When British colonizers tried to stop mbira sessions in what is now known as Zimbabwe, the police were so enchanted by the music they lost track of their mission. That is the story told on the song "Kusenini," from Stella Chiweshe's latest CD Double Check Piranha Musik. Chiweshe is as unstoppable as the music she has become famous for playing. The colonial power's ban on mbira ("thumb piano") music, the missionary church's decree that it was "the work of the devil," and the Zimbabwean tradition forbidding women from becoming mbira players, could not keep Chiweshe from becoming the "Queen of Mbira," or Ambuya Chinyakare (Grandmother of Traditional Music). As one of the most internationally well-known mbira artists, she is often considered Zimbabwe's cultural ambassador.
Chiweshe explains that the song "Ndinogarochman" contains "a rhythm of the drum that I always heard inside me when I was young." She first heard the mbira from an old man when she was eight years old, and began the process of making her inner rhythm known to the world. "I was always making a rhythm - on the door, on a dish - I played it on everything. I also liked to sing very much, and loud," she told Afropop Worldwide.
Her foray into mbira music was as much spiritual and political as it was musical. Mbira holds a special place in Zimbabwean culture and identity: it is sacred in origin, but was almost extinct by the 1930s due to colonial suppression. However, thanks to artists like Chiweshe who kept the tradition alive, the sound had a huge revival with the independence movement of the 1980s and has become the "national" sound of Zimbabwe.
While Stella has made her way from her native village to the stages of international music festivals and European concert hall stages, her roots are in spirituality and the healing power of music. She began her career playing at ceremonial gatherings such as weddings, healing ceremonies and funerals in the countryside. At one point, the spirit medium at one of the ceremonies turned to her and said, "I'm going to tell you your tasks in this world...go to the city people, and introduce this music to them." In spite of this mandate, she has attracted a fair share criticism for this breaching of the boundaries of the spiritual and the popular.
The 2-sided album Double Check shows both sides of the artist: her spiritual roots and her show-stopping popular classics. She recorded the drum-centered songs of her ancestors for the first time in her 40-year long career on Disc 1: Trance Hits. She says, "For a long time I have always started my shows on stage with this traditional sound, but now I've thought I should bring this drumming sound out fully. This new album is much more rooted...and rootsy. It's older because guitar music came much, much later into my life.... I knew the drums and mbira long before I got to know the guitars and marimba." Disc 2: Classic Hits features a collection of these guitar-and-marimba tunes that have made her famous.
Chiweshe firmly believes that the gentle mbira timbre is "closely related to the sound of water, something that is innately familiar to all people, and therefore the mbira is instantly memorable and comforting. It is a total form of therapy in itself." She uses the spiritual element in her performance, sometimes going into a trance on stage. According to Afropop Worldwide's Banning Eyre, her look also conveys mystique: "With her penetrating eyes, habitual snuff-taking, ankle charms, and dreadlocks falling in front of her face, she has a powerful presence."
In Disc 1: Trance Hits, she journeys through the world of her ancestors, preserving their traditions. This is how trance should be played. I've never been a fan of trance as played in pubs across the world, but Chiweshe's music is different. It has a primitive tribal beat and rhythm. The beat is hypnotic without the mindlessness and mind numbing properties of a lot of music that passes for trance today. The first song "Wanyanya" translating into "That's too much" is actually a little too much since its repetitive for 6:14 minutes but that's the only piece that I did not like in the album, although this is Stella's favourite track. It's for the spirits of the baboons because the baboons are the guardians of her people. "Kuseniseni" or "Early in The Morning" has English lyrics and a much better beat. Apart from "Wanyanaya" all the compositions have enough variations in between to stop the listener from getting bored.
The Mbira with its sound of flowing water relaxes and tranquilizes the listener. The music hypnotises you and draws you in. Some songs have ululations that may seem familiar to Bengalis.
Stella says "The songs on this CD are newly recorded but that doesn't mean to say that the music is new."
In Disc 2: Classic Hits, she revisits the urban streets in Harare and calls on the younger, westernised generation to take pride in their own culture. And this CD has made me a Stella Chiweshe fan. It's very much in the easy listening genre. The beat and feel is that of the Goan bailas and instantly lifts your spirits. The music is energizing with some interesting instruments and variations. "Machena" even has dogs barking in the background, possibly because it's about "Whiteness" - A Dog Gone Astray.
The songs on Classic Hits feature her vintage band Earthquake. Each song has a story behind it. If you would like to know the stories, buy the CD, the accompanying booklet has the background and backdrop of these lilting songs.
If you would like to sample the music before you rush for your own copy, click on the following links.
"Madzokero (How he came back from his hunting spree)" from Double Check: Two Sides of Zimbabwe's Mbira Queen CD1 -Trance Hits (Piranha).
"Zvinonhamo (Here comes poverty once more)" from Double Check: Two Sides of Zimbabwe's Mbira Queen CD1 -Trance Hits (Piranha).
To learn more about Stella Chiweshe visit the Stella Chiweshe official site.
Published on desicritics.org