|A Temple Returns to Nature in Cambodia|
This post goes out to everyone, but specifically to a student of mine who recently narrated a rather 'strange' - if enlightening - training experience he had in a long forgotten corner of our once-great city. There is a saying in Silat: "Alam Terkembang Menjadi Guru" which means "Nature is our Teacher." The text is from an interview with Dr. Barbaro Martinez Ruiz, author of the excellent work Kongo Graphic Writing and Other Narratives of the Sign. I hope this gives you (my student) a sense of perspective. Keep going forward. - JD
Simbi in Kikongo means the power to hold, or to sustain. But that would be the etymology of the word. Simbi is singular; isimbi is the plural in Kikongo Kisansala. In Kikongo Kimanianga it would be yisimbi.
Yisimbi is the kind of manifestation of the vitality that gives power to planet Earth. That is, a kind of vitality that is multiplied in multiple forms. That vitality could be physical, could be mental, or it could be also manifest as a combination of both. And that means simbi is essential to understand the environment in which we as humans live and interact, but simbi also could be what keeps us alive.
According to the Kongo tradition, there are two things that keep us alive. One is blood and the other one is water, and that gives us our vitality as a living being.
There is a simbi of the forest. There is a simbi of the water — but not just one kind of water, all types of water have a simbi that inhabit, that manifest through that particular type of water. It could be the ocean, could be fresh water of a river that will take the name of a river, or if you have a lake, will take the name of that. Also you have a simbi of one single tree that has medical properties, or you have a leaf that is dried, or a leaf that is still on the tree.
You have the simbi of an earthquake, of a tornado, the sun, you have the simbi of a mountain, or the savannah. Each is a different entity. You have the simbi of speech that gives you the power to talk. That is the way the religion is organized, you have Nzambi Mpungu Tolendo, and that is the power itself, and you have Nzambi Mpungu Deso, is the kind of spiritual guide that is invisible, that doesn’t have any kind of intervention in the life of the people.
And after that, you have kalunga, that could be identified as life itself, when life is created. And you have the simbi, the multiple power of god manifest in multiple ways, and below that you have the bakulu, the ancestors, that are always in contact with the simbi. And that is pretty much the order, you have nzambi, you have kalunga, you have isimbi, and you have the bakulu. And humans below the bakulu.
Mbiti [thumb piano] works with the simbi . . .
The mbiti, or kissange. There are three main ones. One has seven keys, one has twelve, and the other has twenty-one. The way many people explain it to me, because the simbi are plural, there are so many of them, it’s very difficult to put them together into one single space.
Mbiti is one of the instruments that can bring the many different simbi together, using the key of the finger piano, to have contact, and use as a vehicle in which simbi can manifest their own power through sonic components. At that point music and sound become the force of the simbi through the instrument.
The instrument is a vehicle that allows the simbi to manifest into the realm of the living. It’s very important, because it’s the one that can combine different simbi that are very difficult to have all in one single space, or one single object that can speak to them. Because one family knows one simbi. One priest, one nganga mawuko, knows one simbi, maybe two, and works with these two all the time, but they cannot work with all of them at the same time. But mbiti as an instrument can have pretty much the skill of many experts as one, just through an instrument.
Because each sound and each side of the key represents one simbi power. And when you’re playing, you’re not playing music, you’re touching simbi through the music. That is the way it’s conceptualized.