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All hail Zimbabwe's mbira queen

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All hail Zimbabwe's mbira queen
Stella Chiweshe will share her mbira skills at the WOW Hall tonight 

By Lewis Taylor

Wherever she goes, Stella Chiweshe is treated like royalty, and with good reason.

Known as the queen of mbira – Zimbabwean instrument consisting of metal keys mounted on a hardwood soundboard and placed inside a gourd resonator – Chiweshe also is called “ambuya Chinyakare” (“grandmother of traditional music”) in her native country.

Chiweshe is the first woman to come to prominence in the male-dominated world of mbira music. She was also one of the first musicians to combine the mbira and the marimba, and one of the few women in here country to lead her own band.

Chiweshe, who picked up the mbira as a teen-ager, says she began playing the instrument to quell a painful sensation that came from inside her.

“I had a feeling in my heart,” she said, speaking by phone from Portland. “I felt as if I had a ball a little bit bigger than a golf ball. This was burning and hurting me, and the remedy was for me to play the mbira.

“I had to play because I had to heal myself.”

Just as Chiweshe felt a need to heal herself, she also has felt a need to heal others by sharing her music with the rest of the world. This has earned her yet another title, that of musical ambassador from Zimbabwe.

Eugene, a city that long has shown a strong interest in Zimbabwean music, will host the ambassador, queen and grandmother of traditional Zimbabwean music today as she comes to the WOW Hall for a performance with her trio. Eugene’s own Kudana will open the show with a set of marimba music.

 Rebellious by nature

Of all the titles given to Chiweshe, she says grandmother is the one that resonates most with her, for the simple reason that she is, in fact, a grandmother. The family-minded 57-year-old divides her time between Zimbabwe and her husband’s homeland of Germany.

The great-granddaughter of Munaka, a resistance fighter who was hanged by the British, Chiweshe has rebelliousness in her blood. Her true first name is Rambisai, and her last name means “be our ruler.”

Chiweshe sang from an early age and began playing the mbira at a time when it was illegal. Zimbabwe was still a British  colony back then; the colonial government banned the mbira and threatened prison time to anyone who possessed it, fearing the instrument had magical powers.

Forced to play in seclusion, Chiweshe sharpened her skills at forbidden, all-night ceremonies. After her country gained its independence, she was invited to become a member of the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe, where she played the roles of solo mbira player, dancer and actress.

 From there, she launched her solo career.
Chiweshe laughs when asked how many songs she’s written.

 “Counting them? I should do that, thanks,” she said with a chuckle.

 By any estimate, it’s a lot of music. Her first mbira single, “Kawasha,” was a huge hit in 1975, and she’s released more than 20 records since then.

 Chiweshe melded the sounds of traditional playing with modern instruments to create the kind of grooves that bridged cultural gaps and brought in all types of listeners. She also brought together the notes of the mbira and marimba, a sound that she says was stuck in her head long before she actually heard it.

 “It was a feeling that was in me when I was playing mbira,” Chiweshe recalled. “I always heard another, different sound from mbira that I was playing.

 “I happened with one song. As I started to play that song, I was hearing another sound. I started to think what it was, and when I bumped into marimba, it was the sound.”

 The power of music 

Chiweshe’s most recent album “Talking Mbira,” brings together the liquid tones of her instrument with the raw power of her singing, which can sometimes sound like cries of pain. Add to this modern influences such as the bass guitar, synthesizer and the drum kit, and the result easily could be called transcendental.

Chiweshe, too, often is taken to another place by her performances. She’s been known to lapse into a trance-like stage on stage.

Dream states figure into Chiweshe’s songwriting. She once wrote a song about her late brother that she said came to her while she was sleeping.

When she’s performing, she often is appealing to a higher power, too.

“Most of the songs, I’m praying fro all of us human beings in the world,” Chiweshe said. “This is really something that I’m focusing on when I’m playing mbira, what has come out of this world for human beings. I think it’s really painful.

There is nothing else we can do expect to play and sing and dance.”

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