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Roots and Branches: The Maraire Family

There is no other family in the Northwest that quite represents the cultural focus of 2015 Northwest Folklife like the Maraire’s. Their Zimbabwean culture, known as Shona, teaches music as a way of life. It’s been handed down from one generation to the next in story and song. From a very young age children of the family are given a note, and as they grow they’re taught to harmonize with their note. Their songs which incorporate dance, hosho (rattle), marimba (wooden percussion), and mbira(thumb piano), then grow too. In the case of Dumisani Maraire Sr., his songs grew into a community of marimba groups in Seattle in the 70s and 80s. He and his family taught classes and gave demonstrations worldwide. His family continues to branch from those roots to this day, but has learned to make music their own way. His son, Dumisani Jr, is an important figure in Seattle hip hop, working to assert the function of the artist in the changing landscape of a growing city. Using his Shona education, Dumi Jr, aka Draze, creates hip-hop inspired by his life in Seattle, and Shona roots in Zimbabwe. The music which often samples beats, rhythms, and rhymes (via DJ) from previous folk tales (songs or raps) function in the same way roots music in Africa has for thousands of years: to educate a community, to encourage individual strengths, and to celebrate and respect cultural heritage. The beats, rhymes, and rhythms of the Maraire family are Seattle’s cultural roots, and branches. 

Dumisani Maraire came from Zimbabwe to Seattle in 1968. He was invited by the University of Washington to be an artist in residence for one year. His music, dancing, and singing proved such a draw to the ethnomusicology department that he stayed for five. A community grew up around his marimba and mbira music. By the end of his first visit to Seattle Dumi himself was teaching Shona cultural heritage: hosho, marimba, mbria, drumming, singing, and dance. The music, which is a way of living for Zimbabweans, is a bright, revolutionary sound. Songs are led by staccato plucks of steel keys that ring out through the hollowed gourds called mbiras, or the mallet strikes of wooden marimba bars. Vocal calls –stories of Shona life, rituals, and folk tales, or just phrases—along with the hushed rattling of the hosho (a dried gourd, filled with seeds) lead songs.

Dumisani taught marimba and Shona music all over the Northwest, from British Columbia to Olympia (where he was a teacher at Evergreen College) through 1982. He then returned to Zimbabwe to establish an Ethnomusicology department at the University of Zimbabwe. When he returned in 1986, it was once again to the University of Washington to earn his own doctorate in ethnomusicology. Dumisani’s journeys back and forth to Zimbabwe as an ambassador of music and culture for both countries were not made alone. His whole family, even those who were born in Seattle, returned to Zimbabwe when they could to learn the culture.  Shona has no written history, and as such Zimbabwean people pass along folk traditions orally. It is only by spending time with elders that the music –one in the same with culture there—can be learned.

It is for these reasons that the Maraire family is key to the theme of this year’s cultural focus.  Like Dumisani, his sons are well known locally, and internationally for their culture and music, hip-hop with a focus on Shona. Tendai Maraire’s mbira sounds and polyrhythmic drums are the essential components in Shabazz Palaces sounds. They are signed to Seattle record label Sub Pop, and widely recognized as the avante-garde in the genre, thanks at least in part to their Shona sound. Dumi Jr, or Draze, is an outspoken Hip-Hop artist once known for his dancing, but better known for his rapping abilities in recent years. He has become a community leader by speaking out against the rapid growth that threatens to uproot and displace Seattle communities, as well as working to promote artists to show communities their own value “through the eyes of art”.

Definitions of “art” and “hip-hop” are often loose and philosophical. We tend to look to folk music as a direct line with which to follow our heritage back to its roots. This is a relatively American problem. In Zimbabwean culture, the Shona do not look at music, and life, as separate entities. Children are taught from an early age to find their sound –their “note”, in their family’s cultural music so that they can first participate, then make, their own songs. It is in this way –through oral knowledge, and physical skill, passed down through communities, that people learn to make art reflective of themselves.

This communication works both ways in any culture, and contemporary responses to those traditional values is what we call art. Like all art, folk music evolves. In recent years it’s seen resurgence in traditional styles, appropriation from popular culture, and, perhaps most importantly, the birth of hip-hop. Thirty or so years ago it became the folk music of the black community in New York City. Born out of a fight for civil rights, the battle against economic and social inequality, and a desire to communicate through art (despite little or no interest paid to black communities by art collectors and artistic media in metropolitan New York) hip hop grew organically as a demonstration of youthful vigor, black pride, a sense of style, and a willingness to build a community where there was none. Dumisani taught marimba and Shona music all over the Northwest, from British Columbia to Olympia (where he was a teacher at Evergreen College) through 1982. He then returned to Zimbabwe to establish an Ethnomusicology department at a university there. When he returned in 1986, it was once again to the University of Washington to earn his own doctorate in ethnomusicology. Dumisani’s journeys back and forth to Zimbabwe as an ambassador of music and culture for both countries were not made alone. His whole family, even those who were born in Seattle, returned to Zimbabwe when they could to learn the culture. Shona has no written history, and as such Zimbabwean people pass along folk traditions orally. It is only by spending time with elders that the music –one in the same with culture there—can be learned.

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Photo of Dumisani Maraire Sr. courtesy of the Maraire family.

Shona culture is directly reflected in American culture in many ways, but one excellent example is through the Maraire family’s Hip Hop branch. Since hip-hop’s inception in Bronx, it has followed some largely African roots cultural tenets: it has a cultural dance (breaking), its own story-telling as oral tradition (rapping), its own visual art (street art, clothing design), and it does all of the above to promote social awareness and activity. One can do any number of the above, but Hip-hop –much like Shona, is properly observed as a way of life. One does not simply play the mbira and become a Zimbabwean roots musician, being a dancer does not necessarily make one a hip hop artist. Musicians in either Shona, or Hip-hop will learn from those who went before, and as a result be socially conscious, so that their way of life is one with forward direction and reverent appreciation for the past. It is in this way that the Maraire family has, through generations, become the living embodiment of the cultural focus of Northwest Folklife 2015. From their roots to their branches, their rhythms, rhymes, and beats echo throughout generations, across borders, over oceans.
Dumisani Jr, was born in the US, but returned to Zimbabwe at a very young age for his cultural training. He is an accomplished dancer, and musician in both African roots music and hip-hop. As a father, he teaches his daughter the same way he was taught, through story-telling and folk tradition. Since his elder’s generation was recorded, he can now even show his Father’s work to his daughter. Speaking to Dumi, I assumed I would find an inextricable, concrete link to the thought that hip-hop is based in African rhythm.  As a cultural emissary, though, Dumi imparted to me that there is more than one way to look at the idea. “I don’t know that it processes like that,” he told me,

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Photo courtesy of the Maraire family

“Music is a way of life. You do it all day. It’s everywhere. Your mom puts you to sleep with music. Stories are told in song, you grew up playing a hundred African games, and each one has a song. Because music is so embedded in life you look at it as just a part of life. So when you say ‘when did you realize that hip hop is a part of that,’ I realized the exact opposite: which is that for some people it’s not. To me it’s like a grid, on which all music was connected one in some regard.”

Dumi was born in the late 70s in Seattle, and as a result, grew up with Hip-Hop, something Seattle began cultivating on its own shortly after its birth in New York. When I asked him if the traditions clashed, or if he was ever wary of making hip hop music –a newer, and therefore non-traditional music of a people—he explained it like this:

“For a while I stayed away from marrying the two because I knew they (older family and fans) wouldn’t get it. I always knew I was going to, but we waited it out. Me and Tendai would talk about that. It’s like, they have the 2025 cars designed now, but if we saw them we’d think they’re ugly. But they’re going to slowly take out wheels here, bend corners there, and before you know it you’re riding in a bubble and you love it, you know what I mean? For us it’s like that. We know we can slowly adjust it, and get there by building a nice core audience. If we do that we can entertain for a while. People always want to hear more of one thing, but they don’t know like we do how people will react.”

After some talk about the difference between appropriation, and appreciation for cultures I dug further and asked if his father, decidedly the representative of Zimbabwean culture in the Northwest, ever had any guidance concerning him making an American form of music.

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Photo courtesy of the Maraire family.

“Absolutely, I think my dad more so than my mom, but it wasn’t directed at my song. I think he was wiser than that. It [hip-hop] had no rules; it was born out of rebellion, so it attracted me. Instead my dad would do it with what he instilled in me. It’s almost like he could put a blueprint in me so he wouldn’t have to worry about me deterring from that later. When I look back at his lessons, rather than saying ‘you’re doing it wrong, or that’s not going to lead where you want it to’ he would direct it at the root of what I was doing and say ‘ok, do this, when you do music do it like this, stay true to the core.’ It started with teaching Zimbabwean culture. I was born here, but I was sent to Zimbabwe, because they knew I’d have to learn that first or else I wouldn’t mentally comprehend Zimbabwean thing. Really my earliest memories were there.

For all his talents, Dumisani Maraire Sr. is best known as an inspiration. He was able to give of his culture because he was the culture entirely. Dumi Jr. told us “He was genius, he was driven, and there was swag there, a flair when he hit the stage. He was a showman and a visionary… He came to America, that was part of his dream, but he didn’t come to America to be someone else, he came here to be an African in America.” These are the roots of the Maraire family. Their commitment to Shona and the teachings of their heritage make them ambassadors of their culture, from its African roots, to its hip-hop branches.

 

By Sean Jewell

Sean Jewell is the editor at American Standard Time, an Americana and Vintage lifestyle online magazine. He has also written about music and taken photos for The Stranger, KITHFOLK, and Magnet magazine. All he ever talks about is food, music, and art.