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MU professor brings African mbira to Columbia

Anand Prahlad will speak about the instrument and give a demonstration Thursday.

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Courtesy Photo

Feb. 8, 2011

Where does one find traditional African music in modern Western culture? Images of heavy drumming, tribal chant and Vampire Weekend might come to mind. But African melodies have made their way over the Atlantic Ocean too, MU professor Anand Prahlad said.

Prahlad is a musician and folklorist who plays the mbira, a traditional African thumb piano. The mbira is a small rectangular piece of wood with suspended metal reeds hit by the player's thumbs.

The instrument, traditionally played to attract ancestral spirits, is meant to be played with a group of other mbiras or with a shaker percussion instrument called a hosho.

"Actually, if you hear one mbira, it's almost like hearing one instrument in a jazz quartet or a rock band by itself, or hearing one instrument in an orchestra playing by itself," Prahlad said.

When it is by itself, the mbira creates a meditative, organic sound, Prahlad said.

"At times it's kind of ethereal," Prahlad said. "It also has an extremely earthy and ancient kind of sound. There's nothing really fancy or technological about it."

A fellow mbira player first introduced Prahlad to the instrument in the '70s in California. Prahlad has been playing around with the instrument since then.

His son's guitar teacher, Joe Mitchell, took notice of Prahlad's playing and has been toying around with it himself for about six months.

"I remember watching him, and it was just like the Pied Piper," Mitchell said. "I was entranced. It's unlike any instrument I've heard in western music."

Prahlad's musical curiosity has a wide berth - the mbira is just one of many instruments in which he takes interest. Prahlad also plays the guitar, drums, keyboard and the berimbau, a single-string Brazilian percussion instrument.

What Prahlad doesn't have, however, is a fellow mbira player. By itself, the mbira puts out a pleasant tone, but without others in the mix, Prahlad is limited to the kinds of parts he can play, Prahlad said. He is very willing to teach the instrument but has yet to find anyone with a real passion to learn.

"In the back of my mind I'm constantly thinking, 'Someday I'll come across someone who's interested in learning,'" Prahlad said. "So far that hasn't happened, but there's always the possibility that it will."

Prahlad will be holding an exhibition at the State Historical Society of Missouri museum Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Prahlad will speak about the history of the mbira and connections he has made between mbira music and various types of African-American music. Afterword, he will give a musical performance. The event is free of charge.

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