Taylor Swift and the Soul of Mbira

Like a lot of people, I gave in and purchased Taylor Swift’s new album, 1989. (I say “gave in” because I had been resisting doing so, on the principle that I was ticked off that the album was not on Spotify. Maybe this isn’t quite fair of me, but it’s how I consume new music these days: check the album out on Spotify, purchase if it’s something I’m into. I don’t by less music than before; I just have a better sense of what I’m going to want to listen to repeatedly before I pay for it. Anyhow, I lasted about a week before deciding that I wanted to hear Swift’s new album in its entirety, so obviously my principles aren’t all that strong.)

Anyhow, there are some great songs on the album (along with a few that seem not quite so inspired). There are some striking moments that caught my ear—for example, the synthesized horns on “Shake It Off” struck me as a playful parody of the brutal rhythms of Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves.” The similarity in range, timbre, and rhythm of these parts struck me not only for their resemblance, but also because they came up in the contexts of two artists who seemed to consciously reject many of the clichés and common sounds of their respective genres in their most recent albums.

But the song that most grabbed my attention was “Clean,” the final one on the record. I heard the song before reading the credits in the liner notes, and sure enough, I correctly recognized the background vocals as Imogen Heap. That alone is no small feat; Heap’s voice and singing style are so unique and characteristic, that I was already impressed that they had found a way to have her effectively sing back-up to Swift. But on reading the liner notes, I noticed also that Heap had contributed other musical elements in addition to vocals: several acoustic instruments (vibraphone, drums, mbira, percussion); programming and keyboards; and co-production (along with Swift). The result is a track that has all the spareness and textural complexity of Heap’s best work on her own albums. It’s truly lovely.

The presence of the mbira on the track was curious, though. Mbira is a musical instrument commonly found in Shona culture in central and southern Africa. It’s a wooden instrument with a number of metal keys, and it’s bright, resonant sound is immediately recognizable to anyone who has heard it before. (The title of this post is a nod to Paul Berliner’s landmark book on the instrument and its place in Shona culture.) It’s also an instrument that has had a life in the sonic texture of what’s been called “global pop”—those heterogeneous and hybrid popular music styles from around the world that are sold to Western audiences as “authentic” and “indigenous,” even when they are presented in a distinctly modified form.

Yet here, in “Clean,” I sense no attempt or desire by Heap and Swift to create an “African” soundscape. The mbira’s presence in the track is obvious, but to my ear, it’s not presented in the kinds of rhythmic and textural settings that have come to signify “Africanness” over decades of capitalist exploitation of African musical styles. (Paul Simon’s Graceland is the archetype of this.) Rather, Heap has integrated the mbira very neatly into the technological texture of “Clean,” a striking, beautiful timbre, but one that doesn’t mark itself as “other” or exotic. I find it to be a wonderfully honest use of the mbira—not attempting to appropriate its musical context, but rather, employing it for what it is: a beautiful instrument with musical possibilities that need not be limited to a narrow Western construction of what “African” music should sound like.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

3 Replies to “Taylor Swift and the Soul of Mbira”

  1. The mbira that was used on the song was not a traditional African mbira but a new version of the ancient instrument. The new type of mbira or kalimba is called an Array mbira and is a highly modified type of “lamellophone” that is hand crafted in San Diego by 2 craftsman/musicians that have been making them in limited quantities since 2001. Imogen Heap owns several of these instruments. The Array mbira is precisely tuned in western 12 tone scale and includes all the notes of the piano and comes in 3, 4 and 5 octave models. The unique system of note arrangement is the trademark of Array mbiras. I am one of the makers of the instruments. Our little micro cottage industry is called Array Instruments and our website is thearraymbira.com. We are very honored and grateful that our instruments are showing up on such lovely songs as “Clean” and others by Imogen Heap as well as a variety of music featured on many other artists songs as well as film scores and TV sound tracks such as Breaking Bad, True Blood and many others.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Patrick! I had wondered about the source of the mbira on that recording. It’s evident from listening that the instrument has a Western tuning, and it also seems like it lacks the sort of resonators (bottle caps, metal bits) that are typically found on the various African mbiras. (To my ear, there seems to be a digitally generated buzz at the beginning of the track that struck me as connected to the mbira, but perhaps I’m reaching here.) Anyhow, the instrument sounds fantastic on that recording, and I’m delighted to know about its origin. Thanks!

    1. The array mbira is one of many array instruments, all of them have the same patented playing system. chief among them is the array keyboard ( a midi controller), but there is also the array harp, the array organ and many others. The array playing system lets a single person play far more harmonious notes at once than are otherwise possible to play on any other instrument, the array mbira, harp organ and keyboard can play many octave related notes with each finger so with 8 fingers that is as many as 40 to 80 notes at once! Only large orchestras with many people and many instruments can otherwise play compositions with this many notes. Music theory becomes much easier to understand using the array system as a model, instruments become physically easier to play, the sound of acoustic instruments becomes more resonant with the notes arranged in the array no arrangement of the notes but most important of all emotion becomes easier to express because there are easy to see patterns in the array note arrangement that act as a guide in helping a player to know what feeling to expect when notes are combined together, for example closely spaced notes sound care free and pleasant when played together while widely spaced notes sound serious and full of conflict. The array system is the most highly organized system ever devised for music and will become ever more important to the future of composition and performance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *