Zimbabwe’s Jewish Music
Lemba guitarist Hamlet Zhou takes an interest in his African-Jewish heritage for a new album
Your family seems to have been quite assimilated in the village.
My parents did not talk much at home about the religion or traditional culture. The priests mostly taught us oral history about the origins of the Lemba and that we have our distinct identity. The non-Lemba people in the village would call us “Jews.” When I was small I didn’t even know what they were talking about. I only came to understand as time went on: Many people don’t like us. They just see us as these strangers, these outsiders. Also they believe we have secrets, and they also want to know what we really do, beneath the surface. That’s how people are: If others are just doing their own thing in their own space, they become suspicious and start prying, “But what are they really doing? Who are they?”
Listen to “Dziva,” by Hamlet Zhou:
In the past, when the Lemba first came here, some of them were advisers or consultants to local chiefs, that’s how they came to be granted land. So, there are lots of legends about Lemba people supposedly knowing secrets and possessing magic powers. Some people even believe that a Lemba can just point at a bird in the sky, and the bird will instantly fall to the ground dead, without even being touched. So, there are people who are afraid of the Lemba and think we are all witches.
Do the Lemba speak the local languages, like Shona and Ndebele, in any distinct way? Are there are any words particular to them, or an accent?
You can usually hear when someone is a Lemba. They have a way of talking. It’s not that they have different words, or even an accent, but a way of talking in proverbs or sayings. They like to use clever, twisted expressions in a way that you can recognize that this person is Lemba.
In Zimbabwe, many people practice traditional religions and ceremonies when they visit their family villages but attend whichever Christian church appeals to them when they are in the city. Is this true of the Lemba as well?
I know that it never used to be like that. Being a Lemba always meant that you were not a Christian. But nowadays people are exposed to many churches and options in the society, and they are free to choose, so they do what they want. In the past, the Lemba were strict about not allowing anyone to marry a non-Lemba. As an outsider, if you wanted to marry a Lemba person you would have to convert and become one of the Lemba. But these days people travel and move away from their communities, so you can no longer enforce these rules. You can’t find Lemba meat in Harare, though I can still avoid eating pigs and mice.
How do you see non-Lemba Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews that you have met? Do you recognize anything familiar or feel any affinity?
At first, you look at, say, European Jews, and obviously their culture is completely different, but when you find out more about them, then you begin to understand that there are those two or three basic things that are common among all of us. It’s just that we don’t have the records of who exactly used to do what and how it evolved. I went to the museum in Harare and I saw the Ngoma Lungundu, which means “The Drum That Thunders”—it’s the ceremonial drum that the Lemba say they carried to Africa hundreds of years ago as a symbol of the Ark of the Covenant. Maybe it’s a copy of a copy, maybe it’s not even a correct copy, but seeing it really convinced me that our connections are real: You don’t hold on to an idea for so many centuries unless you are genuinely part of that history.
What about the musical traditions of the Lemba. Do you remember your first exposure to the traditional songs as a child?
The Lemba have kept their music distinct over the years. I can’t say it didn’t change—music always changes and takes on influences, so I’m sure the Lemba music is not exactly the same as it was centuries ago, especially since we adopted the languages of people around us. However, it has kept certain unique qualities. For example, we have not adopted the traditional instruments of the region. Most traditional music in Zimbabwe uses the mbira, but in our traditional music we use the horns and percussion only.
Listen to “Chirimumoyo,” by Hamlet Zhou:
One of the suggested meanings of the word Lemba, according to Tudor Parfitt’s books, is “Those who refuse,” referring perhaps to the Lemba refusing to assimilate, or to eat forbidden foods or to share their culture.
That would make a lot of sense. People use the word Lemba to insult you when you’re being stubborn or obstinate. They’ll say, “You Lemba!”
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