MBIRA founder Erica Azim is a Californian who fell in love with Shona mbira music when she first heard it at the age of 16.
After studying Shona music with Dumisani Maraire at the University of Washington for two years, Erica decided she had to learn to play the ancient Shona mbira played in ceremonies. She began to learn the instrument by ear, using taped Zimbabwean 45 rpm vinyl records of mbira, and a mbira borrowed from a professor’s shelf. Leaving her studies, Erica worked singlemindedly to save money for the journey to the opposite side of the earth.
In 1974, Erica became one of the first non-Zimbabweans to study the mbira in Zimbabwe with traditional masters of the instrument. At that time, Zimbabwe was racist Rhodesia in the throes of a liberation war. Touched by the arrival of a young white woman who respected ancient Shona tradition – a stark contrast with the white government that reviled it – musicians extended a warm welcome.
Although banned by the Rhodesian government from visiting the rural areas which are the home of mbira tradition, Erica easily found many mbira teachers in the capital city of Harare (then Salisbury).
After a first mbira lesson with a stranger on a train (story), Erica studied seriously with Ambuya Beauler Dyoko, Cosmas Magaya, Mondrek Muchena, Ephat Mujuru, and others. By studying with many teachers, Erica was able to develop her own personal mbira style within the tradition.
She later returned to Zimbabwe and studied with additional teachers, including Irene Chigamba, Tute Chigamba, Chris Mhlanga, Fradreck Mujuru, Newton Gwara (now Newton Cheza Chozengwa), Forward Kwenda, Luken Pasipamire, Sam Mujuru, Fungai Mujuru, Leonard Chiyanike, Patience Chaitezvi Munjeri, Endiby Makope, Gift Rushambwa, “Samaita” Vitalis Botsa, and Renold and Caution Shonhai.
Erica is known in Zimbabwe as a gwenyambira – a skilled performer accepted by the ancestors to play at traditional ceremonies, and teach mbira to others.
In 1997, Erica Azim toured throughout the US with Forward Kwenda, teaching and performing. In 1998, she performed in the U.S. and Canada with Cosmas Magaya. In 2000, Erica performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC with Forward Kwenda, and they toured together in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
Erica taught and performed in the US with Ambuya Beauler Dyoko during 2000 and 2001, Fradreck Mujuru in 2003, Fradreck and Fungai Mujuru in 2004, Irene Chigamba in 2006 and 2007, Vakaranga Venharetare in 2008, Patience Chaitezvi in 2009, Renold & Caution Shonhai in 2010, Caution Shonhai in 2011, Leonard Chiyanike in 2012, and ‘Samaita’ Vitalis Botsa in 2015.
Erica taught and performed with Leonard Chiyanike in Bali, Indonesia, in 2014. She toured the US with Fradreck Mujuru in 2014 and 2016, also teaching in Germany with him in 2014. Erica also teaches and performs solo mbira around the world, including many visits to Argentina.
Erica has been recorded on a number of commercial CDs, now out of print, of which 4 are still available as both CDs and Downloads from MBIRA: her solo recordings Mbira Dreams and Mbira: Healing Music of Zimbabwe, Forward Kwenda’s CD Svikiro: Meditations of an Mbira Master, and one solo on the international lullaby compilation Mama’s Lullaby. MBIRA released her solo CD Healing Dreams: Ancient Mbira of Zimbabwe in 2009. She also plays mbira on the recordings of numerous Zimbabwean musicians.
Erica is particularly adept at making mbira music accessible to American audiences and mbira students, and others around the world who are new to mbira music.
She teaches regional mbira workshop groups, and internationally-attended mbira camps in locations including Hawaii, Argentina, Bali and Germany.
Erica also gives private lessons, both in person and over Skype to mbira students around the world. She wrote the article “On Teaching Americans to Play Mbira Like Zimbabweans” for the journal African Music in 1999.
Erica Azim is responsible for the formation of the non-profit organization MBIRA, and directs its day-to-day operation, supporting 300 traditional musicians and 20 instrument makers in Zimbabwe. She makes and masters field recordings of Zimbabwean musicians, teaches mbira lessons and workshops, tunes instruments, and much more.