Otto Gumaelius

Marimba Music From Southern Africa

Otto Gumaelius is a London based, Botswana raised, performing artist & teacher of southern African folk music on the marimba.

Growing Up With The Marimba: The Zimba Marimba Years. Part 3/3

This third and final post in this series is dedicated to my wonderful years in Sweden, as a member of Zimba Marimba Band, led by Peta Axelsson.

Zimba Marimba Band

I first met Zimba Marimba Band in 1998, when I traveled to Sweden that Easter with my Dad. Whilst we were there, my Uncle saw a newspaper article about a Swedish marimba group that would be performing in a nearby town – so we headed to the show that weekend and I met the group. We met up again, a few weeks later, in Åstorp, where I joined one of their classes and shared some of the music we were playing in Botswana.

 Sharing some songs with a very young Zimba Marimba in Åstorp, 1998. 

Sharing some songs with a very young Zimba Marimba in Åstorp, 1998. 

I met up with the group again a few years later, on another family visit to Sweden, and got to spend a bit of time with them, workshopping and performing. The experience came to also reveal that my niece is a very talented drummer.

 Zimba Marimba Band, 2002. 

Zimba Marimba Band, 2002. 

It wasn't until 2003 when I moved to Sweden to do my International Baccalaureate diploma that I finally joined Zimba Marimba Band – which was an absolute delight, and something I will always look back on with great fondness. In that first year, we got to perform for the King and Queen of Sweden at the Research Centre in Lund.

We recorded our debut album Zimba Marimba Alive in 2004, in a cosy studio in Bjärred – a town just outside Lund. The album included 14 traditional and contemporary songs from Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa – including compositions by Michael Sibanda, Alport Mhlanga and Sheasby Matiure.

We then started planning for a study tour to Botswana and South Africa – which we embarked on in February 2004. It was such a pleasure getting to introduce my "new family" to my "old family" – and one of the highlights of that trip was our performance for Kgosi Mosadi Seboko, the paramount chief of my mother's tribe – the Balete of southern Botswana.

 Performing at Maru-A-Pula Secondary School in Botswana, 2005

Performing at Maru-A-Pula Secondary School in Botswana, 2005

In the winter of 2005, I traveled with Peta to Iceland to work with Robert Falkner's groups. We taught the groups there marimba music and dances from Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa – and had a fantastic few days working with the young people there. 

Later that year, Zimba Marimba began plans to travel to the USA for the west coast’s annual Zimbabwean music festival – ZimFest – a celebration of Zimbabwean music and culture. We had a wonderful week of workshopping, performing, networking, live marimba and mbira music and traditional dancing. Some of my personal highlights included seeing the Chigamba family perform – namely, Irene Chigamba dancing, and her father, Tute Chigamba, playing mbira and Chipindura; getting to hear Michael Sibanda (my first marimba teacher) perform; getting my first taste of Mbira Dzavadzimu from Fradreck Mujuru; and learning Mhande, a ritual rainmaking dance, with Ilana Moon. We came back from the USA with a new energy and great eagerness to learn more.

Peta organised several workshops with musicians like Martin Svensson, Luckson Chikutu, Tipei Marazanye and Celso Paco to name but a few. We soon started fundraising to get ourselves back onto African soil – and we were fortunate enough to get a boosting from a local culture fund, which saw us meet our funding target. We left for South Africa in August 2006, and spent a few days there before heading on to Mozambique to first work with the National Dance Company of Mozambique in the capital, and later, with Timbila master maker, composer and player, Venancio Mbande, in Inhambane. We then set off for Zimbabwe – where we spent our time between Harare and Chiriseri in Domboshawa. This, for me, was an utmost incredible study tour as we really got to submerge ourselves in the rich musical and rhythmic culture of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. We studied with performing artists and teachers like Rujeko Dumbutshena; Ronnie Daliyo; Tute Chigamba; Hwamanda Dance Troupe; and uZambezi to name but a very few. Many of the names are hard to recall now after so long, but the faces and joyous moments live vividly on in me.

Towards the end of our stay, we gave a concert at the College of Music alongside several other artists, which was apparently broadcast on national television. This was probably because we played Hondo – a marimba adaptation of a very spiritual mbira song that says Zimbabwe's liberation came about through bloodshed, as was predicted by the spirit medium Chaminuka (Zimbabwe yakauya nehondo; Chaminuka wakauraiwa – nehondo, vakomana). 

 Mbira Nyunganyunga workshop with Geoffrey in Chiriseri, 2006.

Mbira Nyunganyunga workshop with Geoffrey in Chiriseri, 2006.

2006 marked my final year as a student in Sweden. I had applied for university in Edinburgh and got accepted. So after our trip to Zimbabwe, I only had a few more shows with the group before leaving. I remember quite fondly our last concert, at Kulturnatten (Culture Night) in Lund. We were fresh from Zimbabwe and buzzing; and the concert was absolute magic! Lucky for me, it wasn’t quite a final goodbye – as I still had my family in Lund so would be back a few times a year.

We travelled one final time to Zimbabwe in May 2007 as Zimba Marimba Band – on special invitation to participate in the annual Harare International Festival of the Arts, otherwise known as HIFA. Our one and only billed performance was so warmly received that we were invited to perform again on the main open stage on the Saturday. We really had a fantastic time in Zimbabwe – and I’m so thankful to the Swedish ambassador, Sten Rylander, who was instrumental in getting us there.

 Zimba Marimba performing at HIFA, 2007.

Zimba Marimba performing at HIFA, 2007.

I will remain eternally grateful to my dear friend Peta Axelsson for all the opportunities she has brought to my life. Had it not been for her enthusiasm and love for Africa, I really wouldn’t be the person I am today. Tatenda zvikuru! 

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