Cosmas Magaya, Musician and Teacher of African Traditions, Dies at 66

Cosmas Magaya was a master of the mbira and a repository of Zimbabwean music and culture.

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

In his village in northern Zimbabwe, Cosmas Magaya played music to summon ancestral spirits at traditional rituals of the Shona people: ceremonies to request divine guidance, to ward off illness, or to call for rain.

The same music made him an internationally acclaimed performer and teacher of the plucked instrument called the mbira. He toured the world, made recordings, taught at universities and was a fountainhead of Shona cultural knowledge.

Mr. Magaya died of Covid-19 on July 10 in Harare, the capital, his daughter Tsitsi Hantuba said. He was 66.

Mr. Magaya played the mbira dzavadzimu, the “mbira of the ancestors”: a wooden plank with tuned steel prongs and buzzing resonators attached. He improvised around complex, age-old multilayered patterns, at once percussive and meditative.

In a long collaboration and friendship, Mr. Magaya helped Paul Berliner, an ethnomusicologist and now a professor emeritus at Duke University, to learn, analyze and transcribe the deep structures and improvisatory extensions of Shona mbira music. They worked together to impart the tradition to musicians worldwide.

In recent years, Mr. Magaya made annual visits to perform and teach in the United States, and he had students in Europe and Africa as well.

Some Zimbabweans thought he had revealed too much to outsiders. But, Ms. Hantuba said, “He was so passionate about mbira and traditional beliefs that he wanted to share as much as he could.”

Mr. Berliner first studied with Mr. Magaya in 1971 in the country then called Rhodesia, when the virtuosic 18-year-old Mr. Magaya was a principal member of a renowned mbira group, Mhuri yekwaRwizi. Mr. Berliner recorded the group’s music on albums released for the Nonesuch label’s Explorer series — “The Soul of Mbira” (1973) and “Shona Mbira Music” (1977) — that introduced many Westerners to traditional mbira music. Mr. Berliner wrote books about the tradition, including the “The Art of Mbira: Musical Inheritance and Legacy” (2020), guided by Mr. Magaya’s understanding of a profound, evolving cultural heritage.

In addition to Ms. Hantuba, Mr. Magaya is survived by his wife, Patricia Nyamande; two other daughters, Matilda Magaya and Rutendo Magaya; a son, Mudavanhu, who plays mbira in his father’s style; and 11 grandchildren. His first wife, Joyce Zinyengere, whom he married in 1976, died in 1999.

Cosmas Magaya was born on Oct. 5, 1953, in a rural area of the Mondoro (now Mhondoro) district. His father, Joshua Magaya, was a farmer, a traditional healer and a spirit medium. Cosmas began playing mbira when he was 8, initially taught by a cousin, Ernest Chivhanga, who also built mbiras. He was 12 when his cousin began taking him along to play at ceremonies. The leader of Mhuri yekwaRwizi, the singer Hakurotwi Mude, heard the teenage Mr. Magaya and invited him to join the group, and Mr. Magaya moved to the capital.

During the protracted civil war that led to an independent Zimbabwe in 1980, Mr. Magaya moved to Bulawayo in the south. He taught mbira at the Kwanongoma College of Music. But he mainly earned a living, from 1973 to 1997, as a depot manager for the government’s Dairy Marketing Board.

Mr. Magaya rejoined Mhuri yekwaRwizi as the musical director for its first international tours, in 1983 and 1985, in Europe. He later toured internationally on his own and with various ensembles.His teaching in the United States included residencies at Middlebury College and Duke, Brown and Stanford universities, and he regularly appeared at the annual Zimbabwean Music Festival in Oregon.

He returned to live in northern Zimbabwe, where he raised corn and cattle. In 2000 he became the program director for Nhimbe for Progress, a nonprofit organization devoted to health and education in the region’s impoverished villages, and in 2004 he succeeded his father as village headman.

Mr. Magaya saw his collaboration with Mr. Berliner as a way of honoring the memory of his ancestors and teachers. In “The Art of Mbira,” he told Mr. Berliner, “Once we’ve completed this study on behalf of our late mbira-playing comrades — leaving it for others who come behind us — I will know that if I die tomorrow, I can go to my grave satisfied.”

Cosmas Magaya was a master of the mbira and a repository of Zimbabwean music and culture.