Mhumhi Records

Joel Laviolette II

The word "mhumhi" is the Shona word for the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus). While sitting with Newton Gwara, Joel was trying to figure out a name for the record label. They began discussing deep Shona terms that related to mbira music. Gwara then told Joel a story:

In the rural areas, it is said that during the night if you hear the howling of the wild dogs, it means that there is a lion nearby. The dogs often follow behind the lions and feed on the remains of a lions' kill. The lion is also considered the carrier of the most powerful spirits in Zimbabwe (the Mhondoro spirits). It is believed that when a Mhondoro spirit is not possessing an individual, it lives in the lion. So when you hear the mhumhi howl, there is not only the presence of a lion, but also the Mhondoro spirits. So in the same way that the wild dog follows the lions, the mbira player must follow the Mhondoro spirits. This is the deeper meaning behind the name Mhumhi Records.

The Story of Mhumhi Records


Mhumhi Records is a not-for-profit record label that is dedicated to preserving and sharing some of the amazing music that is happening in Southern Africa today. Mhumhi Records is also dedicated to fair distribution of revenues to the musicians involved on the recordings. It was founded by Joel Laviolette II in 1998.

The story of Mhumhi Records is the story of Joel's love for the music of Zimbabwe. Joel grew up as a musical person and began playing the guitar at the age of 11. During his middle and highschool years, he pursued both music and visual arts as his dream, and finally settled on music. He was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and heard an mbira for the first time at the age of 18. He instantly fell in love with the music and by the age of 20 had taught himself much of the mbira repertoire as well as how to build mbira. He then spent two years traveling around the United States trying to learn from as many mbira players as he could. After a year in a university studying music, Joel dropped out to join the band Jaka in order to continue the learning. Feeling like he had learned what he could in the US, it soon became apparent that Joel would need to go to Zimbabwe to study with the originators of the music.

In 1998, Joel went to Zimbabwe for the first time. He had high hopes, but little money. During that time, he was lucky enough to meet and study with Newton Gwara, Sekuru Chigamba, Wiriranai Chigonga, and Garidziva Chigamba. He quickly ran out of money however, and had to return to the United States after just four months.

Upon his return, Joel had a renewed fire to return to Zimbabwe as soon as he could, and he had a plan. Having studied the pictures on the book "The Soul of Mbira", Joel knew that there were many different kinds of mbira in Africa. Save for the amazing work of Hugh Tracy and his son Andrew Tracy, there is little documentation or recordings of the many different types of music to be found in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Unfortunately, these recordings are also quite hard to get hold of in the United States (though getting easier-now that CD's are being released of Hugh Tracy's work). Joel decided to buy mobile recording equipment and go in the field to find the music that he wanted so desperately to hear. Joel jokes that he recorded the musicians so that he could improve his own mbira music collection.

After working furiously for a year, Joel returned to Zimbabwe in October, 1999. He had also refined his mbira style by then and knew that he wanted to spend his time learning from mbira master Newton Gwara. He met up with Gwara and rented a stand in the high-density suburb of New Zengeza 4 in Chitungwiza. He built a house which eventually came to be known as Mhumhi Studios. A few of the albums were recorded right there.

For the next year and a half, Joel traveled constantly throughout Zimbabwe meeting musicians, playing ceremonies, and talking to musicians that were interested in recording. He came to record many groups and types of mbira. These included the ChiSanza, Munyonga, Nyunga-Nyunga, Njari, Dongonda (njari neMakonde), mbira orchestra, Matepe, Nyanga (panpipes), Mbira DzaVaNdau, and well as several of the players of the Mbira DzaVaDzimu.

It is Joel's hope that these CD's will be a stepping stone for people to realize that there is a huge scope of music in Zimbabwe and Mozambique that have been rarely heard and studied. The Mbira DzaVadzimu is almost exclusively the only mbira people have heard in America and Canada. It is Joel's belief that this is purely because the Zezuru people are the main players of this version and are also centered in Harare-the capitol of Zimbabwe. Tourists and music students seem to go to Harare exclusively and rarely venture out to see other areas of Zimbabwe-unless they are going to a ceremony to hear music played by a Zezuru. Unfortunately, this leaves out the Karanga, Budya, Kore-Kore Tavara, Ndau, Sena, Manyika, and myriad other subgroups in Zimbabwe-and that's only some of the Shona!

Research makes a better product:

One of the huge limitations that Joel found in other mbira recordings available was the lack of adequate liner notes explaining the music. Joel decided that he needed to learn the Shona language to try and fully understand the music that he played. He also realizes though that not everyone wants to do that. That is why Joel and his assistant, Owen Chiwanza, have painstakingly translated the song texts into English. There are a few instances (mainly during long storytelling songs) that he had to give a general description of the story due to space, but the overall level of attention to the translations has never been more accurate. Ethnomusicologists, linguists, and folk historians will have a much broader understanding of the context of the songs. Many tsumo and madamikiro (proverbs and sayings) have now been translated into English where previous literal translations didn't make sense.

note: as there are inevitably minor details, revisions, and expansions, Joel hopes to one day put all the translations online so that up-to-date material can be available for research purposes. This will be available for customers and institutions only in an attempt to continue to monetarily help the musicians in Zimbabwe.


Money Distribution:

The money that is raised by selling these CD's is distributed as follows: 90% of all profits are paid directly to the musicians on the CD's. 10% of the profits goes to Joel Laviolette. This 10% is to offset the time that has gone into making accurate translations and laying out the design, etc. Each CD has taken and average of 20-40 hours of work on translations alone. Expenses for the cost of manufacturing the CD's and printing the liner notes are paid for with sales of the CD's before profits are distributed. Joel is very proud of his relationship with the musicians featured and prides himself on the transparency in their interactions. In Zimbabwe, the one record company (ZMC) is also the one TV and radio company (ZBC) and also is one of two major recording studios. Musicians generally go to ZMC and record their album, only to find out that after having to pay for their recording time, they can expect around 10% of the profits of the album sales. At the time Joel left, cassettes were being sold in Zimbabwe for less than $1 US each. That came out to $.10 for every cassette sold going to the musicians!


Thank you for your interest in Mhumhi Records. Please visit the "Ordering Info" page to email with any questions.

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Joel On the way to Dande Mhumhi Studios