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"Ndabaiwa" from Talking Mbira (Piranha)
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Talking Mbira (Piranha)
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World Around the Corner

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Jazziz, World Around the Corner >>

Sun Ra claimed to be from Saturn.  Whether you believed him or not, his influence remains, well, otherworldly.  I mention Sun Ra because he came to mind at Joe's Pub the other week.

It wasn't just her metallic headdress and long white robe that made Stella Chiwese, the Zimbabwean master of the mbira (or thumb piano), seem a little like Sun Ra.  She was at once wise and cute and ridiculous -- as Ra had been.  During her performance, Chiwese described the place she was from and a little mission.  And, like Ra had, she spoke mostly strange utterances to the audience:
"It was a problem for me. I kept hearing these sounds inside.  I didn't know it was the sound of the drum."
"You're too quiet.  Are you feeling alright?  Perhaps you have eaten too much."

Chiwese sang in a soft, high voice as she thumbed the metal keys of her odd instrument, her hands concealed by a large gourd shell that also amplified each note.

Mbira, an instrument that is found in varied sizes and shapes throughout Africa, is central to Zimbabwe's music, and Chiwese is an aknowledged virtuoso.  She's controversial in her homeland because she mixes traditional spiritual music with commercial material.  So, I figured, she must understand a thing or two about jazz.  

In the hands of a player like Chiwese, the thumb piano can be used to mix tempered and untempered notes in a fluid manner.  She exploited these porperties to communicate sadness or irony in the manner of Thelonious monk.  Also her plucked notes achieved a sense of velocity similar to that of a good acoustic player biting into a groove.  Mostly, Chiwese built patterns of notes that grew increasingly complex, each of which sustained its own pulse.  She sang sweetly atop the patterns, toying with the tone, resonance, and inflection of the undrlying notes.

Chiwese was an exotic treasure playing music rarely heard in New York. But music like hers is far less remote than it once was and more commonly in our midst.  And in New York, worldly influences are broadening and deepening the listening experience at all sorts of venues.    05/01/03
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