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Summer 2009 | Volume 32, Number 2 | Books & Film

Zimbabwe Musicians’ Stories

Book Preserves tradition

The African country of Zimbabwe has been in the headlines in recent years — but not much of the news has been good. Between economic hardship and political turmoil, the world has witnessed a nation’s continued suffering.

In such times, it’s more important than ever to remember why nations exist: to safeguard societies and the culture they create. Keeping the Embers Alive: Musicians of Zimbabwe (Africa World Press), a book by Myrna Youngren Capp ’59, is just such a reminder.

In it, Capp, an adjunct assistant professor of music at Seattle Pacific University, interviews 13 Zimbabwean musicians about their background, experiences, and philosophy of music.

Capp teaches piano and piano pedagogy at SPU. Her musical background is ideally suited for writing a book such as this one: She has spent several years traveling and teaching in Africa, and studied the Zimbabwean mbira (thumb piano) with the late Dumisani Maraire. One of Zimbabwe’s leading musical ambassadors, Maraire earned a doctorate at the University of Washington.

Capp approaches her subjects more as a fellow traveler than a journalist, and the resulting interviews help the reader understand Zimbabwean music within its broader social, political, cultural, and religious contexts. “Andrew Tracey, an ethnomusicologist at the International Library of African Music, told me one of the important aspects of this book is that we’re hearing the Africans’ voices,” says Capp. “Because theirs is an oral culture, they don’t write everything down. Putting this down in book form is really valuable — otherwise these important stories will be lost.”

What emerges in Keeping the Embers Alive is the idea of Zimbabwean music as not only entertainment, but also a touchstone for culture and society —the music was suppressed during colonial rule and emerged during the independence movement, but still faces a host of challenges, including the need for a robust education system and questions about the mixing of tradition and modernity. Also, says Capp, under Zimbabwe’s political regime, even musicians have to choose their words carefully.

Capp’s daughter, Teri Capp ‘83, contributes drawings to the book, and a second daughter, Kristin, provides nearly 40 black-and-white photographs. The book is available at and Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company.

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Zimbabwe Musicians’ Stories
An SPU alumna and adjunct professor tells how a nation’s music is keeping its culture alive.