Chopi Timbila Orchestras

The intricate rhythms and pulsating beat of Chopi timbila music are among Southern Africa’s most impressive musical traditions. The music is played on timbila (singular: mbila) – similar to marimbas or xylophones and made of long rows of wooden slats carved from the slow-growing mwenje (sneezewood) tree. In age-old rites of passage, young Chopi boys would go into the bush to plant mwenje saplings, which would then be harvested for timbila construction years later when their grandsons came of age.

At the heart of timbila music is the m’saho (performance), which involves an orchestra (mgodo) of 20 or more instruments of varying size and range of pitch, singers and dancers, rattle or shaker players and a single composition with movements similar to those of a Western-style classical symphony. Rhythms are complex, often demanding that the players master different beats simultaneously with each hand, and the lyrics are full of humour and sarcasm, dealing with social issues and community events.

Following a decline during the immediate post-independence and war years, timbila music is now experiencing a renaissance, due in part to the efforts of the late Venáncio Mbande (1933–2015), a composer, player and timbila craftsman par excellence. Like many other Chopi, Mbande left Mozambique at a young age to seek work in the South African mines but kept the art of timbila alive and ultimately formed his own orchestra. In the mid-1990s Mbande returned to his home near Quissico, where he began teaching timbila music and craftsmanship. Later, his orchestra, Timbila ta Venáncio, received international acclaim. Numerous other orchestras have since been formed around Zavala district, and Quissico district is a centre for training young players.

The best contacts for further information are the Centro Cultural Franco-Moçambicano in Maputo and Amigos de Zavala (www.amizava.org)