BREATHE! Tones of Resistance


"Tones of Resistance" focuses on the mbira. Featuring music and ceremony, performed and conducted by Miles Ncube, an mbira player and spiritual medium, the spiritual significance of the mbira resonants through the film. Religion as a mechanism of colonial control is also explored, through interviews with Thabo Muleya.

The film can be viewed, alongside others, on InsightShare's YouTube account.
Below is a transcript of the film with stills. 


A man stands in a room full of seated people


And we go like this, all of us, we are on the table.

Great ones, realign us with love and light.
Grand keepers of the sacred rock pools and forests.
Those who dance and it rains, those who stretch their legs and it rains.
Thobela, Mbedzi, Kumbuzi, Venda...

[Mbira music by Miles Ncube plays]



A man stands surrounded by glass display cases, leaning to look at objects on display


[Interview with Thabo Muleya]

Back in the day, people who played the mbira were called Gwenyambira.

Gwenyambira means to tickle the mbira.

I first became aware of the instrument, musical instrument called mbira when I was young. My uncle used to live in the villages. So when he visited when he came to visit us in town, he used to bring the instrument and then he used to play it. It's an instrument that was used with the melody Shona people for thousands of years with this instrument. They used to play it mainly as a conduit to connect with the spiritual world. They also played the mbira when they wanted to appease the spirit so that they can have rains coming. They played mbira when there was a funeral. They also played mbira to just celebrate life. So these people, they had their connection with the spiritual world. So not everybody just picked up the mbira and played it.

Before the advent of the missionaries, it was a day-to-day instrument that was used within the people. And then when the missionary came, they introduced Christianity. And then when Christianity came, they told the people, the natives of Zimbabwe, that the practice of spiritualism is devil worship.So anything that's connected with spiritualism, it was considered worshipping the devil. So when most people were converted into Christianity, they shunned their own traditional beliefs. So within that time, most people were baptized. They were given English names. So people didn't understand the power of words.


A head and shoulder view of a man in front of a bookcase.


A word can build or a word can diminish. So what most of the words that we use, that we used to say, we are nothing, our culture is irrelevant, so we will name them each way that we want. Like with these words, they were used so many times within the context of the imperialistic forces.

Zimbabwe, by that time it was called Rhodesia, named after Cecil John Rhodes. Then when Zimbabwe got its independence in 1980, that's when they changed the name to Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is Zimbabwe, which means it's the House of Stones. The people of Zimbabwe came to a point where they wanted to stop colonialism because there was colonialism at the time, which means that the country was divided into white, black, Indian, mixed race people. So within that, they were saying that white people were more superior. The people were the lowest of the lowest. So the land was also divided unfairly. The most arable land was given to the white people or the colonial masters. And then the less arable land, black people were just put into one small little place where there was no rain in the state. So people took up arms and they said, we need to get our land back.

So by them trying to get the land back, they started connecting with the spiritual world. They started looking for a meaning within themselves say, what are we? Who are we as a people? So the only connection that they had was through their traditional. So then that's when they picked up the mirror again. And then they started playing the mirror as a rallying point for people to connect with their ancestors so that they can give them the strength to go to war and get the land back. So after that is what we got is independence. And then mbira kind of took a bit of an exit, but now it's just sort of like evolving into the mainstream popular culture where people just play the music with their music groups or functions, or infuse it with different kind of generals of music and different instruments now being taught to schools. And then people are also infusing with different musical instruments, different musical styles, but  also for it to actually be empowered.

I think it starts from the mind. When I say from the mind is people have to start loving themselves. People have to start embracing their history. Because if you don't embrace your history, you always keep the mentality that was taught to you by your slave masters or your colonial masters to say you cannot love yourself. So taking the instrument, using the instrument, embracing it, is also embracing us as a people.


Close up view of the metal keys on the wooden body of a mbira


It's giving us the power. And also to know that what we're doing right now, we are sharing with it, we are allowing it to tell the story. A lot of young people, they are embracing the instrument and they are playing and they are also infusing with the old choruses and also inventing their own new vocals and lyrics and then attaching with the guitar, with the drums.

But I think there is a lot of resurgence and a lot of people are embracing it, but I don't really think maybe within that spiritual aspect per se. But they sing it, they use it just to say, we are from Zimbabwe, this is our instrument. It's a new twist to it, which is quite amazing. The people are touring the world and then they are going out there doing tours and playing the mbira in front of packed houses all over the world. People are becoming self aware. You see a person without a history, you know, you're like a tree without roots. So we need to embrace and go back and try to rewrite the narratives in the history that has been lied to us about.


An instrument made from a block of wood with metal keys is held in a round dome.


So this is for me to grow as a person who's also for other people to grow as people to tell the truth about this instrument that you don't get in the mainstream media or even within the context of the museums. But don't forget these objects, they were taken during the time when we were not considered equal. So they were just objects of curiosity that people sit down on the table and just go like, I bought this from Zimbabwe when I got it from Rhodesia. So they got to sit down when they have their dinner, drinking their pot and then they just discuss about these things as if they're nothing. It's a small little music instrument but it is a history of an entire country.

That's how powerful it is. So we want to tell its story.


A head an shoulder view of a woman stood in front of green hedge

The filmmakers ask questions of the Mbira on display.


What is your fondest memory?

What did you dream of when you were young?

Who are the people that carried you?

How did you get here?

How many times do you think of escaping the museum?

How do you feel living in the museum with so many other cultural objects?

When was the last time you heard rain?

Do you miss being played?

Did the last person who played you actually know how to?





 This video was made in August 2022 as part of the BREATHE! project. 
BREATHE! explores histories of colonisation through exploring African objects in European museums and connects these pasts to present-day experiences, identities, and the on-going colonisation of Africa.


Project partners:
InsightShare (lead), Kulturhaus Brotfabrik, Pitt Rivers Museum




BREATHE! was funded by Erasmus+ and the Arts Council England.