(written by Denver Banda based on a 2003 interview, edited by Erica Azim)
Fradreck Mujuru, of the Maungwe Clan, was born 31 October 1955, in Dewedzo, Rusape, Zimbabwe.
Fradreck is the second child in a family of three boys and one girl. Mujuru grew up at Dambatsoko, his grandfather's village, after the separation of his parents. The environment was full of traditional rituals and rites because Muchatera Mujuru, Fradreck's grandfather, was a revered spirit medium. The village was a melting pot for many mbira musicians who came to play for the Muchatera's spirit, such that at any time of the day mbira might be heard.
Mujuru grew up with a keen interest in the instrument, because it was held in high esteem. He was also motivated by what mbira music did to those who played and listened at the family's annual bira ceremony conducted by Muchatera. At the age of eight, Fradreck pestered Joseph Chidemo to teach him how to play. At first, Chidemo was not interested in teaching him, but when he saw how persistent the boy was, he began to teach him. The outcome was great approval from the elders. Instead of just fiddling around with the mbira, Mujuru began to play with a goal in mind, since good play meant an invitation into the banya (house of ceremonies).
Mujuru attended elementary school at St. Theresa Catholic Mission School. The Christian establishment did not take kindly to pupils who played traditional music. Remembering the trouble that had befallen his relative Fungai, Fradreck did not disclose that he knew how to play mbira. Instead, he joined the Choral Music Club and he was an active member of the Church Marching Drums, whose music was Western-oriented.
In 1969, disaster struck. Fradreck failed to continue his education due to lack of funds for school fees. For the next two years. Fradreck worked as a general hand on the farms around the Rusape area. During his spare time, he played mbira with the musicians and rural elders who frequented the homestead of Muchatera Mujuru, as his mbira style matured. At all the functions that he played at, the spirits were possessed.
"Midzimu (ancestors) and the participants were so happy with our stable and homogenous playing style to the extent of having to encore some pieces over a dozen times !"
"The participants would appear to be in a trance of sorts when the music was at its height, swaying in the midst of the multitude of soulful rhythms."
This period saw the development of Fradreck's doctrine of mbira playing: always play the way you were taught, without adding Western instruments, without harmonizing voices...no pop music, it has to be just hosho, makwa (handclapping), mbira poetry, and the mbira itself.
In 1972, Fradreck was accepted into the prestigious circle of mbira musicians at Dambatsoko who played for Muchatera. Among them were Ephat, Fungai, Samuel, Munyaradzi, Komboni, Musekiwa and Killian Mujuru; Fradreck and Cletos Manjengwa and Charles Mutwira.
The Chimurenga war of liberation was gathering momentum in rural Zimbabwe and social gatherings were closely monitored. Anything with political connotations was deemed unfavorable by the colonial establishment...this did not spare the traditional biras and dandaros (nighttime and daytime ceremonies). In the heat of the tense times, the war claimed many casualties, including Mujuru's grandfather, Muchatera.
The young Fradreck moved to Harare (then Salisbury) in 1974, where he stayed and teamed up with his cousin Ephat Mujuru. Fradreck and Ephat built a reputation for themselves, and played ceremonies almost every weekend. At the ceremonies, Fradreck met musicians from all over Zimbabwe and expanded his repertoire. There were also mockery and jeers from peers in the city who saw the music as not progressive. Fradreck recalls the times as those of great education in terms of the mbira, and that there was no remuneration for most of their efforts -- it was a hobby they pursued vigorously, and at many functions they would help the hired musicians during their rest breaks.
During the same year, Fradreck started correspondence school, and his hunger for education was quenched when he took courses in Junior Management and Supervisory Development at the Institute of Management. In 1978, he was working at Benk Investments, a plastic manufacturing firm, as a general hand, then was promoted to production controller. The following year he began work at the Harare Bridge Club as a waiter.
Zimbabwe's independence resurrected the old traditional rituals and rites that had been put on hold in the Mujuru family after the death of Muchatera. In 1982, ceremonies resumed with the guidance of Muvirimi, a mhondoro spirit that came through Alois Taonezvi Mujuru (1945-2002) and Mushawatu, who came through Patricia Manjengwa, who has been closely related to the main Mujuru family line. The revival of the annual biras was a welcome relief to many, giving them the opportunity to pray and communicate with their ancestors. Fradreck has not missed a single family bira ever since they were revived in 1982.
Fradreck got his first personal instrument from Ephat Mujuru in 1981. Before that, he was using instruments from other ensembles when they played at functions. Fradreck remembers:
"The instrument I got from Ephat blistered my fingers badly and the arrangement of the keys on the soundboard was not at all even...playing them was very difficult."
Fradreck vowed to improve on the instrument and inspiration for this came from the recurring dreams of his late grandfather. With great willpower, Fradreck apprenticed with Sekuru Gora (Thomas Wadharwa) and then Thomas Muda from Hwedza, who emphasized the need for quality instruments. The first mbira Fradreck made was not good, and he had to rebuild it four times before it was satisfactory. Mujuru began to specialize in making the mbira in Dambatsoko tuning, which has been played by the Mujurus for generations. According to Fradreck, the tuning was called "Madhebhe" at the Chitungwiza court of Chaminuka and he adopted the name "Dambatsoko" because it was the sound for his granfather's spirit (buried at Dambatsoko). Word quickly spread about the instruments that Fradreck was making, and his customers first came in trickles but then began to flood him with orders. He believes that the success of his instruments comes from the fact that he prioritizes sound quality, appearance and durability of the instrument.
"Mass-producing mbira only leads to low quality instruments with an unrefined sound. To me, each instrument has a special place because I make it to be a unique companion for life for its owner."
Fradreck inspects the wood of the Mubvamaropa tree thoroughly before purchasing it for mbira making. The Zimbabwe College of Music had their set of nyamaropa tuning instruments made by Fradreck in 1989, and then smaller karimbas. When Fradreck left his job in 1992, he turned to making mbira instruments for a living. MBIRA has helped him to make this a great success. Mujuru can now afford to send all his children to school (two of his sons are presently university students) and and also helps many other children in his home village to attend school. Fradreck has taught his sons the art of mbira making and they are currently learning how to play with the dexterity of their father.
The most important thing to Fradreck about the mbira is that it is a holy instrument used to pass information to and from the ancestors and God -- he preaches this to his students and anyone who loves mbira music. He reminds them that they should play the mbira and not keep it as a curio in their display cabinets.
"When I play mbira I will be speaking to the ancestors. Overseas I play for the spirits of their lands, in mind I play for their ancestors."
Over the years he has come to notice that he has not as many problems as those that used to plague him when he was still working in private companies. He has come to revere the importance of the spirits, and he says that his religion is his culture. Masangano is Fradreck's favorite song because it reminds him of his grandfather, who visited him in a dream when he floated on a cloud walking towards his grave.
Fradreck Mujuru's mbiras are now world-famous, and his instruments are included in the cllections of museums.
The death of Ephat Mujuru was a blow to Fradreck and he wants to clear the misunderstandings by saying that he did not leave his relative when he passed on.
On his first U.S. visit in 2001, Fradreck and his brother, Sam, were visiting artists at Grinnell College, Iowa, as well as Williams College, Massachusetts. Fradreck subsequently performed at the Zimbabwe Music Festival in the US in 2003 and 2004, and gave performances and workshops through MBIRA.
Recordings Available From MBIRA