In battle against AIDS, African music takes center stage at Mayo Street Arts
by Timothy Gillis | The Portland Daily Sun
A Portland fundraiser will reach out to a nation where most people die from AIDS — Zimbabwe, where people suffer one of the lowest life expectancies on Earth due largely to the disease, health officials say.
The Maine Marimba Ensemble and the Portland Rhumba Project will stage a fundraiser for a group helping stem the spread of AIDS in Zimbabwe. The event is on Friday, April 12, when they will play their African rhythms at Mayo Street Arts Center.
In honor of Zimbabwean Independence Day, which is April 18, the two bands will rock to raise money for a good cause. All proceeds raised from the 7 p.m. concert will go to support Tariro, an organization that’s working to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe’s Shona language, Tariro means Hope.
Founded in 2003, Tariro works in Zimbabwe to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS by educating young women. Located in the high-density neighborhood of Glen Norah in Harare, Tariro enables young women who have been orphaned by AIDS to complete a secondary school education, thereby dramatically reducing their risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. The two bands will be joined by special guests fwhatza marimba.
Jennifer Kyker, executive director of Tariro, co-founded the organization with a friend, Memory Bandera, a Zimbabwean, in 2003.
“What we do is pay school fees for orphan girls in Zimbabwe, working with girls who have lost one or both of their parents,” Kyker said. “We don’t ask (the girls how the parent(s) died), but most death in Zimbabwe comes from AIDS.”
Tariro doesn’t have an orphanage nor runs a school. “Our job is community-based support,” Kyker said. “We pay school fees at a government school. It’s expensive; nobody goes to school for free there. It costs about $500 a year for a student to go to school, for uniforms, exam fees.”
Tariro has been graduating 10 to 12 students a year, and estimates that they have helped about 200 students.
“It’s a personal approach with individual kids,” she said. “If students get into university, we stay with them and continue supporting them. One of our students’ exam results were not good enough to go on to university, but she now works in a brick-making cooperative. Another student passed exams on the third time trying and is now a policewoman. She participated in embroidery work to raise money for subsequent exams.
“For some students, it’s even more dramatic. Our first university graduate, Pauline Kawungwa, started her own business. Now she’s paying for her brothers and sisters’ exams. It’s been a really radical transformation.”
The Maine Marimba Ensemble is looking forward to helping make such changes.
Their musical repertoire draws from the incredibly joyful and deeply moving traditional and contemporary music of Zimbabwe. The largest instrument of their set of homemade marimbas is so big that the person playing it needs to stand on a bench to reach it. The musicians in the band are Kevin Caron, Rob Cimitile, Chris Fletcher, Elliot Heeschen, Peter Himmer, Zebulon Kelley, Matthew Wasowski and Jacob Wolff. A few of them talked about their music and how is has changed their own lives.
Wolff founded the band two years ago. Cimitile has been with them virtually since the beginning. Wasowski has only been with group a few months, although he’s been playing with them since he moved here with wife last summer.
“I think of it in terms of a choir, with all the choral voices,” Wasowski said.
They all play different marimbas, in four octave ranges: three sopranos, two tenors, one baritone and one bass.
Wasowski first heard about Zimbabwean music in the 1990’s while working in a Washington, D.C., record store. “I heard Oliver Mtukudzi, this music I’d been waiting my whole life to hear. I listened to it all,” he said. “I traveled to Zimbabwe in 2000, and learned to play mbira, a thumb piano.” Mbira is the main instrument of the Shona people.
“So the music we play is traditionally of these ethnic people, going back 800 years,” Cimitile said. “We’re playing arrangements of those songs written for marimbas.”
Wolff has written some songs, himself, but for the most part, they are playing music written by others.
“Dumisani Maraire wrote or arranged many of the pieces that we play,” Wolff said of the Zimbabwean who brought Shona music to the U.S. and Canada. He settled in Seattle in the 1960s and began teaching.
Wolff encountered his music in early 1990s, after he had been doing African drumming for a few years. “I saw a show in Santa Cruz and fell in love with the music. I said ‘I need to learn how to play that music.’ I bugged one of the guys in the band for about a year and finally started a class.”
Wolff said he moved here three years ago from California and wanted to play this type of music with other musicians, but there was not much going on here. “I thought I would advertise and see if I could teach it, thought I would have to teach for a while, but I met these hot-shot musicians.”
Cimitile has another group he plays with called “Builder of the House,” which features indie-folk music. Wasowski works full time in music as a guitarist, writing and performing. He opened a music school in Gorham that offers Zimbabwean style music, as well as beginning and intermediate group guitar classes.
Wolff is a pre-school teacher at Catherine Morrill Day nursery and St. Elizabeth’s Childcare center, both in Portland.
“Everyone in the group is heavily involved in music, one way or another,” Wolff said. “The Maine Marimba Ensemble is in our own little category.”
Asked why the group chose to contribute to an organization from far away, when many local people are in need, Wolff said “There’s help needed all over the place. For me, the Zimbabwean musicians have shared an incredible amount of music and knowledge with us, so this feels like the right way to give back. We just played at Barbara Bush children’s hospital, as well as elder care facilities, so we find our local causes, too.”
They expect the music they share will bring people of many different backgrounds together.
“The most common response I hear from my co-workers, who have never heard this music before,” Wasowski said, “is that this is the happiest music they’ve ever heard.”
Wolff added, “Little kids love it, old folks love it, rough bikers lover it, college kids love it. I feel like I won the lottery when I learned to play this music.”
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