Photo by Brett Stewart
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In recent years, Muchena worked during the day in the Orthopaedic Centre at Parirenyatwa Hospital; in the evenings and at weekends, he would slide effortlessly into his alternative career as an mbira teacher and professional player at mapira.
As a performing artist, Muchena performed numerous times on Zimbabwean stages and, between 1984 and 1994, he travelled three times to Europe with members of Mhuri yekwaRwizi and other mbira players. He appeared, too, in a number of fine documentary films related to the art of mbira and its traditions including On the Edge of Improvisation by Jeremy Marre. As a recording artist he cut numerous singles, some dating back to the late sixties where he appears with the great mbira maker and master player, John Kunaka Maridzambira, who was then Muchena's partner. In later years, Muchena appeared on a number of albums in Zimbabwe and overseas including The Soul Of Mbira, arguably the bestselling album of Zimbabwean mbira music of all time.
Muchena was probably best loved, though, as an infinitely patient and giving teacher not only by the numerous Zimbabweans with whom he came into contact on a daily basis but also by students of mbira from abroad who eagerly sought him out for lessons. He had the ability to reduce, with seeming effortlessness, the most complex mbira piece to the simplest essential elements which a pupil could readily understand, an approach which he seems to have carried through into the way he way he viewed life in general. He touched every human being he met from all communities throughout the world with his simple straightforwardness, unswerving integrity, quiet soul, and infinite kindness.
Although his placid personality never gave any impression of aggression, Muchena, nevertheless, firmly believed in the pursuit of truth and justice, a position which led him to give strong support to the Zimbabwe liberation struggle and which invited suspicion from the Rhodesian secret police and led to his detention by the white regime.
Muchena was one of those rare human beings who give freely of their time and energy with no resentment or expectation of reward.
Although I hold no concrete religious beliefs, the spirit of Mondreck Muchena will live with me as a companion for the rest of my days and the memory of him will always have a place in my heart. My two strongest images of him are his singing and playing mbira or hosho with a broad smile on his face, dressed in a white coat, and of him screwing up his eyes trying to focus on the international wrestling on Sunday evening television.
For his endless compassion and his humanity alone, Mondreck is irreplaceable to his very many friends; as a musician he is a tragic loss to the Zimbabwean nation and to the rest of the world.
Mondreck was buried at Warren Hills Cemetery on Tuesday 15 August at midday. He is survived by his wife, Francesca, and fifteen children.
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~ Meeting Mondreck, Erick and Mai Mucha (Mondreck's wife) Muchena in August 1974 — a talent scout for the record company took me to their house to meet them, and they started playing and singing as soon as we arrived, hoping to influence the guy to get them a recording contract. Their playing was tight, soaring, sweet, powerful, and Mai Mucha's hosho playing was like being struck by a lightning bolt. I felt that I had truly arrived, this was what I had come to Zimbabwe for, and it was higher than I could have possibly imagined. That evening was one of the most transcendent moments of my life up to that point, and the beginning of a long friendship with the Muchenas.
~ Going with Mondreck to visit John Kunaka (late 1974) — we drove a long ways to find Kunaka and ask him to make me an mbira. Later on, Mondreck and Kunaka played mbira outdoors under the full moon... a casual moment for them, bliss for me.
~ Going to the appliance repair shop where Mondreck worked (late 1974) to pick up my Kunaka mbira that Mondreck had bicycled 50 miles to pick up for me (he was very strong in those days). Mondreck introducing me to my new mbira, and introducing me to his co-workers as the person who gave him the UC Berkeley T-shirt he was so proud of.
~ Mondreck teaching me to sing "Kurara wayi kunetenge kufa" ("Why are you sleeping as if you are dead?") in 1991 at a bus stop late at night — his voice soaring joyfully into the quiet night in Mabvuku.
~ Mondreck's smile. Mondreck smiling as he sings. Mondreck's voice bursting with joy. My whole being soaring as I hear him sing. As I always tell students, its impossible to be sad while hearing Mondreck sing. One of my first letters from my mbira partner Glenn, when he visited Zimbabwe for the first time in 1985, read "Why didn't you tell me what an incredible singer Mondreck is? So much more incredible than what you hear on the tapes and records."
~ Going to hear Thomas Mapfumo in a sleazy bar (January 1991) with Mondreck, Mai Mucha, and my friend Brett. Mondreck was very shy to dance (Mai Mucha was not!), but when he finally danced, he really got down — a great dancer.
~ Recording Mondreck, Erick, and Mai Mucha in their half-built house in Highfield in 1991 during a thunderstorm. Mondreck and Erick were sitting on pieces of sewer pipe, playing mbira by the light of a single candlestick. As the house didn't have windows yet, the neighbors heard the music, and soon women and children were dancing on the rough unfinished concrete floor, as mbira and voices soared and thunder crashed. It was the last time I heard Mondreck and Erick play mbira together, and the tape turned out great! I plan to sell it in the future to help support Mondreck's many children.
~ Mondreck's big smile as he said "I have a little toy for you," right before giving me a big deze in 1994.
~ Mondreck with his new walkman (from me) in the pocket of his suit jacket, playing his new cassette (Anzanga! from Sheree Seretse) in 1994. He walked around so happily, with marimba emanating from its hidden source... loving it that no one could figure out where it was coming from until he showed them.
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He had an incredibly loving, playful spirit. He often played mbira and sang with a grin from ear to ear. His voice, eyes, and grin all seemed to say, "I am delighted to be alive and here singing with you. Sing with me!" It was infectious to people in his living room as well as at ceremonies where as the kushaura player, he led the music, often with his brother Erick playing kutsinhira. He loved to laugh and find humor in many places and he brought that gift to ceremonies as well.
He prided himself in being able to play mbira with anyone and believed mbira players should try to be able to play with as many different people as possible. Everyone should be able to play mbira together — that it was not right for mbira players to stay away from each other or criticize each other out of "jealousy."
He seemed to love teaching. When showing me a new song, or a new part to an old one, he seemed at least as excited as I was! His feedback was always positive and when he got really excited at something I did he would cheer, "You know how to play 'kutsinhira'!"
Mondreck, I love you. You were a model human being, a wonderful friend, musician, teacher, father, husband, craftsman. Your presence has made and continues to make a difference. We will never forget you or your family.
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After meeting and working with Ephat Mujuru, he left for the USA. He introduced us to both his uncle, Fungai Mujuru, and Mondreck Muchena.
This is how I came to know Mondreck, Francesca, and many of their children during my stay in Harare. Almost every afternoon Kevin and I would travel to Mabvuku to sit with Mondreck and play mbira. We stayed from about 6–11 pm and caught the late bus back. This course of study went on for several months until our visas were expiring and we had to go. I returned two years later for a shorter stay, and again played with Mondreck almost every evening.
I personally grieve Mondreck's death, but am consoled by the knowledge that his spirit continues to live and will revisit the family when necessary. We can be comforted by this understanding.
Mondreck was a rock. Mondreck was the center, and his life was pure celebration. And so while Mondreck has died, this is true, I will most remember that he lived before he died. And he was truly alive. He was perhaps the most generous, giving, and loving man whom I will ever know. He seemed to want nothing for himself. His integrity was unmatched. He spoke the truth and never wavered in his beliefs. He showed more patience and kindness than a dozen men. He was so self-confident and understanding about being simply human, he knew it wasn't what one achieved for himself in material wealth on earth that stood for anything. It was what one achieved in spiritual understanding — what one achieved in goodness. It was what one could give away of oneself, unfailingly and unselfishly that counted for something. And even this he never bothered to count. He just was. He was a joy to know and it was my fortunate, great privilege to have been called his friend.
I learned many songs on mbira from Mondreck, and much about the cultural setting in which the songs are played and performed. I sat with Mondreck in front of Robert Mugabe and played mbira. I performed with him in front of thousands of people at Rufaro stadium. In retrospect, however, I see these experiences as only the pathway to the knowledge and understanding he gave me.
I learned that it is right to give of yourself unselfishly and unconditionally — that one can derive great pleasure from a life of giving and that no matter what, there is always room for more giving. I learned that to family, friends, colleagues, and even the most obscure of acquaintances, this kind of man is the most revered. I learned that even in the face of the most chaotic environment, the calmness one gains from a life of giving could be transformed into a great focus and that amazing things are possible to achieve through this focus. I relearned that a great place to start is by smiling — that laughing at yourself is paramount. I learned more about love. Love of Francesca and children. I learned about love for country, and ideals. I learned about justice and what it means to truly care for the human condition.
So, when I think of Mondreck, it's not only mbira that I think about. I think about character, about his great capacity for generosity of mind and spirit. I think about the unique balance of good cheer, talent, kindness, and patience he possessed. I think about giving. And these principles are with me today just as surely as any of the mbira songs he taught me.
I'm unable to talk or write about Mondreck without including Francesca. Mondreck was most assuredly blessed by being so strongly supported by Mai Muchena during his lifetime. And blessed by the sixteen children they created together — their family.
Mondreck and Mai Muchena. Two of the most influential people in my life. Still.
Mai Muchena had a profound influence on my life. When I think of Mai Muchena I think of power. She displayed both great external and internal strength. For me, Mai Muchena's presence was awe-inspiring. Her spirit was, at that time in my life, not understandable to me. She commanded respect in things I had little experience in. Her connection to the other world was a mystery to me. I'm quite certain that this connection will help her and her children through this most difficult period in their lives.
And this power seemed such a natural complement to Mondreck's gentle nature. Their individual strengths were complimentary to a very high degree. They connected on a level that is a rare occurrence in this world.
I feel the world is a better place because of Mondreck and Francesca Muchena. I say this without hesitation. As one who knew them personally, I feel most fortunate. But I believe even those who didn't have been touched in some indirect way. Mondreck's spirit will not be completely separated from this world and his influence will continue to live. Mai Muchena will contact him when he's needed and he will be there for all of us.
Mondreck's ability to play and teach mbira was as a master. And so my fondest memory is in the Muchena home in Mabvuku, sitting next to him on the couch in the living room. I am on one side, Kevin on the other. The television is on in front of us. The radio is playing somewhere as well. Martin has a look of pure wonder on his face and is perched at my feet. Muchaneta and Mahwinei are dancing, playing hosho, or helping in the kitchen. Daimurimi and Christopher are playing. Jessica is studying quietly. (I still cannot fathom just how she managed this.) Mai Muchena is in the kitchen singing, preparing sadza and gravy for us, and offering everyone constant direction for the evening. And there in the center of all of this beautiful commotion is Mondreck, a pillar of strength and focus, with his great big grin, trying to ignore all of my questions and just saying to me, "Play like you hear it" or "That's right, ga ding ga ding ga ding ga ding" or "Just play" or "You got it!"
I will never forget this scene, repeated night after night. I will never forget the warmth I felt at being accepted into this family and their world like that. I will never forget the night Mai Muchena gave me my African name, Farai. This family changed my life immeasurably, and in no way but for the better. I will never forget any of this. My life has been blessed, this I know. Mazvita Mondreck. Tatenda Mai Muchena.
Mufambe Zvakanaka Mondreck.
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~ From the time I first met Mondreck and starting learning mbira from him, in 1981, he refused to charge a fee for mbira lessons (despite advice to the contrary). He said: "It makes me happy to share the music with you, and if it makes you happy too, and if it makes you want to share with me too, then that's good." He was always like that, whether it was mbira or fixing stoves and things for people without asking for anything; he kept that faith that good things would come back to you.
~ So humble, so kind, so pure of heart. So happy to share with others. Mondreck was very proud to be teaching us varungu, the Europeans and Americans who sought him out to learn mbira — after all, 'muchena' means 'white' in Shona. He was always so proud of me when I played with Mhuri yekwaMuchena. One time we were taking a bus to a ceremony and he'd had some beer and started talking a blue streak to these complete strangers about me playing... It was embarrassing until he finally fell asleep. I played a lot of mbira with him for five years although at the beginning I didn't feel competent. But for him, it seemed, the important thing was the sharing, the togetherness.
~ Some of my fondest memories (outside of a lot of dynamite music) are of going places with Mondreck, chatting away and making jokes and gossiping about people. (Nobody's perfect, right?) One valuable thing he taught me was how strong shanje — jealousy — is. We were driving to Highfield "the other day" (he'd always say) and he said "Shanje is like this; if there is someone else right now who knows you're giving me a ride in your car, he's going to be jealous and want to get at me for it". So we both cracked up about that because it was so true. Let me add 'wise' to the Mondreck list.
~ While I was back in Zimbabwe it was hard to accept that he wouldn't just pitch up one day. I kept seeing his tall figure in a flapping white lab coat out of the corner of my eye. And I keep hearing those soaring vocals. I'm sure I always will.
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