Dancing marimbas: Zimfest to bring Zimbabwe to Tacoma

Staff writerJuly 18, 2014 

Zimfest continues this weekend at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. It celebrates Zimbabwean music and dance.

COURTESY PHOTO

The ivy-covered stone walls of the University of Puget Sound will ring out with a different kind of culture next week – that of pulsing marimbas and hypnotic mbiras as the annual Zimfest brings the music and dance of Zimbabwe to Tacoma in three days of workshops, vendors and concerts.

“The goal is to celebrate and promote Zimbabwean culture,” says coordinator Dr. Claire Jones of the 23-year-old festival.

Zimfest was begun in Seattle by students of Zimbabwean musician Dumi Maraire, who taught ethnomusicology as a visiting artist at the University of Washington in the late 1960s. He continued to live and visit the Northwest for 20 years, teaching music, songs and dance of his native Shona culture – and when he left, Jones and some of his other students wanted a way to get together and spread the joyful, effervescent music.

But it’s been hard to find a home for the festival. Over the last two decades Zimfest has been hosted in Seattle; Portland; Eugene and Corvallis, Oregon; even Boulder, Colorado – with a couple of Tacoma visits, including last year at Pacific Lutheran University. This year Jones and her crew are trying UPS, hoping to find somewhere semi-permanent.

“It’ll make the organization much easier,” she explained.

True to its educational origins, Zimfest is as much participation as entertainment. Around 80 workshops will be offered, in everything from basic drumming to Ndebele language to traditional Shona mbira to group marimba. Continuing education clock hours are offered for educators, as well as just a chance for the general public to learn about these artforms.

Jones points out that local marimba ensembles – popular in Northwest schools and omnipresent at festivals like Northwest Folklife – had their beginnings with Maraire.

“They all came from him,” she says.

And for good reason: Playing in a marimba ensemble doesn’t require a lot of musical training, as individual parts are quite simple and repetitive. But put it all together, says Jones, and you get “a wonderful communal experience. It’s great for kids and adults.”

Tacoma marimba band Jekeso will be playing at Zimfest, as well as at the Broadway Farmers Market Thursday to advertise the festival.

But there’ll be other forms of African music also, like headliner band Mokoomba, which combines a Western guitar/drums set-up with diverse southern African music to create an Afro-fusion sound that’s been popular on European tours for the last three years. Zimfest marks Mokoomba’s first visit to North America; they’ll play at 9 p.m. Thursday after the opening ceremony.

Other musicians such as Cosmas Magaya and Musekiwa Chingodza will perform on the mbira, a plucked instrument with metal tongues set inside a reverberant gourd which is used for Shona spiritual ceremonies.

“It’s very hypnotic, trance-like music,” Jones explains.

Other performers include Afro-jazz artist Selmor Mtukudzi, the Chinyakare Dance Troupe, and Loveness Wesa and the Bantus.

“From the beginning we’ve been (about) both education and performance,” says Jones. “It’s just grown and grown.”

Zimfest

What: Zimbabwean Music Festival

When: Opening concert at 7:30 p.m. Thursday; marketplace and concerts 10 a.m.-5 p.m., evening concerts 7:30 p.m. July 25-27

Where: University of Puget Sound (various indoor and outdoor venues)

Cost: $20/$16; some outdoor concerts free

Information: 2014.zimfest.org, brownpapertickets.com

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568

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