Sunday at dusk in a lush and verdant garden aglow with fireflies, I sat next to the mbira master, Chartwell Dutiro , and experienced a kinship transcending time and cultures. I had come to hear his concert and was fortunate to have a few moments to speak with him. We shared our tradtions and stories about our work with them. He spoke about the mbira as a means of communication with the ancients. In the Shona culture, it is as a telephone to the ancestors. Chartwell counseled me to speak to my ancestors directly, to thank them for their traditions and to ask them how to best honor it and carry it forward to the world. He said that whenever I am discouraged, in need of advice or just want help finding my way with the music to go to my ancestors and listen to them. His sage advice came after I shared this story with him:
For me, there has always been a connectedness to my ancestors. When I first began to study the drumming and dance, I paid a visit to my father and brought up the subject in conversation. "Good for you!" my father boomed happily, "you SHOULD drum. It's what the women DO." He added matter-of-factly, "It's their tradition."
His words left me a bit foggy so I shook my head and asked him what, exactly was he saying. "I mean that drumming is the women's tradition." He added, "Your grandmother drummed. So did her mother, your great-grandmother. Don't you remember Grandma's drum hanging on the wall of her house?" I had to admit that, no, I didn't remember that drum. I was only two when my paternal grandmother passed so my memories of her are limited and shadowy. My father went on to tell me that, of course, her drum was from Sicily and that her mother was known in her town of Sciacca for her drumming AND folk dancing!
My family recollected so many stories through the years and I thought I had filed them all in my memory. This, however, was a completely new chapter in our history. We didn't know what happened to that drum or at least to its frame as so many years had passed since it was last seen. I understood immediately that if I couldn't hold my grandmother's drum in my hands, at least I could keep her spirit in my heart. The presence of my grandmother and my great-grandmother is always with me when I drum, sing and dance. It is not something that is facilely shared with the general public. Although, sometimes after a show, people come up to me and ask, "..but for you, where does it come from?" If I sense they'll understand, I may tell them about my grandmothers who are always with me.
How wonderful to have met Chartwell and to have heard his music! How delightful to have been in the company of one who understands that our ancestors are always near us and always guiding us. It was an extraordinary evening, It was a night when I felt the construct of time dissolve into a flowing stream where there was no past or future, but only a shared present - a present in which traditions dwell, shift, evolve and endure.