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Stella Chiweshe: Zimbabwe’s mbira queen, insurgent music star and pioneer

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Stella Rambisai Chiweshe, affectionately identified in Zimbabwe as “the queen of mbira” or “Ambuya (grandmother) Chiweshe”, passed away on 20 January 2023.

Chiweshe was born in July 1946 within the rural space of Mhondoro within the Mashonaland province of northern Zimbabwe. She started enjoying the mbira, an historic thumb piano, within the early Sixties. On the time she was reproached by each women and men as a result of she had dared to play an instrument that was ordinarily performed by males.

Chiweshe was not solely a singer, songwriter and musician who carried out extensively throughout Africa, Europe and the US. She was additionally a cultural activist, a pioneering girl and an educator. She based the Chivanhu Centre in Zimbabwe, residence to the preservation of conventional music and tradition.

A black and white photo of a woman with dreadlocks holding a musical instrument of wood with metal keys.

<span class="caption"></span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">By means of Mbira/Anhrefn Information</span></span>

Chivanhu is a Shona phrase for humanity. One in all her targets was to make sure that the mbira continued to be the heartbeat of Zimbabwe’s individuals. Because the African adage goes: “When an outdated individual dies, a library burns to the bottom.” Her demise is certainly a fantastic loss to the nation.

Pioneering drive

The mbira, a robust non secular instrument used to speak with the ancestors, was usually performed at conventional ceremonies by males. Historians hint its origins to three,000 years in the past on the west coast of Africa and to 1,300 years in the past within the area that’s now Zimbabwe. Chiweshe defined in an interview that:

Males performed mbira, and for me to play mbira meant that I needed to sit with males on both aspect of me. It made the ladies very uncomfortable.

Not solely did the younger Chiweshe face criticism from her household and group. She additionally needed to cope with a ban on the instrument by the British colonial administration as a result of the concept of ancestral worship went in opposition to their Christian values.

Chiweshe was a insurgent by nature. She defied the British and performed at underground night time ceremonies. She would go on to be a pioneering drive in a number of different methods.

She took mbira music past Zimbabwe and did vital work in popularising the artwork type.

She was capable of assist struggle the stigmatisation of this non secular musical instrument.

She championed, with nice delight and reverence, the dominant Shona ethnic group’s custom and folklore by her music, which evoked a deep spirituality and connection to the ancestors.

Lastly, she blazed a path for different girls, particularly musicians.

<span class="caption">A younger Chiweshe stay in Germany.</span>

I clarify in a ebook chapter in Victors, Victims and Villains: Women and Musical Arts in Zimbabwe that her performances mixed thriller, presence and using conventional lyrics to problem not simply patriarchy but in addition colonial rule.

Her music, like that of different Zimbabwean musicians comparable to Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi, was the soundtrack of the Second Chimurenga (the warfare of liberation in opposition to the white minority Rhodesian regime).

Feminine trailblazer

Though she didn’t overtly name herself a feminist, as a feminine mbira custodian and practitioner she was one. British music author Dominic Valvona explains:

Trumpeted in our fashionable virtue-labeling local weather as a ‘feminist’, the outspoken star was actually strong-willed, even a insurgent. Making a reputation for herself overcoming the obstacles of custom and a patriarchal-dominated society, her obstinacy quickly garnered consideration, not solely in Zimbabwe however additional afield.

Chiweshe fought for recognition as a proficient artist and gave voice to Zimbabwean womanhood, in all its complexity. By making her physique seen and her voice heard, she defied musical and cultural rites deeply rooted in ancestral custom. This defiance challenged the marginalisation of ladies which denies them autonomy and company.

<span class="caption">Performing in 2020.</span>

Chachimurenga (It’s Time for Revolution) might be her most well-known tune. This timeless tune is a name to arms. It refers back to the liberation warfare in opposition to the Rhodesian regime and highlights the bloodshed and sacrifices made to liberate the nation. The tune, like most of her songs, incorporates a fusion of mbira and different conventional devices like marimba, drums and hosho (rattles).

Inspiring musician

Chiweshe impressed many younger feminine mbira gamers, regardless that the mbira stays an instrument predominantly performed by males. One of many notable musicians she impressed is the late, award-winning singer and mbira participant Chiwoniso Maraire. Maraire emerged within the early Nineties and confirmed that the mbira might nonetheless evoke deeply non secular feelings when mixed with western musical devices. Her songs resonated with individuals in any respect ranges of society and provided messages of inspiration and hope in addition to resistance.

<span class="caption">Collaborating in Uganda.</span>

Chiweshe additionally impressed Hope Masike, affectionately often called the “princess of mbira”, the up to date custodian of this mystical instrument. Masike’s daring, city fusion music reveals that the mbira shouldn’t solely be thought-about in its conventional position. She has coined the time period “Gwenyambirakadzi” to explain feminine mbira gamers. Popularising the mbira amongst younger individuals, Masike has helped debunk the parable that the mbira is an instrument related to the occult.

Queen of the mbira

Stella Chiweshe refused to bow all the way down to oppression, discouragement and even threats to her musical aspirations. She used her music to touch upon and spotlight points regarding custom and up to date socio-political and financial points.

Learn extra: Madosini, a South African national treasure whose music kept a rich history alive

She entered a male-dominated area and made her mark as one of many first girls ever to play the mbira in public. And she or he confirmed appreciable endurance. In a musical profession spanning 5 many years, she loved the highlight because the queen of the mbira. By means of her music, she minimize throughout social limitations and geopolitics to emerge in a category of her personal as spirited, proficient and playful – but all the time spiritually grounded in her conventional beliefs.