Zimbabwe Artist Brings Instrument Believed To Changes Fortunes
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By David Prince
For the Journal
In Zimbabwe, where she was born and still lives part of the time, Stella Chiweshe is known as "Ambuya Chinyakere," a phrase that translates as "grandmother of traditional music." This may seem strange, given that Chiweshe is only 56, until you realize that it wasn't too long ago that the music Chiweshe and others like her make was, for all intents and purposes, banned by the British colonists who ruled the area when it was known as Rhodesia.
Chiweshe, who appears in Santa Fe this week, is a singer1/4 songwriter who also plays hand-held percussion instruments and, most importantly and famously, the mbira. Also known as the "thumb piano," the mbira has long been considered a sacred instrument in its homeland, whose sound can heal the ill and change a person's fortunes.
Fashioned of several rows of iron keys attached to a wooden board that has been affixed to a calabash for resonance (in some cases, the whole thing is placed inside a hollowed-out gourd, which adds more amplification), the mbira produces a sound not unlike that of a vibraphone or marimba.
The plunky sound of the mbira has become something of a commonplace in the decade and a half since Paul Simon's "Graceland" album. Still, those who haven't sampled Stella Chiweshe's music are in for a special treat — her most recent recording is called "Talking Mbira."
Released last year on the German-based Piranha label, the album's nine tracks include examples of Chiweshe playing and singing solo (as she will at her Santa Fe concert), as well as with an ensemble of a number of differently pitched marimbas, electric guitars and basses, plus an assortment of percussion instruments. A few of the happiest melodies on the CD are tethered to the saddest stories. "Tapera," for example, translates as "We Are Perishing," and speaks of the AIDS epidemic, earthquakes, floods and hunger that ravage the African continent. The album's lovely centerpiece, "Musandifungise," means "Don't Remind Me." As Chiweshe's liner notes explain, the song speaks of "the hard days, the hard days when a lot of people were killed, including my own father."
Martyrs to freedom run in the Chiweshe family. Well before her father was killed by British colonists, her great-grandfather was hanged for his opposition to England's occupation of Rhodesia.
Speaking recently from Berlin, where she also maintains a part-time home, Chiweshe said she received little, if any, formal instruction in her youth, but that "music was always in me."
She said certain rhythms and melodic lines came to her naturally, and that it wasn't until much later that she realized exactly where they came from. When she was 16, she made the acquaintance of a troupe of musicians adept at the mbira. She "sat in" with them, playing a set of rattles to provide a percussive background.
"They were surprised, and so was I," she says, that the rhythms she played were the exact ones that fit the music. "I had been hearing these beats and these sounds, in my head, all my life, but didn't know where they came from." It was shortly after this that she began playing the mbira.
In 1975, Chiweshe recorded a single, "Kasuhwa," that became the very first record to be certified gold in her country, and by 1985, she became the first woman to lead a band in her homeland. Not long after this, she found herself at the forefront of the movement to establish the Zimbabwe Musicians' Union.
Then, in 1993, she became the director of the Mother Earth Trust & Network of Female Artists in Zimbabwe. As a result of her efforts, she is no longer the only woman to lead a band in Zimbabwe, though she continues to be the most famous of them. When she performs at the Railyard space this week, she will have three different mbira with her, one of which will be the gourd-enclosed version. Asked about what audience members should look and listen for, she had this to say: "Many times, I look out at an audience, and I see that they are staring, transfixed, at my face, as if this is where the sound of the mbira is coming from. It would be better," she suggests, "if listeners would close their eyes and just listen to the sound."
If you go
WHAT: Stella Chiweshe
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Railyard Performance Space
HOW MUCH: Tickets are $10 at the door; call 982-3516 for information 02/14/03 >> go there
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