Totonto Star, African Queen >>
Stella Chiweshe is affectionately known as "ambuya chinyakare" in her Zimbabwe homeland - it translates as "grandmother of traditional music."
And she has been making music on the mbira (the thumb piano, known by other names such as kalimba elsewhere in Africa) for almost 40 years, even before her country won its independence from the colonial minority government. Since her first mbira single, "Kawasha," a huge hit in 1975, she has released more than 20 records (the first CD came out in 1987) and has been touring for the past two decades.
You might think this simple instrument can't do more than sound like controlled wind chimes, but you'd be dead wrong, as a listen to her newest CD, Talking Mbira, on the Piranha label shows. She'll demonstrate her instrumental smarts and towering voice on Sunday when she headlines the second day of the 15th annual AfroFest at Queen's Park.
Events take place on and around the mainstage south of the Legislature and in the park north of Wellesley St. Performances run from 1 p.m. to 10: 30 p.m., with DJs handling intermission entertainment. It's all free, and in the past has attracted more than 10,000 visitors daily. A second day of shows was added in 2000.
On the phone from Omaha, Nebr. during her 16-city North American tour, Chiweshe said her artistic skills came early.
"I was born a singer. I loved to sing when I was young at the mission school, and then when my grandparents moved I saw the mbira and I loved it. But the (colonial) government had banned the instrument because they feared it. So when I played at ceremonies it was in secret.
"If they found it on you, you went to prison and that made it hard to play in towns. Many times I had to leave my mbira with someone who lived near the place where we made music."
Chiweshe, who'll be backed on Sunday by three musicians who play mbira and drums - including the traditional Shona version - writes songs with traditional themes, even though she has pioneered combining mbira with modern instruments like guitar and keyboards.
The topics on her latest release are typical of black Africa, although there's a distinctive spiritual element in both her lyrics and the deep, raw power with which she makes her points.
The songs encompass the freedom struggle, how to bring peace, daily problems, faith and that old favourite, ignoring history and forgetting manners.
"I'm old-fashioned," says Chiweshe, who has worked in theatre, film and dance.
"I worry because a lot of young people have lost their traditions. But today I'm worrying because my marimba (ancestor of the vibraphone) has not arrived. I hope I will get one from friends."
She's but one of 18 performers at the festival that also debuts a multicultural drumming circle in a separate area where drum teachers will explain and demonstrate different rhythms.
And there's the popular marketplace.
The music will be broadcast live by CIUT (89.5FM), as it has done since 1990, when South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela was the headliner.
Festival artistic director Nadine McNulty, host of CIUT radio's Karibuni show on Sundays from 6 to 8 p.m., says she's excited that the lineup has artists from North Africa and Egypt among the 14 nations represented.
"It shows the diversity of Africa, which has many Arab people who don't regard themselves as part of the Mideast.
"We also have African gospel music for the first time, bands from East Africa that have not had much exposure in Toronto plus bands from Zambia and Eritrea for the first time.
"We're pushing the boundaries of what people think of as African music. Until now it's been dominated by the sounds of West Africa."
There are particularly interesting visitors from central Africa, the Royal Drummers of Burundi, who thrive although the country hasn't been a kingdom for a while. The ensemble, which has toured outside the troubled country since the 1960s, typically used to perform at ceremonies involving births and enthronements.
Drums in Burundi represent the powers of fertility and regeneration. The big drums ("ingoma") are hollow tree trunks covered with skin; a continuous beat comes from the "amashako" drums; while "ibishikiso" drums follow the rhythm of the lead "inkiranya" drum.
The group's percussion can be heard on folkie Joni Mitchell's classic album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. There will be dancers, too, at the Saturday performance.
The lineup for both days provides a grand showcase for artists now based in Canada but with powerful connections to their homelands - Congo, Zambia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia, Cameroon, Senegal, Ghana. Morocco and Kenya.
Here's a brief look at some:
Beautiful Nubia is a new-generation Nigerian poet, writer and veterinarian who leads the Roots Renaissance band that blends traditional rhythms, today's street music and politically charged songs.
Chasaya Sichilima, from Zambia's copperbelt city of Ndola, is a fine singer/songwriter with flashy dance moves. He'll be backed by jazz saxist Kenny Kirkwood and his worldbeat team, Zamcab.
Eritrea's Dawit Sium sings in many languages and plays the traditional kirar (lyre).
Also on Saturday there'll be Egypt's Yasmina Ramzy and the Arabesque Academy, singing siblings Rasselas and Helina Alemayehu Asfaw from Ethiopia, Somalia's Shego band, Zimbabwe's Nyamamusango Marimba and Mbira Ensemble and one of my favourites, the Congo's Star Five band, masters of rumba and soukous.
Morocco's Hassan el Hadi group brings together the musics of Berbers, Arabs and Andalusia (southern Spain) with a touch of jazz. The leader sings, plays oud (lute) and percussion.
El Hadji Boubacar Diabate from Senegal is a third-generation griot (musical storyteller) from Senegal who also plays kora, the region's 21-string harp.
Kenya's guitarist-singer Adam Solomon formed his band Tikisa ("shake" in Swahili) in 1995, sings in six languages and delivers hot dance music.
Also on Sunday there'll be two acts from Congo, traditional dancer, singer and entertainer Moto (whose name in Swahili means fire and he uses fire in his act) plus Kache Kashala, one of the few gospel groups in Africa, Cameroon's thumb piano virtuoso Njacko Backo, Ghana's master performer of traditional dance and drumming Isaac Akrong and Cameroon's Toum Kak drummers. Stella Chiweshe brings the sounds
of struggle and freedom to AfroFestWho: Stella Chiweshe at Afrofest
When: Festival runs Sat. & Sun. 1 p.m. to 10: 30 p.m. Chiweshe performs Sunday evening
Where: Queen's Park, north and south of the Legislature
Admission: Free. Info @ 416-469-5336 or www.afrofest.org
: Zimbabwe performer Stella Chiweshe, master of the mbira, performs at Queen's Park Saturday. One of two AfroFest acts from Congo on Sunday is traditional dancer, singer and entertainer Moto whose name in Swahili means fire. 07/03/03