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"Ndabaiwa" from Talking Mbira (Piranha)
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Travels with African Music

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The Globe and Mail, Travels with African Music >>

BY Carl Wilson

‘Travel with your ears,” reads the slogan for the German-based Piranha record company, emblazoned on the golden seal deservedly affixed to the cover of Talking Mbira: Spirits of Liberation, last year's glorious collection by the Zimbabwean Queen of Mbira, Stella Chiweshe.

In a quick jerk of the knee, the phrase turns me off. It rings of vacation-poster come-ons hung on the walls of travel agents, luring Western office workers to treat other cultures' arts as cheap mental holidays, and . . . well, insert patented post-colonial tourism critique here.

And yet. Above, I nearly described Chiweshe's album as “transporting,” before I caught the pun. It showcases her virtuosity on the mbira, the metal-reed thumb-piano that's the centre of Zimbabwean music, and her raw, soaring singing in a variety of settings, some more traditional, some more pop, some verging on experimental.

Transporting is exactly what it is meant to be — a channel, she says in the liner notes, through the veil of the spirit world that lies behind this one. Among the Shona people of Zimbabwe, the mbira was a ritual healing device as well as a party starter, and each of its reeds are said to call forth different manifestations of the dead, of the family, of natural forces.

As a Western listener, I can't help receiving such glosses with polite interest and not much more. I don't speak the language or grasp the world-view. And I certainly haven't, like Chiweshe, fallen in love with an instrument that the white missionaries and rulers of then-Rhodesia considered contemptible and threatening enough to ban — and so had to learn it in secret and play only by night.

Nor is it easy for me to imagine how, even after the white regime was deposed in 1980, being a woman mbira player was suspect among her own people. Female musicians in that conservative society were automatically assumed to be loose and unmarriageable, and Chiweshe's persistence perplexed her friends and family. Only eventual international acclaim earned her social place. (Now married to her manager, she runs a support organization for women musicians in Zimbabwe.)

If I put this CD on and basked in its textures and colours while, say, sipping a nice Pinot Grigio and tossing my Caesar salad — which is what most "world music" marketing suggests to me, and a perfectly pleasant prospect it is — I wouldn't begin to realize how Zimbabwean musicians are faring in the violent dotage of Robert Mugabe's tyranny: how they are driven to self-censor, threatened when their music hints at opposition, kept off radio and TV by a thrumming campaign of intimidation.

How bitter it must be for Thomas Mapfumo — the lion of the Chimurenga musical movement that served as anthem-maker and morale-raiser for the uprising that brought Mugabe to power — to have to move his family away for their safety. His offence is that his songs are as profoundly democratic as ever, addressing issues such as corruption and the AIDS crisis (40 per cent of the populace is infected). As Zimbabwean poet Julius Chingono put it in his 1996 poem, Propaganda: “We, the povo/ have been taught/ the crack of a gun/ shall not be dreaded:/ its echo/ is freedom/ but/ we are not told/ an echo is a distant sound/ that dies out soon/ afterwards.”

(For details, check out U.S. Afrophile journalist Banning Eyre's damning report on the Web site for Freemuse, an international group for freedom of musical expression:

Fortunately, I live in Toronto. This is not just a place where women musicians confidently brazen all (see tonight's CD release show by Pony Da Look at the Silver Dollar on Spadina for stylish arty-synth evidence). Or a place where gay people suddenly can get married — a fact that has me, as a recent happy newlywed myself, overflowing 24-7 with celebratory, rah-rah-Canada sentimentality. It's also someplace where I can be prompted to learn about Zimbabwe simply because Chiweshe is one of the featured performers at the annual Afrofest, this weekend in Queen's Park.

Now in its 15th year, the festival is “the largest single gathering of Africans in Canada and the longest running annual festival of African music in North America,” according to organizers. Its main source is the many superb African musicians who now make their homes in Canada — travelling with their ears indeed. But Chiweshe's appearance on Sunday stands out, along with the likes of the Drummers of Burundi, playing Saturday. (See

What's more, later in the month, on July 21, Mapfumo's most prominent heir, Oliver Mtukudzi, plays a show at the Phoenix on Sherbourne Street. “Tuku,” as Mtukudzi is called, plays the kind of Zimbabwean music I know best, in which electric guitar takes over the mbira's role and you get a spiked swirl of American rhythm and blues and country music with African reggae, mbaqanga and soukous. But again, look closer at the notes and translations in the upcoming The Oliver Mtukudzi Collection. These are songs of suffering and survival, full of village-level detail: I'd never have guessed, bopping about the kitchen, that Ndakuvara is about being gored by your new ox. If that's a political allegory — ??? — it's in a very local key.

It's not only the lyrics we don't get. With the American, British and occasionally European pop we've grown up with, it's a cocktail-party pastime to hear a new band such as Iceland's impressive Singapore Sling (Monday at the Silver Dollar) and immediately play spot-that-influence: Jesus and Mary Chain, Birthday Party, My Bloody Valentine. . . . When it comes to an African artist, few here could even play spot-that-nation, much less pick up nuances between Zimbabwean genres and borrowings from Zairean rumba. Our ears don't know the map.

Learning background makes us more active listeners who won't take African music for granted as exotic wallpaper. But even that falls into the dubious distinction between “tourist” and “traveller,” which strikes me as barely less snobbery-riddled than the one between “pornography” and “erotica.” I can nod when Chiweshe, in an interview in The Rough Guide to World Music, describes the mbira's role in anti-drought ceremonies, and sigh appreciatively when she describes its tone as that of “tuned raindrops.” But in her liner notes, when she says her undulating songs have to do with the river in her mother's village where mermaids live, and a dream where snakes explained that they are actually stones that are sick of humans stepping on them — no amount of brushing up is going to ground me. I am transported, but into a happy bafflement that says the world is vast and varied, and all my interpretations mere regional habits.

Sure, ears can travel. What they can never do is arrive. At best, they are ever-airborne in stratospheres thick with cloud, confused, grateful and needfully awed.

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