BEER-ah), the instrument Moyo had taught him to play. Notes gently cascade from the instrument as he sways and sings,

Mbira that gladdened a thousand hearts,
gone missing
And deep in the ground
a voice resounds:
why am I here?

The details that emerge of Moyo’s murder are ugly, but there is beauty in the story as well, with its rich evocation of this generous man’s life and his music. And there is something beautiful about the devotion of student to teacher. The man telling the story is Paul Berliner, the white, American son of a Harvard professor, a professor of ethnomusicology at Northwestern University who was elected this month to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Berliner was a budding young jazz trumpet player in 1967 when he came across a small Ugandan mbira in a shop in Boston. It was a revelation to find such a delicate, melodic instrument from the heart of a continent that is reflexively associated with the muscular rhythm of the drum. Instruments of this type–metal or reed tines mounted on a resonating board so the ends can be plucked with fingertips and with shells or bottle caps to add a buzz–are played throughout sub-Saharan Africa. They come in many shapes and sizes, and go by various names. In English they’re often called “thumb pianos,” a term that seems innocent enough. But imagine if Scotland’s churches, schools, and government offices were taken over by people (Englishmen, say) who held Scottish culture in utter contempt and insisted on calling the bagpipes “elbow accordions”–the natives would not be amused.

The name “thumb piano” brings to mind a toy, not a serious musical instrument, and the ones that typically find their way to import shops in Boston or tourist kiosks in Nairobi do in fact make great little musical toys–anyone can make a pretty noise on them. The Africans themselves use these little kalimbas for casual music making. But in Zimbabwe, at least, the mbira that really matters is a larger instrument that plays an essential role in the spirit possession ceremonies that are fundamental to Shona spirituality. The mbira dzavadzimu is, if anything, closer to the heartbeat of Shona culture than the pipes are to the soul of the Scots. In no way is it a toy.

It was the social and spiritual aspects as much as the sound that drew Berliner into an intensive study of the instrument within a few years of finding it. He was starting graduate studies in music at Wesleyan, one of the few American universities at that time to offer a substantial program in ethnomusicology. Initially his focus was on African-American music. But the mbira was ultimately a greater draw, especially after he arranged for six weeks of study with Dumisani Maraire, the first Zimbabwean musician to hold a visiting artist position at a major American university, which introduced Berliner to the full richness of the music and the culture surrounding it. In 1971, Berliner went to Zimbabwe (at the time the white-ruled country of Rhodesia) to immerse himself in the music and culture.

Berliner’s work there in the early ’70s was the basis for a Ph.D. dissertation in ethnomusicology, which was in turn the basis for his book The Soul of Mbira (some of his field recordings are available on the CDs The Soul of Mbira and Shona Mbira Music, issued by Nonesuch). The book has chapters about the history of the mbira and gives careful, detailed attention to technical aspects of the music. But for the most part, Berliner weaves his observations and the voices of musicians together into a narrative that communicates directly and eloquently why these men chose to play the mbira, how they relate to the instrument, to the music and to each other, how the music effects the musicians and their audience, what it means to them, and more besides. The book makes palpable a vibrant community of musicians and shows the essential role they play in animating community life. Berliner made a conscious decision not to treat his sources as anonymous “informants,” as was usual for anthropological studies at the time. Each is named, and biographies of several of them reinforce their status as the ultimate authorities on the music while also showing how profoundly their lives have been shaped by their calling to the mbira.

One of the first and most important sources was Cosmas Magaya. It was no small trick for a white man to study the mbira in ’70s Rhodesia–obstacles were thrown up from both sides of the racial divide. After some months, though, Berliner arranged an appointment at the home of John Hakurotwi Mude, a prominent musician and bandleader he had heard on Rhodesian radio. Also at Mude’s house that night were two young musicians who played in his ensemble, Magaya and Luken Pasipamire. Sitting at Berliner’s kitchen table in Durham last winter, Magaya told me that when Berliner asked Mude to be his teacher, the master motioned to his young proteges and replied, “You’re going to be taught by my two young brothers who are here.”

In the beginning it was hard. Magaya, first of all, doubted Berliner’s intentions–nothing in his experience suggested that a white man could seriously want to learn to play the mbira. Also, Magaya tried to teach Berliner as he would a Zimbabwean student, but they weren’t getting anywhere–Berliner was an accomplished jazz musician, but he could not hear the beat. It was, according to Magaya, “completely on the wrong side according to his Western ears.”

Teacher and student persevered nonetheless. Berliner proved himself to be a serious student, and, after some adjustments were made in the teaching technique, he began to learn (he is now good enough, according to Magaya, that he sounds to Zimbabwean listeners like a native). At some point, when they had settled into a good working relationship, Berliner happened to mention that he hoped someday they would play the mbira together in the States. Magaya’s face broke into an amiable, crooked smile as he told me the story, and he laughed. “We thought he was joking. We couldn’t imagine we would get to America.”

As things turned out, Magaya has come to the States regularly since 1998, both to play and teach. He has visited Durham several times in the last few years as he and Berliner continue to collaborate on ideas they can trace back to 1971. Both men found that they wanted to codify the music that they have worked on together, to put something on paper to supplement what is passed from teacher to student in the oral tradition of the music. With help from the Ahmanson Foundation and the National Humanities Center in RTP, Berliner developed some ideas for curricular material that could be used to teach mbira at a secondary school level. But that’s only one phase of a much larger project, which is to comprehensively document mbira music in a way that will be useful both to scholars and to performers. The resulting transcriptions spill out of folders piled on Berliner’s desk.

Berliner’s focus shifted back to Zimbabwe after a decade or more researching and writing his 1994 book Thinking in Jazz, in which he devoted the same considered respect to documenting the practices of jazz musicians as he devoted to the mbira. The musicians he knew in Zimbabwe had been through hard times since he met them in the ’70s–first an armed independence movement that turned into a nasty civil war between rival Africanist factions, and then the indignities, brutalities and privations of Mugabe’s interminable kleptocratic rule. He heard rumors of musicians who had been killed, but it wasn’t until he was able to visit Moyo’s village that he found out how bad things had truly been.

Out of that visit grew A Library in Flames: A Tale of Musicians during Zimbabwe’s Independence War, a 75-minute show in which Berliner alternates between telling the story and acting it, often accompanying himself on the mbira or other Zimbabwean instruments. As he talks and sings, images of the country, the people and the war are projected behind him. It took him quite a while to settle on a mode of presentation so far from the well-modulated tone of his academic work. He tried putting it into a lecture with accompanying slides, but simply couldn’t do justice to it that way. As he was starting to imagine a more dramatic form in the fall of 2002, news of the project reached Kathy Silbiger of Duke’s Institute of the Arts. She was putting together a series called The Arts in the Time of War and asked if it could be included. She also hooked him up with theater director Jeffrey Storer, who encouraged Berliner to throw himself bodily into the role. A residency at the John Hope Franklin Center and support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation allowed him to take a leave from Northwestern and devote his attention to doing the story full justice.

Part of the debt that Berliner pays both to Moyo’s spirit and to his family is not to avert his eyes at the end, despite its sickening brutality. Based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, Berliner relates it with his usual clarity. The impact of the terrible event is all the more powerful because he has shown us what was lost. Faced with the usual news and images from Africa, the hollow-eyed refugees and the corpses stacked like cordwood, it is easy to imagine the population there stumbling through life in a daze, physically and emotionally stunted. Berliner gives us instead a full-fledged human being, autonomous, accomplished, sure of himself and his place in the world. Among my favorite moments is Berliner acting out the affectionate back and forth between Moyo and his longtime musical partner–the Zimbabwean version of the dozens. In moments like this, Berliner conveys the fullness, generosity and even the humor of his teacher’s life. Different as Moyo’s world is from ours, it is as rich. For that reason alone the story would be well worth telling.

Embedded in the story is a powerful anti-war message. “It reminds you of the powers that are unleashed in war that you just can’t control,” Berliner says. It was not battle but greedy and jealous neighbors taking advantage of the wartime atmosphere of fear, violence and intimidation that killed Moyo. They enlisted the support of Mugabe’s troops on the pretext that he had once been the local chairman of a rival party, though he had set his politics aside. Berliner had an ominous sense that our government was willfully oblivious to the chaos it was about to unleash as he prepared the show during the ramp-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The war in Zimbabwe hovers in the background of the work Magaya and Berliner do now. For an oral tradition to lose as important a link in the chain as Moyo was a terrible blow. Having witnessed such losses firsthand, Magaya sees thorough, sensitive documentation of the music he has taught to Berliner as an insurance policy for a vulnerable tradition.

There are many in Zimbabwe who must live quietly with the memory of suffering inflicted on them by Mugabe’s troops. Moyo’s relatives are pleased their story is no longer secret, but they’d like it to be told closer to home. Would Zimbabweans be open to such a story if it came from the mouth of a white man? Many would find it difficult, no doubt–the sight of a white man so thoroughly immersed in Shona culture would present a healthy challenge in such a racially polarized country. But the way the family has opened up to Berliner, and the positive reactions of Zimbabweans in this country who have seen the performance, suggests that many others would be able to see past the messenger to the truth of the message. Shamelessly demonizing whites and sanctifying war veterans are political reflexes that have served Mugabe far too well for him to tolerate even the smallest conciliatory gesture. But he can’t hang on to his deathgrip forever, and Berliner may yet be able to invoke Moyo’s spirit among the people who knew him, repaying a debt of generosity both to the man and to the country. EndBlock

The names of some Zimbabweans have been changed to protect them and their families from government reprisals.

Hear Magaya and Berliner playing the mbira: www.indymusicawards.com/resources