Sometimes it takes an outsider to fully appreciate a culture’s traditions. In 1972 American musician and budding ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner traveled to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) to study the mbira, a thumb piano the Shona people had used for over a thousand years. Staying in a hotel in the western part of the country, Berliner was roused from sleep by a strangely familiar sound.

“I made my way to the ballroom of the hotel and there was this young African group outfitted in shades and bell-bottom pants,” Berliner recalls. (He’s in Durham, North Carolina, on sabbatical from Northwestern, where he’s taught since 1976.) “They had re-created Elvis Presley recordings so well that I couldn’t tell the difference.” Before long, Berliner was talking with the group and playing them ancient Shona music on his mbira. “The guitar player laughed affectionately and said, ‘Nice chords, man. I’d really like to get together with you and learn some of those.’ The irony of the situation was that I was in the position to learn about 50s rock ‘n’ roll from them, and they were in the position to learn about mbira from me.”

Back then, most people in the U.S. were at least as ignorant of mbira music as that Elvis cover band. American jazz, soul, and rock had already saturated Africa, but African music, popular or traditional, was largely unheard here. Although labels like Folkways and Lyrichord in the U.S. and Le Chant du Monde in France had been recording indigenous music from around the world for several decades, their dryly packaged releases were geared toward academics, not the record-buying public.

That all began to change in 1967, when the young classical imprint Nonesuch Records launched its Explorer series, designed to turn the general public on to world music. Improved technology allowed Nonesuch to produce high-quality stereo field recordings; the label decorated the covers with evocative, colorful paintings and filled the booklets with clear, jargon-free liner notes. By 1984 the Explorer imprint had released 92 albums of traditional music from around the globe–including The Soul of Mbira and Shona Mbira Music, recorded and produced by Berliner in the 70s. Last month Nonesuch began an ambitious three-year project of reissuing that entire catalog on CD, and in August the label released all 13 of its African music titles.

Though not the first person to record Shona mbira music, Berliner was the first to introduce it to a large non-African audience, taking care to situate the music in its original role as an integral part of ritual ceremonies. He also wrote the 1978 book The Soul of Mbira, envisioned as a companion piece to the albums, and is currently working on a follow-up. In 1999 he organized a group of mbira master musicians’ first appearances in the U.S., including performances at the first Chicago World Music Festival. Now American audiences could enjoy these polyphonic repetitions live, as several mbiras–whose plucked metal keys resonate with a sweet marimbalike tone–created an intricate web of contrapuntal patterns atop the insistent rattle of the shaker called a hosho, while vocalists murmured, shouted, and sobbed, telling stories and summoning spirits.

Berliner first took an interest in the music after stumbling onto a primitive thumb piano from Uganda in a Boston import shop in 1968. Then a jazz trumpeter taking summer courses at Berklee, Berliner instantly took to the instrument, developing his own instinctive method of playing it. A few years later, studying at Wesleyan University, Berliner heard Zimbabwe’s Dumisani Maraire performing on the mbira. “I was so taken by the power of the music and its beauty in the hands of a serious player that it really changed my direction,” he says. “I decided to respectfully put my trumpet in its case and go to Zimbabwe.”

Berliner studied under Maraire for a short time in Seattle. While he applied for grants, he wrangled a visa from the Rhodesian government, and in 1972 he left for Africa. He arrived in the capital, Harare, then known as Salisbury, where he began to intensively study the Shona language. He practiced his Shona skills with the school’s grounds workers, eventually sharing his mbira playing with them as well.

In time Berliner was invited to meet some local mbira players, but the early 70s were not the safest time for a foreigner to explore that troubled nation. Widespread resistance to the colonial government was picking up steam. On his first attempt to travel to the townships, Berliner’s bus stranded him in the middle of a riot. He and an African friend spent the night huddling in an abandoned train car for safety.

Berliner’s luck changed after he reluctantly accepted an invitation to speak and perform on the Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio station. Initially he thought his appearance inappropriate–he was just a beginner, after all. But the program’s host claimed it would be meaningful for local residents to hear about a man coming so far just to learn about their music.

The inquisitive American next persuaded an mbira master named Hakurotwi Mude, who had heard Berliner on the radio, to take him under his wing. Mude’s extended family of mbira players trained Berliner and eventually performed on the recordings issued by Nonesuch. “It was very strange to the whole group because he was the first of his kind that wanted to study mbira with us seriously,” says one of those musicians, Cosmas Magaya, who’s currently visiting Berliner in Durham.

“The time to really work to ensure the preservation of important traditions is before they’re on their way out, before you’re left with a small community of ailing artists,” says Berliner. Many of the African traditions captured on early field recordings have vanished, but Shona mbira music has undergone a revitalization, first as a vehicle of pride in the emerging Zimbabwean national resistance, and then as a font of ideas for modern Afropop musicians like Thomas Mapfumo, Stella Chiweshe, and Forward Kenda. Since 1991 an annual festival of music from Zimbabwe called Zimfest has been held in various locations in the Pacific northwest.

“We hoped that if we could bring the music to people’s attention it would find a more popular audience,” Berliner says, “I’m sure people in the commercial realm felt we were naive in this respect. It took almost 30 years for the mbira tour to happen, but the fact that it did is a real testament to the value of the music.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alex Maness.