Stella Chiweshe, Zimbabwe’s mbira legend, has died in Harare at age 76. Here, we republish a piece by writer PERCY ZVOMUYA, in which he spoke to Chiweshe on how she defied detractors to become the foremost player of the ancient instrument, bringing an intrinsically Sub-Saharan African sound to stages all over the world.
In late 2018, Kasahwa: Early Singles, a retrospective compilation of eight songs by mbira maestro Stella Rambisai Chiweshe, was issued by the German label Glitterbeat Records to critical acclaim. In Chiweshe’s motherland of Zimbabwe, in a proverbial case of a prophetess having no honour in her own country, the news of the eight songs recorded between 1974 and 1983 barely registered.
At just under three minutes, the title track Kasahwa combines Chiweshe’s adventurous phrases on the mbira and her tenor vocals, but isn’t by any measure the stand-out tune on this album. That can be found on tracks like Gwendurungwe, a tune laid over a surface of looping mbira beats and pulsating rattles on which her unusually soft vocals are woven in to set out her mission in messianic accents.
“Ini ambuya ndotiza kuridza mbira, nokuti kana ndodziridza dzinonzwika nekoko.”
Music as radical rebellion
Picking up the mbira at the time that Chiweshe did, in the mid-1960s, was the ultimate act of rebellion, perhaps even more transgressive than going onto the streets to be a sex worker. The opposition was from the expected quarters: the colonial administration, the church, the patriarchy but also, unexpectedly, from other women.
The Rhodesian colonial administration was suspicious of the instrument, a sonic summation of the African’s technological trajectory in which he/she experimented with fire, iron and wood to produce a sound with earthy textures and yet one able to reach over into the realm of the ancestor-dead. (In the instrument’s iron keys, there was a mastery of fire, and in the gwariva, the sound board, of wood).
The Rhodesian bureaucracy was also wary of the instrument because of the mbira’s importance in Shona spirituality. (The priest Murenga – for whom the 1896-1897 war was named chimurenga, Zimbabwean, as opposed to Shona, for “revolutionary struggle” – had been central to the uprising.) The church, which occupied the spiritual end of the continuum of control, considered the mbira “the devil’s instrument”.
Then there was censure from the black patriarchy who, invoking African spirituality, said there were times when a woman couldn’t hold the mbira. Joyce Jenje-Makwenda, perhaps Zimbabwe’s foremost music scholar and a repository of the country’s music archive, wrote, “The mbira was and is regarded as a sacred instrument, which women were not allowed to touch when they were expecting or breast-feeding as they were considered to be unclean.” Yet the same patriarchy’s warped logic doesn’t forbid a woman who is nine months’ pregnant – at the end of that delicate journey whose perilousness is vividly captured in the Shona language as kuzvitakura, to carry oneself, an impossible task – from going into the fields.
Elsewhere, Chiweshe spoke about the practical difficulties of getting an instrument. In one interview she said, “The community where I was living was outraged. I asked [mbira makers] to make one for me, and some of them laughed like it was an insult. One man said, ‘Who do you think I am to waste my time making a mbira for a woman?’”
In social settings in rural areas, women and men sit on separate ends, but by playing the mbira Chiweshe had to sit together with the men, and this bothered the women as well. Faced with all this opposition, and despairing, Chiweshe went to her grandfather to ask why no one was supportive of her attempt to play the mbira. The patriarch told her: “No man will want to marry you because … mapira are held at night. This means you won’t be home, and the man will be at home with the children.”
A calling to the mbira
Against all this opposition, Chiweshe still picked up the instrument in the mid-1960s. When you talk to her, she gives the impression that she had no choice, that playing the mbira was a calling from those beyond. In a Skype interview during a break in her tour of Scandinavia (she is based in Berlin, where she is married to a German, Peter Reich), she related to New Frame how it all began.
One night at a bira, when she was still young, a person in a trance stated cryptically, Ini handizi harahwa inorididzirwa mbira nevazukuru vedzimwe harahwa sezvinonzi ini handina vangu vanazukuru … Mbira dzangu dzicharidzwa nevamwe varimuno. (Why are other people’s grandchildren playing the mbira for me as if I don’t have grandchildren of my own? Someone here will one day play the instrument for me.) Then the possessed person seemed to gesture in her direction.
After about two years, the reverberations of the drum beat from that night “started playing in my head”, and she started going to yet more ceremonies, hoping to hear that drum play again. Chiweshe’s fingers were itching to play the instrument, but there was no support from anywhere. “Are you crazy?” some asked, while others admonished: “Where have you seen a woman playing the mbira?” To be sure, there was a woman already playing the mbira at the time, Mbuya Beulah Dyoko, a pioneering gwenyambira, maestro of the mbira.
Her grandfather directed her to Flavian Maveto, a mbira player in Rukuma, Mhondoro, a huge expanse of rural and farmland to the south of Harare, where she learnt to play Buka Tiende and Mahororo, both hunting song standards. It was a return to the source, for Mhondoro is where she had been born in 1946 into the vaHera clan, a Shona ethnic group famed for their strong women, and where she lived for the first few years of her life.
On her departure, Maveto bequeathed to her a gwariva, the wooden soundboard over which the metal keys are mounted. She later got another teacher, Time Makoni, who helped her build on the foundation laid by Maveto. (At times, she lived so much in the shadow of Makoni that there are 1970s singles, such as Mutavara and Musasa, which are attributed to “Time and Stella Makoni” even though she has never been a Makoni. At the time the record was pressed, she complained but the producer Chris Matema just shrugged off her concerns.)
Music as miracle
An author’s first novel is a miracle, a feat you can’t really explain, said American writer Jeffrey Eugenides in an interview with the BBC. Listening to Chiweshe’s story of how her first single Kasahwa was pressed, you get the sense that her debut effort occupies the same category of miracle. One day, she was out watching football at Gwanzura Stadium, a stadium in a ghetto of then Salisbury (now Harare), when in the small pockets found in the clamour of the crowd a “distinct, big voice” cut through. “That song Kasahwa, you should get it recorded with haste. The earth and the bones of the ancestor-dead need it.” So clear was the voice that she looked around the throngs wondering if anyone else had heard the instruction.
Even though she had by this time become a mbira player of note, playing at mapira, Chiweshe had no clue what recording entailed. She related the otherworldly order to someone with knowledge of the industry who took her to a recording studio. On arrival at the front of the queue of musicians who were hanging around outside the studio, Chiweshe declared, “Ndauya kuzorecorda rumbo rwurikudiwa nepasi nemapfupa evanhu.” It’s a startling statement, full of millennial menace, to which the English translation could never do justice, but I will try: “I have come to record the song required by those who have left and the bones of the ancestor-dead.”
It’s not a surprise that her interlocutor, in turning her down, burst out laughing. However, he had managed to get an address and responded in no time at all, as if the drum beat that had been playing in Chiweshe’s head had also started reverberating in his head.
“After three days, I saw him come running towards me, his face dripped in sweat, looking at the faces of the people in that beerhall. I said to the people who were seated with me, ‘Look at that person, the way he is looking at the faces of everyone.’ And then he got to me, he said, ‘I have found you.’”
When in mock demur Chiweshe reminded the man of how he had turned her down before, the man wouldn’t hear of it. “Don’t even talk about it. Let’s go now to record.” Before the week was out, the song Kasahwa was on radio. “Overnight, I was a sensation. I was overwhelmed,” recalled Chiweshe. This was October 1974.
A post-independence journey
After independence, by which time Chiweshe was an accomplished gwenyambira, she was part of the National Dance Company, a dance and music troupe that was the initiative of mbira legends Ephat Mujuru and Elphigio Chiweshe, which toured the continent and overseas.
When she disentangled herself from the dance company, she began to establish herself as a band leader in her own right, forming the Earthquake Band. Her legend began to grow as she toured and her discography expanded, an oeuvre which includes the albums Chisi, Shungu, Talking Mbira: Spirits of Liberation and Healing Tree: Best of Stella Chiweshe. In Germany during one performance, so the legend goes, a woman who had been wheelchair-bound for years abruptly stood up and went up on the stage where she joined the gwenyambira on stage.
Chiweshe considered her sojourn in Germany, the heartland of Europe, as the fulfillment of a 1970s prophecy by an old man. In a trance, the elder began relating the destinies of six mbira players and when he turned to speak about Chiweshe, he said: “You will go to those who have lost their culture. Among them you will live as you teach them the old ways of the earth.” When she cried out that the commission was heavy, that she couldn’t carry it, the old man shrugged and said, “I am just a messenger.”
Chiweshe established herself as one of the most important players of the instrument. As theorist, she started redefining how the instrument should be played. Take, for instance, the song Mbira Trip, her hour-long, solo meditative reinterpretation of the standard Mahororo. It begins slowly with soft strumming of the keys, but as the minutes pile up and as the chords progress, achieves a beautiful bluesy crescendo.
Explaining the length of the song, which explodes the strictures of short radio formats, Chiweshe said: “Mbira songs are too short – three minutes, four minutes, five minutes. What’s that? That’s not how the mbira should be played. … I said, let me give freedom to the mbira. I don’t care if they say it’s too long.” She planned to make the song two or even three hours long by including rattles and the drum.
In Chiweshe’s hands, the ancient instrument spoke eloquently in a language understood by both the ancestor-dead and the living, making it possible for the two to remain in communion.