The Ground Bow in Zimbabwe and Beyond
By Jennifer Kyker
Sekuru Compound Muradzikwa (b. 1943) is an accomplished performer of the Zimbabwean chipendani, a type of mouth-resonated musical bow played in diverse social contexts ranging from courtship to familial entertainment (Kyker 2018). Soon after I first met Sekuru Muradzikwa in 2003, I learned that he also played the ground-bow, which he called dzikamunhenga. Constructed on top of a resonating chamber dug into the earth, Muradzikwa’s ground-bow featured a sounding board made of a flat piece of scrap metal, with a single wire string threaded through it. To one side of the resonating chamber, Muradzikwa had fixed a tree branch. By attaching the other end of the wire to its tip, he had exerted sufficient tension to bend the branch into a quarter-circle, producing the ground-bow’s characteristic shape.
Sekuru Muradzikwa first began playing the ground-bow as a young herd boy in the 1940s and ‘50s, and had only recently reconstructed the instrument at the time we first met. Muradzikwa’s childhood experience with the ground-bow reflects the instrument’s close associations with children throughout much of the African continent, from South Africa and Botswana to Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, and from the Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar and Mauritius to the equatorial regions of the Congo and the Central African Republic. As I illustrate in the digital humanities project Sekuru's Stories, children’s ground-bow playing has often emphasized funny, vulgar, and transgressive lyrics. While Muradzikwa’s lyrics represent a more mature singing style, they continue to reference the importance of cattle in producing social relations, reflecting the instrument’s associations with children’s herding activities.
In a recent article in the journal Ethnomusiology, I place my work with Sekuru Muradzikwa - and a second Zimbabwean bow player named Sekuru Chigamba - into dialogue with over a century of literature on the ground-bow throughout sub-Saharan Africa. As I illustrate, the ground-bow has the curious distinction of being one of the most widespread, yet least acknowledged instruments across much of the African continent and diasporic locations, such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia. I suggest that a confluence of disciplinary orientations has resulted in marginalizing the ground-bow, with its status as a children’s instrument foremost among them. I also argue against the term “ground harp,” which, while technically correct according to the rigid demands of Western organology, has obscured the instrument’s multivalent relationships to other African musical bows.
The ground-bow is particularly interesting given the site-specific nature of its construction. As a result, it is nearly entirely absent from major archival collections and musical instrument museums. It is likewise not easily reproducible in a concert hall (Kubik, Malamusi, and Varsanyi 2014:189). Despite its site-specific nature, however, the ground-bow’s individual components can easily be taken apart, transported, and quickly reassembled, making it eminently portable. Across the African continent and beyond, ground-bows are constructed from a wide range of easily obtainable materials that may include sticks, string, skin, scrap metal, banana leaves, recycled plastic or tin containers, sinew, and wire. The ground-bow’s unique physical characteristics position it among what Susanne Fürniss has referred to as the “great number of instruments improvised according to the needs of the musicians… and abandoned immediately after their use” (1993:108; my translation).
Like many other musical bows, the ground-bow is often described as rare, endangered, or disappearing. Indeed, although I have studied Zimbabwean music since 1995, I have encountered relatively few musical bows players. These include Sekuru Muradzikwa, Sekuru Chigamba, and Sekuru Chigamba’s grandson Brian, who grew up in the Rushinga rural areas in the 1990s and, like his grandfather, has played both ground-bow and chipendani.
My work on the ground-bow has been primarily with elderly musicians, and I have been unable to locate children who are actively playing the instrument. Yet there are signs that the ground-bow may be more widely played than is immediately apparent. One recent Twitter post depicting a portable version of the ground-bow often called chidembo, for example, garnered hundreds of shares, like, and comments from Zimbabwean users. These readers offered several different onomatopoeic names for the instrument, and gave numerous versions of lyrics to accompany ground-bow playing. As these posts suggest, contemporary encounters with the ground-bow may not be as uncommon as presumed, particularly if portable versions of the instrument such as the chidembo are taken into account.
As one of Zimbabwe’s few known ground-bow players, Sekuru Muradzikwa’s musicianship opens out onto a vast scholarly terrain, which includes the organology, history, social identity, and performance practice of one of Africa’s most widespread, yet least known musical instruments. Interest in African musical bows has grown dramatically in recent years, as reflected in work by scholars such as Cara Stacey (2017), Angela Impey (2018), Susanne Fürniss (2012), and the many authors in the edited volume Southern African Bow Music (Dlamini 2020). Sekuru Muradzikwa is contributing to this emerging work through his musical recordings, his chipendani performances at the First International Bow Music Conference in South Africa, and his artist-in-residencies at places such as Ubuntu Learning Village.
As the number of instruments presumed to be rare, disappearing, or endangered steadily increases, my work with Sekuru Muradzikwa suggests how detailed ethnographic fieldwork with even a few musicians can illuminate much larger scholarly histories, and open onto significant disciplinary concerns.
Dlamini, Sazi (Ed.). 2020. Musical Bows of Southern Africa. New York: Bloomsbury.