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Gwenyambiras, At Large

Musekiwa Chingodza is an international phenomenon occuring every other year in the U.S. and Canada. Chingodza, a dancer, singer and mbira master from Murehwah, Zimbabwe, is known for his teaching and spirited performances all over the U.S., and particularly in Eugene, where his protégé Bud Cohen lives. 

So, how does a white kid from Eugene, Ore., team up with a Zimbabwean gwenyambira (great mbira player) and create the world-music duo known as Mhofela? The story goes like this: In 1997 Cohen’s parents, serious world-music lovers with a taste for adventure, traveled to Zimbabwe with the specific intent of finding gwenyambiras to help promote mbira music and build a scene back in the states. With them, they brought their 17-year-old son, who possessed the same passionate love of music. During this journey, Cohen met Chingodza, who took the teenager under his wing and schooled him in mbira playing.

Cohen lived with Chingodza in the rural village of Mwangara. “It was an eye-opening and life-shaping experience for me,” Cohen says. “I was humbled by how people treated me and encouraged my playing [of mbira].”

Not necessarily a household name in the U.S., the mbira (also known as a thumb piano) is an instrument composed of a wooden soundboard and hard steel keys that is then placed into a “deze” (a round gourd) that acts as a resonator. Though usually promoted through the college and cultural-center tour circuits, mbira music has large fan bases in the urban communities of Colorado, New Mexico and California’s Bay Area.

 Since their initial meeting in ‘97, Chingodza and Cohen formed Mhofela, and they have toured both coasts and the Midwest, bringing mbira music to the masses. The duo recently released the 9-track album Tomutenda Mambo and continues to play live shows together when Chingodza is in country. 

“This music is very spiritual and very authentic,” says Cohen. “I always look forward to Musekiwa coming to town.” 

Mhofela’s album release show is 6 pm Thursday, June 7, at Cozmic; $5, free entry with CD purchase. — Dante Zuñiga-West