Locating the Chopi Xylophone Ensembles of Southern Mozambique


The timbila xylophone is the primary musical instrument of the elaborately choreographed and musically accompanied Migodo dance dramas of the Chopi people of Southern Mozambique. This tradition unlike most others studied in Africa to this date, consists of large orchestras of xylophones that perform extended pieces divided into programmatic movements. These movements consist of dance, music, and sung texts carefully woven together into a performance genre taken by many scholars as evidence of the influence of Indonesian practices on the continent because of its similarity to Javanese and Balinese Gamelans. In this article however, I argue that the musical traditions of the Chopi are and should be theorized as distinctly African, containing numerous musical and textual elements that reflect African social relations, musical aesthetics, and daily realities. The Ngodo (sing. form of Migodo) functions as an important mode of social commentary in Chopi society, where it conveys elements of Chopi culture and balances the power of local rulers through creating a socially acceptable forum for criticism. Migodo also serve a similar function in communities of migrant miners where makeshift xylophones are fashioned, and new adapted Migodo are composed. Relatively little research has been done in Chopi mining communities, and to highlight the potential of such research I look to the works of David Coplan (1994; 1995; 1999), who has done extensive research in South Africa and Lesotho on performance forms in migrant mining communities. In both the ‘traditional’ and migrant context, we see that dramatic and dynamic musical performance plays a vital role as a primary context for oral histories, social commentary, artistic expression, and the ordering of social, cultural, and religious realities.


The Peoples of Southern Africa

The region of southern Africa is a musically and culturally diverse mixture of ethnic groups each with independent histories, as well as shared historical experiences such as Portuguese colonialism. The boundaries of southern Africa can be mapped out in several different ways according to the primary criteria for differentiation. Numerous cultural, political, linguistic, economic, and musical relationships exist that link the ethnic groups of southern Africa in overlapping ways, making it appropriately difficult to draw generalizations between regional segments. Thus in discussions of southern Africa, scholars typically utilize sets of overlapping divisions to narrow-in on the population and practices that they are concerned with. One standard geographical division used to separate the region from Central Africa is drawn along 15 degrees south latitude, though this is a crude boundary that is better understood through a close examination of the geographic features that have historical connected or isolated specific populations. Language and ethnicity have perhaps been the most widely adopted criteria for dividing the region, with linguistic boundaries drawn between the Khoisan in the southwest, and the Bantu speakers, who are a part of the Congo-Kordofanian family that dominate the remaining areas (Kaemmer 1998). The six primary ethnic groups in the region are the Khoisan peoples (the Khoikhoi and San), the Nguni peoples (the Xhosa and Zulu), the Sotho peoples (Southern Sotho, Tswana, and Pedi), the Middle Zambezi peoples (Tonga and Ila, Lozi and Nkoya), the Southwestern Bantu peoples (Ovimbundu, Ovambo, and Nkhumbi) and the peoples of the southeast area (the Venda, Thonga, Shona, and Chopi). These ethnic groups inhabit regions of Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Tanzania, Malawi, South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, though some of these countries culturally, geographically, and linguistically fall within central and eastern Africa. Kaemmer notes that the one unifying feature of all of these countries however, is their contribution of migrant workers to the mines in South Africa, revealing the cultural and linguistic diversity of mining communities, as well as their potential for all sorts of interesting cultural interactions (Kaemmer 1998:310).

Regional Musical Continuities

In addition to these divisions, Southern Africa has general musical traits that connect the population, reflecting practices that are not necessarily exclusive to the region, but are nonetheless collected and combined in a specifically southern African cultural context. These traits include melodies that closely reflect the contours and phrasing of local tonal languages, a heavy emphasis on polyrhythm, and the widespread presence of membranophones, lamellophones, and xylophones. Compositional forms in southern Africa are generally cyclic, with an emphasis on variation through repetition (Kaemmer 1998). This cyclic compositional form found frequently in African music, may reflect a religious worldview that renders time as non-linear and cyclical (Mbiti 1969). This is supported by the observations of theorists such as John Blacking, who noted that the Venda people of Northern Transvaal do not identify beginnings or endings in their music, but instead understand it as a cycle that can be engaged at any point (Blacking 1967). There are many other possible reasons for the cyclical form that is commonly found in southern African music and far more research would be needed to draw any definitive conclusions. It is however, important to mention the possibility of the transference between religious and musical concepts because it touches on the interconnectedness of multiple domains of African life, as well as alluding to the intimate role that music plays in African spiritual systems.

Regional Instrumental Resources

In addition to these musical characteristics, southern Africans also have instrumental resources that, while found in other regions, are manifested and utilized in unique ways that are particular to the region. An example of this is the use of lamellophones in ritual music among the southeastern Bantu, whereas the lamellophone is elsewhere typically used for entertainment, frequently being played by traders and other individuals whose occupations necessitate frequent travel on foot (Kaemmer 1998:326). While southern Africa is well known for the lamellophone, the musical bow is also widely dispersed, being the primary chordophone of the region. The musical bow is constructed in several different ways in southern Africa, including the mobile gourd bow and mouth bow, and the stationary ground bow, which differ in their resonating chambers. Several different tuning systems also exist in the region, including pentatonic, hepatonic, and equiheptatonic scales. These combine with distinct timbral aesthetics to give southern African music a distinctly and uniquely African sound. The Chopi as mentioned above, inhabit the southeastern area of southern Africa, and the musical characteristics of this region include a general preference for instrumental music, which contrasts the long standing vocal music traditions of other parts of southern Africa, known for their multipart harmonies (Kaemmer 1998). These multipart choral harmonies found in areas of southern Africa reflect the integration of European influences with pre-existing indigenous practices. This pattern of change through the integration of and reaction to western influences has shaped many musical forms in southern Africa, and is likely directly connected to foreign trade and colonialism. Before we address the historical influences that have affected the music of Mozambique however, it will be helpful to consider the general layout of the country, as geographic features have functioned as important boundaries between ethnic groups.

Cultural Significance of Geographic Features

Mozambique is divided by the Zambezi River valley, which separates the northern matrilineal Arabic influenced Swahili peoples from the patrilineal peoples of the south. The people of northern Mozambique generally share more cultural traits with eastern Africans, while the people of southern Mozambique share similarities with southern Africans, though there are important areas of cultural overlap between adjacent communities. The peoples of northern Mozambique include the Swahili and Makonde peoples (who also inhabit regions of neighboring Tanzania) and the Makua and Maravi peoples. The people of southern Mozambique include the Chikunda, Nyungwe, Sena, Cuabo, Thonga, and Shona peoples, though the Shona (who the Chopi are culturally related to) live primarily in Zimbabwe (Mozambique 2004). In addition to dividing these cultural groups, the Zambezi River also marks a general harmonic division noted by A.M. Jones. Jones observed that harmonies employing 3rds and 4ths were generally found above the Zambezi, while harmonies of using octaves and 5ths were found below (Jones 1959:222). This division is likely increasingly deteriorating especially in the realm of popular music, however it is important because it reflects the influence of geographic boundaries on musical practice and exchange.



Regional Historical Influences

Portuguese trade and colonization significantly impacted the entire southeastern coast of Africa, introducing new cultural practices as well as social, political, and economic constraints. Pero de Covilha was the first Portuguese explorer to reach Mozambique in 1489, and the colonization of the entire southeastern coastline followed shortly after. Father Andre Fernandes was one of the first Europeans to provide a written account of musical practices in the region though his stay with the Chopi for just over 2 years in the 16th century (Tracey 1948:143). The General Government of Mozambique was established in 1752, beginning the formal rule of Mozambique by the Portuguese, though Portuguese coastal settlements established a strong foreign presence before 1752 (Mozambique 2004). Direct colonial contact was mostly limited to the coastal regions of Mozambique, as the interior was not colonized until the early 20th century. Mozambique achieved independence in 1975 and underwent over 20 years of widespread civil war, which greatly altered Mozambican life and virtually extinguished Chopi xylophone orchestras. This cultural attenuation occurred through the reduction of the male Chopi population via war, labor migration, and the deposition of chiefs who were the sole patrons of xylophone orchestras, and the disruption of traditional modes of transmission to ensuing generations (Mozambique 2004). According to Kaemmer, governmental agencies have begun to sponsor Chopi ensembles in place of local chiefs, and while this type of official sponsorship energizes the tradition, it is also introduces the potential for politically motivated musical change (1998:330).

The Chopi, who have inhabited the coastland area that is now the Zavala district just east of the Limpopo River since the 1500s speak Chichopi, which is a tonal language (Smith 1973). Interestingly, The Chopi use terms for small and large to represent treble and bass notes, and generally use biological similes to describe musical qualities (Tracey 1948:107). These linguistic practices offer insight into their musical concepts, such as the transference of relationships from the visual world to more abstract acoustic concepts of pitch quality. As noted in the general description of southern African music, linguistic contours are often closely mirrored in musical forms, and this can be heard in Migodo, where instrumental and textual elements are interwoven through intricate performance choreography. One of the more obvious distinguishing qualities of the Chopi xylophone orchestra is its size, which typically utilizes twelve to thirteen timbila, while most other African xylophone traditions use between one and four (Jones 1964:10).

The Ngodo Orchestral Dance Suite

The Ngodo (pl. Migodo) is the orchestral dance suite of the Chopi, which contains topical texts, carefully choreographed dances, and the orchestrated music of the timbila ensemble. Texts are the unifying compositional element of Migodo, as dance and music are composed according to the meaning and tonal contour of the text. The composition of Migodo is a collective, dynamic and temporally extended process, which begins with the creation of the text of a single movement. Migodo consist of between 9 and 11 movements, and in the process of composition, a new movement will take the place of an old one, until an entirely new Ngodo is formed (Tracey 1948:7). The song texts are generally written by the musical leader who also composes the melodies, though the process of authorship often involves contributions and critiques from the community. The musical leader (Musiki waTimbila) is considered to be the primary force behind the music, as he composes the first elements of the Ngodo, and directs the whole performance with calls (kuvelusa) (Tracey 1948:109). After the aural elements of the movement are composed, the dance leader is responsible for the choreography of the dance, though this sometimes takes place in tandem with the creation of the song text. The dance leader is called the Muningeti wabasinyi, and he works closely with the Musiki waTimbila in the composition of Migodo.

New Migodo are composed every two years or so, and the specific forms and texts of the old pieces are often forgotten (Tracey 1948:4). The musical portion of Migodo consists of unison sections called kudingang and improvisational sections called Kuhambana, which are signaled by the calls of the Musiki waTimbila. The use of calls to direct ensembles is found in other African musical forms, as well as Indonesian Gamelans. In the African context such calls are often performed on drums, though in the Chopi ensemble the lead musician performs the calls on the timbila. The texts of Migodo contain playful and humorous social commentaries, functioning as a vital forum for critiques both of ruling figures and local citizens. Many musical traditions in Africa have integrated modern influences into traditional forms, sometimes in overt ways such as the use of non-indigenous electrophones, and other times in more subtle compositional forms such as the inclusion of melodies from international pop songs. How Migodo and the process of their composition has changed over time and have been influenced by modern trends has yet to be explored in scholarly discourse, however it seems likely that Migodo have maintained their social relevance through adaptation to contemporary issues and contexts such as the migrant communities at southern African mines.

Contemplating the Origin of African Xylophones

While the xylophone is the most prominent instrument among the Chopi, they also use drums (Ncinga and Ngoma cikulu), idiophones, chordophones (such as the chizambi musical bow), and aerophones (ocarinas). The historical distribution of xylophones in Africa is not very well understood, partially because of the tentative and conflicting evidence for its cultural and geographic origins. Xylophones in Africa are most abundantly found in West Africa above 15 degrees N latitude, and Eastern and Southern Africa between 5 and 12 degrees S latitude, though they are also very common in Central Africa. While the origins of xylophones in Africa remain unknown, some theorists have argued that they are indigenous to the continent (Ankermann), while others have proposed that they were brought over from Indonesia (Kunst and Hornbostel). It has been suggested that Portuguese trade ships may have transported the concept of xylophones from Indonesia, however an account from an early Arabic traveler identifies xylophones in Niger in 1352 A.D., predating the arrival of the Portuguese by at least 300 years (Jones 1964:148). Historians speculate that Indonesians settled in Mozambique around 500 ce, based upon evidence of their settlement in other large river valleys in Africa (Mozambique 2004). This makes a very strong case for the potential influence of Indonesian musical practices and instrumental resources in Mozambique. A.M. Jones is one theorist who has written extensively on this connection, and has argued that several common musical characteristics demonstrate this cultural relationship, including the equiheptatonic tuning of the Chopi timbila (1964). As mentioned earlier, the size of Chopi xylophone ensembles is unique amongst African xylophone traditions, which represents another possible connection to Indonesia, along with the highly orchestrated Ngodo dance dramas similar to Gamelan shadow puppet dramas. It is however, important to distinguish between influences and origins, as the latter is extremely difficult to pin down and can become overshadowed by accounts of the former. Thus while xylophone practices in southern and eastern Africa have almost certainly been influenced by Indonesian travelers and settlers, they may have originated on the continent, and have undoubtedly been developed according to a deeply African musical sensibility.

The lamellophone is another instrument that is widely dispersed throughout southern, central, and eastern Africa, and has been linked to the development of xylophones in several different studies. Gerhard Kubik, in an examination of the origins of the lamellophone, finds that among several peoples in central, eastern, and southern Africa, the word stems for lamellophones and xylophones are the same (1999:24). He takes this line of inquiry further, suggesting that the similarity of terms demonstrates local associations between instruments, and that xylophones and lamellophones in fact developed in conjunction with each other (Kubik 1999:25). Thus the lamellophone is not an evolution of the xylophone or vice versa, but rather the lamellophone emerged in various areas of Africa through trade and invention, and was consequently developed through many of the same musical concepts used on xylophones. A similar connection was drawn by A.M. Jones earlier (though with less extensive evidence) when he argued that lamellophones originated from xylophones in the southeastern region of Africa, citing similarities in tuning systems, as well as linguistic commonalities in the terms used to describe them (Jones 1964:34). Hugh Tracey has brought this line of thinking to bear on the music of the Chopi, arguing that the Chopi timbila have an identical tuning to the nijari lamellophone of the Karanga people of Southern Rhodesia, who lived with the Chopi approximately 500 years ago (Tracey 1948:123).

Situating the Chopi Timbila

Chopi timbila, whether of Indonesian or African origin or both, whether closely or disparately linked to the development of lamellophones, have important characteristics that differentiate them from other African xylophones. There are five types of xylophones used in the Chopi ensemble, which immediately sets the tradition apart from many other African traditions that do not use xylophones of complimenting range. These xylophones are all tuned within an equiheptatonic scale, which is centered on a tonic called the hombe. The entire tuning system of an ensemble is based on the hombe, which represents a central unifying sonic resource in their musical system that otherwise lacks specific names for notes (Tracey 1948:119). The different types of timbila are grouped according to their range as follows: treble: cilanzane or malanzane, alto: sange or sanje, tenor: dole or mbingwe, bass: debiinda, and double bass: gulu or kulu. While the construction of these xylophones is generally uniform, the keys of the gulu are suspended between two wooden bars, as opposed to the other xylophones whose keys are similarly tied together, but rest upon a hide-covered frame. Timbilas are almost exclusively used in large groups playing Migodo, though musicians will perform solo pieces for children (Tracey 1948:119).

Considering now the musical example of a Chopi Ngodo found on African Dances of the Witwatersrand Gold Mines (195-) we can hear the dense polyphonic texture of the almost metallic timbre of the timbilas. The numerous timbila played at once lend the ensemble a very large, thick sound; an impenetrable wall of sound created by the rapid and relentless playing technique. Ululations, as well as whistles and instrumental calls project over the ensembles’ voluminous sound and fill each break between the movements. The beginning of each movement is indicated by a solo statement by the lead musician that quickly leads into a regular, generally duple meter piece in the case at least of this particular recording. In addition to the timbila pitched idiophones, we can hear a stick beaten, single headed membranophone, and small idiophones worn by dancers. The form of each movement is strophic, and each seems to have a specific tonal center that is balanced by adjacent movements. The physical layout of these Chopi performances consists of a line of xylophones in front of which dancers (Basinyi) and the audience stand facing the instrumentalists. The movements shift the focus between the dancers, instrumentalists, and the whole group of performers, with drum strokes accenting the choreographed dance movements such as the shield-slamming stomp dance, which is found in this performance genre as well as others in the region. The dancers stand together, each bearing a shield, spear or machete, and traditional dress. In modern manifestations of Chopi ensembles such as those found in mining towns, the traditional dress is often unavailable, and substitutes are made based upon available matching garments. The dances consist of coordinated choreographed sections in varying formations, as well as solo statements performed by one or two dancers at a time. The two most distinct dance gestures of the Ngodo dances are the vertical shield wrist-flipping about a horizontal axis of the outstretched downward facing hand, and a similar wrist-flicking motion made with the spear that abruptly raises and drops the shaft of the spear but keeps the point in place.

Musical Implications of Cultural Change

Chopi musical practices have been influenced by the tremendous political, economic, and cultural changes in Mozambique’s recent history. Music is transmitted orally amongst the Chopi, making the musical decline that occurred after independence among the Chopi that much more threatening to the existence of the tradition, as it was essentially not passed on to the next generation. Traditionally, boys were taught to play the timbila by sitting between the legs of their father, grasping the xylophone mallets in their father’s hands (Tracey 1948:108). Through this individualized process boys learned to play the timbila, however the entire community learned Migodo through their public performance, especially the song texts which are traditionally not written down, but exclusively orally transmitted and composed.

Traditionally chiefs sponsored the Chopi timbila ensembles, but their diminishing power and authority in Mozambique has made them unable to financially support such ensembles, some of which have since turned to government agencies for sponsorship. One element of this shifting context is that Chopi timbila ensembles now occasionally utilize non-indigenous European instruments, altering their sound (Kaemmer 1998:350). The establishment of several large mines in southeastern Africa has been a major influence on the lives of the Chopi and southern and eastern Africans in general, effecting their musical practices through new social and economic relationships. Diamond and gold mines were discovered in southern Africa in the 1800s, intensifing European influence and altering local economies (Kaemmer 1998). The opening of mines in southeastern Africa brought the promise of consistent work to otherwise stifled economies, and large numbers of workers comprised of linguistically, culturally, and geographically diverse peoples began to migrate to the mines. One of the obvious effects of this was the reduction of the male population in traditional settlements, which inhibited the process of oral transmission the Chopi timbila orchestra relies upon. These migrant workers however, have formed musical communities in their mining towns, drawing diverse musical practices together in the performance of modified timbila music.

Migrant Mining Communities

Migrant communities represent a remarkably focused site of cultural exchange that promotes the integration and adaptation of musical styles. These communities bring together musical concepts and practices from separate regions, and subsequently diffuse these influences back into rural communities on weekends when some miners are able to returned home. These heterogeneous mining communities are based upon the common experience of labor and music, often in impermanent and isolated communities. David Coplan has written several works on the musical forms of migrant mine workers in Lesotho, and while the Basotho are culturally distinct from the Chopi, his works offer some important insights into the role of music in mining communities (1994; 1995). Coplan documents the aural art form called safela sa litsamaea (“inveterate traveler’s songs”) created in South African mining towns. Safela sa litsamaea contain texts that reframe local realities through traditionally based contexts, such as traditional Basotho medicine and witchcraft beliefs (Coplan 1994). These songs also contain important nationalistic sentiments that challenge the economic and political domination of Lesotho by surrounding South Africa by asserting an independent national identity (Coplan 1994).

If we apply this model to the Chopi, the possibility arises that timbila ensembles in mining communities function as a location for the critical interpretation of Mozambique’s long enduring civil war and the undermining of local authority by centralized government. Unfortunately however, there has not been substantial research carried out on the music of Chopi miners, though Tracey does mention visits to Chopi mining communities, where he observed musical groups performing adapted Migodo (Tracey 1948:112). Tracey recounts some of the obstacles migrant performers faced such as establishing common tunings, since miners came from communities with different standards of tuning. Another problem was the lack of instruments, which was difficult to overcome considering the number and size of the timbila needed for the Chopi ensemble. Miners were unable to bring instruments to the mines from their homes as government authorities frequently confiscated them en route, or demanded a tax for substantially more than they were worth. As a solution to this problem, miners constructed xylophones out of a light wood, tin cans, and found materials that give the xylophones a different timbre than traditionally made timbilas (Tracey 1948:112). Thus the sound of Chopi xylophones at the mines took on a modern, synthetic sound that reflects the available instrumental resources and the unique circumstances of life in southern African mining communities. The Migodo created by Chopi miners also reflects this modern context, with texts that address the challenges of life at the mines (Tracey 1948:112). While substantial research has not been carried out on the Migodo of mining communities, it seems likely that their Migodo would be more syncretic than the original constituent forms. Other likely differences in the Migodo performed in mining towns include less experienced ensemble leaders (Musiki waTimbilas) as they are traditionally elder/established figures in the community, as well as different types of textual references pertaining to life at the mines. Music in mining communities is a daily outlet for creative expression that contrasts the harsh conditions of labor in mines, representing a crucial intersection of the cultural practices of the numerous ethnic groups in the mining communities of southern Africa.


The Chopi timbila orchestra is one of many possible examples of xylophone practices in southern Africa, and has been researched relatively little considering the frequency of references to it in ethnomusicological literature. Hugh Tracey’s work (1948) is still the primary source for information on Chopi music, though some extremely informative films have been made of traditional Chopi performances. One such film was a collaboration between Hugh Tracey’s son Andrew Tracey, the cinematographer Gei Zantzinger, and Chopi xylophonist and composer Venancio Mbande. This film documents the connections between large Chopi timbila ensembles and Vachopi “small musics” which include a number of informal vocal, instrumental, and dance ensembles (Coplan 1999). Venancio Mbande is said to be one of the last remaining master musicians of the timbila tradition, and has been involved in international efforts to establish a school of Chopi music to counter the recent decline (Mozambique 2004). While a clear mapping of the relation between Indonesian and African xylophones is as of yet incomplete, we can say with certainty that there are many distinct xylophone traditions in Africa that utilize and conceive of xylophones and related instruments in culturally, socially, and musically diverse ways, maintaining their close relationship with local orderings of aural and social realms. The lamellophone is an important instrument to consider with the development of the xylophone, as the two have been governed by shared musical concepts and compositional techniques that may shed further light on the musical characteristics of each. The Chopi timbila tradition has many outstanding traits, including its similarities to Indonesian Gamelan traditions found in both its equiheptatonic tunings, ensemble size and compositional program, and the dynamic adaptation of Ngodo to engage current social issues in traditional contexts and through migration to and transformation in mining communities. In these communities, there is evidence that the Chopi xylophone orchestra has been reshaped through the use of synthetic materials and the mixing of musical styles. Coplan’s work among Basotho mining communities opens up the possibility that Ngodo play a similarly vital social role as critical interpretations of political and social realties embedded within the acute power structures of southern African mines. All this suggests that further ethnomusicology research specifically on the musical repertoire and practices of the Chopi, especially in the dynamic communities of mining life, will offer new insights into the responses of southern Africans to contemporary and historical realities as well as the influences of globalization. In this sense, such performance genres promote a panoramic historical consciousness that has the potential to synthesize the experience of the local with the global in a transformative social commentary.


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