Have you ever heard someone say “Music says a lot about a culture”? Or that you can learn so much about a place just by looking at its music? I used to say “Yeah, sure,” and nod and smile, thinking to myself, “whatever….” But that was before I landed here. That was before I met Julius Zawose, and before I bought my first mbira, or finger piano (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mbira). Ever since, I’ve started to realize that there might be some importance to those words…

I got introduced to the Zawose family by an American couchsurfer, who had come to Bagamoyo for the sole reason of meeting this infamous Tanzanian family, known throughout the country for their traditional music. The most well known is Julius Zawose, one of the patriarchs of the family, who despite his limp makes up for whatever physical awkwardness with his graceful and musical fingers and voice. I only went to watch him play, but ended up getting a mbira (they call it “malimba” around here) shoved into my hand, and low and behold, the addiction started. I started coming back for my fix every week.

The thing I like best about malimba is it reminds me a little of my first instrument, the piano, but in a completely different situation. Instead of sitting in front of a giant machine, my new instrument is the size of a super thick paperback book, so I take it with me all the time, to hide on the beach and practice. It’s got a really interesting sound, and the feel of it under your fingers is enticing….The most striking difference of all though, was the actual initiation into playing. When I learned piano, the structure was simple: you learned how to read notes, and then you could play songs, from start to finish. Malimba, if taught by Julius Zawose, doesn’t work that way at all. The first few days he taught me the basic notes to a song, the chorus line if you will, and then for months after, it was a method of learning combinations of notes. With each combination, you could play it virtually anywhere in the song, and combine it with even more combinations of tunes to add to the base line. If you wanted to, the song could go on forever, almost circular, repeating and recycling the sounds you just learned. It sounds crazy, but it actually made sense, and the more you learn, the cooler the song sounds. I technically moved on to a second song, but Julius and I revisited and added even more to the first song…..

So what does this say about Tanzania? It says a lot about how they learn things here. People learn a lot by doing, as I did. It’s not a matter of reading the instructions and following through, it’s a matter of feeling, and doing and acting to learn. And when you do learn something, it can constantly change, or be changed by you or others. Nothing really begins with you, and nothing truly finishes. The more I write about this, the more I realize this could be what we call “tradition,” which is universal, especially in music and dance. Not something you come across very often these days, or perhaps the practice of learning said traditions is a little less…well, traditional. All I know is, when I’m playing my malimba, I don’t think about this. I can be in a trancelike state, focused completely on making the music, realizing that the possibilities are endless, and that there are no rules. Maybe that’s Tanzanian after all.