When British colonizers tried to stop mbira sessions in what is now known as Zimbabwe, the police were so enchanted by the music they lost track of their mission. That is the story told on the song “Kusenini,” from Stella Chiweshe’s latest CD Double Check (Piranha Musik).
Chiweshe is as unstoppable as the music she has become famous for playing. The colonial power’s ban on mbira (“thumb piano”) music, the missionary church’s decree that it was
“the work of the devil,” and the Zimbabwean tradition forbidding women from becoming mbira players could not keep Chiweshe from becoming the “Queen of Mbira,” or Ambuya Chinyakare (Grandmother of Traditional Music).
As one of the most internationally well-known mbira artists, she is often considered Zimbabwe’s cultural ambassador. Chiweshe talks of innate musical inspiration as if it physically emerges from her body. “I grew up with a sound, a rhythm in me that was so very loud that I thought people could hear it,” says Chiweshe.
She explains that the song “Ndinogarochman” contains “a rhythm of the drum that I always heard inside me when I was young.” She first heard the mbira from an old man when she was 8 years old, and began the process of making her inner rhythm known to the world.
Her foray into mbira music was as much spiritual and political as it was musical. Mbira holds a special place in Zimbabwean culture and identity: it is sacred in origin, but was almost extinct by the 1930s due to colonial suppression. However, thanks to artists like
Chiweshe who kept the tradition alive, the sound had a huge revival with the independence movement of the 1980s and has become the ‘national’ sound of Zimbabwe.
Stella plays traditional music at the intersection of the sacred and the profane. While she has made her way from her native village to the stages of international music festivals and European concert hall stages, her roots are in spirituality and the healing power of music. She began her career playing at ceremonial gatherings such as weddings, healing ceremonies, and funerals in the countryside. At one point the spiritual leader who was overseeing one of the ceremonies turned to her and said, “I’m going to tell you your tasks in this world… go to the city people, and introduce this music to them.” In spite of this mandate, she has attracted a fair share criticism for this breaching of the boundaries of the spiritual and the popular.
The 2-sided album Double Check shows both sides of the artist: her spiritual roots and her show-stopping popular classics. She recorded the drum-centered songs of her ancestors for the first time in her 40-year long career on Disc 1: Trance Hits. She says, “For a long time I have always started my shows on stage with this traditional sound, but now I’ve thought I should bring this drumming sound out fully. This new album is much more rooted… and rootsy. It’s older because guitar music came much, much later into my life… I knew the drums and mbira long before I got to know the guitars and marimba.”
Disc 2: Classic Hits features a collection of these guitar-and-marimba tunes that have made her famous.
Chiweshe firmly believes that the gentle mbira timbre is “closely related to the sound of water, something that is innately familiar to all people, and therefore the mbira is instantly memorable and comforting. It is a total form of therapy in itself.” She uses the spiritual element in her performance, sometimes going into a trance on stage.