You can just run into Oran Etkin around town—most Wednesdays he's the guy who rolls into Barbès in Brooklyn late, with his clarinet, to join the Mandingo Ambassadors.
But don't let him fool you—Etkin is a renowned musician, a world traveler and an educator. He's woven all of those threads together into the “Timbalooloo” method of teaching music to kids—which focuses less on playing the right notes and more on teaching children how to make their instruments “talk.” He's been touring around the world—China, Turkey, the Czech Republic and, as in the video below, Zimbabwe.
Jet-lagged and freshly on the ground in Zimbabwe, Etkin woke up early, when the only other people who were up and around were the kids. So naturally, he asked them to teach him a song, and they taught him “Kutapira,” a song about a sweet pumpkin.
Etkin was staying as a guest with two traditional families who are masters of mbira music: the Chigambas and the Chingodzas. While at the home of the Chigambas, the best gwenyambiras, mbira spiritual masters, from the region gathered for a 14-hour ceremony. Seven hours into it, while the sun was coming up, Etkin was invited to join in on the clarinet.
“We were all taken aback by the deep connection that was formed, and so with the help of Zimbabwe’s top drummer, Sam Mataure (who worked with Miriam Makeba, Thomas Mapfumo, etc.), we went into the studio and recorded!” Etkin says.
Their recording of “Kutapira” features Musekiwa Chingodza singing and playing mbira, joined by the girls choir of Zimbabwe College of Music, Mataure on drums, and Marcos Varela (Oran's bassist from New York).
The Timbalooloo album, Finding Friends Far From Home: A Journey With Clara Net, is available for preorder and comes out Aug. 30.