IT’S 48 hours before Thembani Mhambi is due to perform at the Securities Exchange Commission in Harare and the 39-year-old violinist has muted her social media as she mentally prepares for the event.
“Every person we communicate with is giving us a part of themselves and taking a part of ours. If I want to give a good performance, where I leave the audience feeling like ‘she made us feel good’ then I have to do that. I cannot have negative energy.” said Mhambi who goes by the name ‘Adora Lee’ on stage.
At the age of 13, while in her first year of high school, she knew that her place was in the music room as opposed to the sports field the minute she joined the music club and began to learn the viola. At around the same time, it dawned on her that learning a string instrument would take discipline and a great degree of commitment.
“I initially learnt the instruments because it was something my mother forced me to do, but I carried on because I enjoyed it so much. It was just something special for me, and I really didn’t have anything else; that was my little claim to fame.”
“I would practice every single day for an hour… you really have to practice every day, especially in the beginning. You are working new muscles, using them in a different way. We are used to writing, we are used to typing on our laptops, so we have to train these muscles to do things differently. You also have to listen attentively because there’s nothing to guide where the fingers should go,” she explained.
By the age of 15, Mhambi had also had her first taste of the stage, she began by performing at a wedding at her church.
As more opportunities presented themselves – including performing with the Harare City Orchestra – she started toying around with the idea of making a career out of music after high school. But with very few role models around. At the time, the idea seemed far-fetched.
“There was Nokuthula Ngwenyama, a Zimbabwean-Japanese violist and Jane Nhamo, a Zimbabwean violinist. They had careers performing as Black musicians. I do not recall any black violin teachers. So to even imagine becoming a teacher? You would not even think of it,” she explained.
While unsure of what would become of her classical music journey, Mhambi continued to nurture her craft in a field driven by perfectionism. She also noticed how music fostered key traits that would reinforce whatever career path she found herself in – traits that included patience, discipline, self-control, and perseverance.
“You have to really keep repeating and repeating and I think there is some element of humility that has to come in as well to be able to take the feedback. Because in classical music, the standard is so high, there is a lot of criticism and I think that’s why many people don’t even continue after high school,” she said.
When she bid farewell to school, music was not deemed a viable career path, so Mhambi enrolled for a physiotherapy degree at the University of Zimbabwe. However, she held on to her music and continued to perform on the side while pursuing her studies.
“We would come together as a group with musicians in Harare and we would perform at weddings if someone needed classical music walking down the aisle. We went to the Bulawayo Music Festival. I continued to play, even with the Harare City Orchestra” she said.
Before long, event directors took notice, including Sylvia Sanyanga, an event director with her own brand, Kutenda Creations, who booked her for a performance.
“Adora Lee is truly gifted. She is an absolute gem. Not many people play classical music in the way that she does. She was given an anthem to play and she learnt it and presented it beautifully to the appreciation of diplomats, government officials and other invited guests. Her level of expertise and professionalism will take her very far.” Sanyanga exclaimed
After receiving her degree, Mhambi went full throttle with her music career and completed a year-long formal teaching course under the instruction of a strings teacher from Canada, who imparted knowledge on the Suzuki method of teaching. The method is specifically focused on teaching young children how to play an instrument using their mother tongue, which is how a child acquires language. Thereafter, Mhambi began to teach private school students in elementary grades 2-7, working with 8 to 10 students in each session.
Mhambi was mindful of her own traumatic experiences with learning music and tailored her approach to uplifting students.
“Since I was bullied at school as a child, one of the things that I tried to do with my students is to create a safe space for them. I try to take each of them as an individual. In the classes I try to build up their self-esteem, I try to point out something positive before the negative,” Mhambi disclosed.
Charles Katamba Kazaku, who taught at Arundel School with Mhambi, attests to her dedication to the craft and the process.
“Thembani effortlessly established a strong rapport with the students, captivating their interest and igniting their passion for music. Her ability to inspire and motivate them to strive for artistic excellence was truly commendable. Also being one of the few who also play the viola, she brings a distinctive perspective and skillset to her performances and teaching style. In addition, it is worth noting that Thembani stands out in an industry where diverse representation is limited.” Kazaku said.
After teaching string instruments in the private school space for about 5 years, Mhambi felt she needed change. She yearned for an avenue that would allow her to give back to children who did not have the same opportunities she had had. An opportunity to volunteer in South Africa served as the perfect fit.
“Just before COVID, I volunteered for 2 months in Cape Town for a project called Muzu Kidz, where we were teaching the violin to children from the townships, I was also learning from the teachers,” she explained.
That trip to Cape Town sparked a desire in Mhambi to create a violin tuition program specifically targeting underprivileged girls and boys back home in Zimbabwe and her current efforts are geared towards bringing that project to fruition.
Her intention is to use music as a platform to impart critical life skills and build a collective of artists of colour to continue inspiring generations to come so that they too can achieve anything they set their mind to.
“When talent is identified and fostered, amazing things can happen. I feel we shouldn’t limit it to the privileged children because talent doesn’t choose where it appears. I see the violin as a way of teaching life skills, in a way it’s a mini-small version of life,” Mhambi said.
“Traditional education is not enough anymore to make that difference. We have seen that it is not just education that is going to empower people economically, there are all these soft skills that need to be developed so that’s what I really want to do – help building self-esteem. I actually believe that if the kids are given a chance they can do well,” she added.
Some of Mhambi’s most memorable performances include performing with musical legend, Oliver Mtukudzi, and at the Nelson Mandela peace concert in South Africa in 2008 as part of the ‘Music is a Great Investment’ program. Her big dream is to hit the stage with acclaimed Nigerian Afrobeats superstar, Burna Boy.
“I enjoy performing with other people, (or) by myself. I really enjoy making music,” she said.
Zimbabwean Violinist Thembani Mhambi (centre) with makeup and body artist Kellie Barker (left) and cultural manager Nomsa Sithole (right) at “The Meetup”, an event with American celebrity chef Carla Hall at Emagumeni Cultural Centre Harare, where she performed on September 2023. Photo Courtesy: DigitalBae