All Thumbs

The first day of summer rolls out before us. We zoom south to Pier 45 on the lower west side of Manhattan, where we know we will find fantastic music played by an expert friend.

nora arrives

Nora Balaban is one of the foremost musicians in New York on the mbira, the Shona thumb piano of Zimbabwe. She arrives by bike to Hudson River Park, where we find a cross section of humanity and other species. (On the way down the island, stopping in the Inwood neighborhood, we passed an older gentleman carrying a goose in a wire crate. For dinner or companionship? Impossible to tell.) Here at the Pier, there’s a little bit of everything under the sun. Skates with the wheels on the outside, called land rollers.


The New York Water Taxi motoring in to dock, offloading both tourists and commuters.

water taxi

Pedigreed puppies in a strict training regimen, no petting allowed.


Sunscreen-slicked Type A’s on cellphones.

type a

Here at the pier, extensively remodeled and cleaned up by the city in recent years, we listen to the waves of the Hudson lightly slap the pilings. Directly south of us the Freedom Tower, still a work in progress,  balances at least one crane on top.

freedom tower

Speedo-clad sunbathers blanket the grass.


“Our audience is naked men with little thongs, and Gil,” says Nora. I’ve known Nora a very long time time, since junior high.

Nora and I

Everyone on Pier 45 seems rendered unconscious, lulled by sunbeams, water, clean green grass. “Summer afternoon,” said Henry James. “To me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” Nora and her band, MbiraNYC, will follow a musician named Poingly (real name: Jason Glastetter) who renders a performance not unlike a person confined to a lunatic asylum, dashing back and forth, climbing, wailing, rending his clothes, all at top volume. His first album is titled, no kidding, I Suck.


The ancient pilings in the river seem stoic under the onslaught.


Poingly’s performance, and Nora’s, are sponsored by MakeMusicNew York, a free celebration across all five boroughs, with Israeli and Korean performances in Midtown, West Indian in Crown Heights, Chinese in Flushing and French and Indian in Central Park. Nora tells me it originated around seven years ago to commemorate the summer solstice.

You’ve probably seen an mbira at some point but didn’t know what the metal-pronged instrument was called.


The band takes the “stage,” with folding chairs under a wing-like shade screen, and begins. Its music mesmerizes.

band far off

Nora has traveled to Zimbabwe many times to study mbira. On an early trip, she took herself to Mozambique, accompanied by an American buddy and packing a Portuguese phrase book (Mozambique shook off Portuguese rule in 1975), to train on  timbila, the wooden xylophone, with Venancio Mbande. He was the premier timbila composer, performer, instrument maker and teacher in all of Mozambique. One of Nora’s bands is actually called Timbila. They play a fusion of African rhythms and rock ‘n’ roll that is funky and joyous.


Her heart belongs to the mbira, though, which you play nested in a calabash adorned with buzzing bottle caps, and for which Nora requires regular synthetic reinforcements of her fingernails.


She gives lessons, and doesn’t judge you for your age or your musical inexperience. My brother Andy studies with her, the son of a high school friend does, even the boyfriend of my daughter took a turn and was so inspired, she brought him a perfect, small instrument from Malawi.

band clap

I am leaning back on my elbows, the damp grass soaking into my jeans, without a care in the world. This music does that to you. My brain is melting and that is a pleasant thing. Others are inspired to dance, like the slender young man with the blond faux-hawk that Nora spotted  in the audience at one of her performances. “You’re mine!” she told him, and now he arrives, kissing everyone in the band, and starts his moves, whirling and crouching and stretching his rubbery self to the sky. “ Gil and I admire him. “He’s just not attached,” Gil marvels.

dancer 2

The hosho players switch off with the mbiras, one musician with his long locks tied back and black sunglasses, another tripping the light hosho in a pretty sundress, a late arrival in a flame-yellow top, hair sweeping her knees. People pass by. People doze. They feel they’ve been lifted up, swung in a breeze of music like an auditory hammock. They feel the voices of Nora and her ensemble are calling them from within some leafy glade. “This song is called Meat in the Forest,” Nora tells the audience, “Like hunting – let’s go get us some meat. Not meet in the forest.”

band smile

But here on the pier, in the sun, against the waves, we are meeting in the forest. I am sure of it.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

2 responses to “All Thumbs

  1. Lori

    Looked up the Freedom Tower’s progress. I found this website: I wondered if you might know of a better.
    Still loving the blog!


    Interesting instrument. I read about and its *camps* in Berkeley and Hawaii and Argentina… all contributing to the support of mbira players in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where the unemployment rate ranges around 95% (though the true figures are unknowable). A sad National Geographics article in May 2013 calls it a country of (persistent… my word) storytellers and musicians: one Zimbabwean activist says… “please tell your world not to turn the page on us yet. Tell them to keep hearing us. We are still speaking.” And playing the music.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s