Chiweshe unpacks mbira tradition

HARARE - Music legend Ambuya Stella Chiweshe really means it when she says the mbira is much more than a powerful traditional music instrument.

Her long stay in Germany has not detached arguably Zimbabwe’s most celebrated female mbira player from the Shona culture she prides in.

The recent discussion at the Book Café on the mbira where the music legend was a key speaker witnessed how Shona rituals are indeed part of Chiweshe’s life.

Everybody was transfixed to the stage when she got onto the Book Café stage to take her place in between fellow speakers and mbira player Hope Masike and Chiwoniso Maraire.

Clad in a very black outfit, she first clapped her hands chanting softly to her ancestors before fishing snuff bottle.

She took out the snuff and put a pinch near where her seat was.

With utmost concentration, she sniffed the snuff before settling down ready for the discussion which attracted mbira players, researchers, mbira makers and lovers to discuss and engage each other on the development of the instrument.

Chiweshe, who is a spirit medium, narrated how her desire to play mbira was hindered by her very traditional family who were opposed to a woman playing the respected music instrument which was then a preserve of men.

She recalled the consternation she caused when she decided to be a mbira player.

“For two years I could hear the mbira playing inside me, but it was difficult to ask the men within our community to help me since mbira was meant for men,” recalled Chiweshe.

“I felt as though I had a ball of fire in my chest which could only be healed if I learnt to play the mbira.

After a lot of persistence Chiweshe’s maternal uncle agreed to help.

“My uncle told me to go to Mhondoro and meet one Flavian Maveto who finally taught me to play the sacred instrument.

“In a single day I had mastered two songs,” she said.

Recording songs took much longer because she did not own a mbira.

“I used borrowed instruments to record most of my first songs.

“I remember hearing a loud voice saying ‘iwe rwiyo rwako rwaunoimba rwuye rwuye Kasahwa kurumidza kurutsikisa nekuti ruri kudiwa nemapfupa evanhu nemoyo wepasi (Go and record the song Kasahwa which is wanted by the ancestors),” recalled Chiweshe.

“When I recorded Kasahwa I made sure every bar was playing it.

“I wanted the voices of ancestral spirits which were contained in the song to be heard”, said Chiweshe.

Chiweshe, who is regarded as the first person to fuse mbira and marimba, is proud of how she is has spread mbira culture in Western Europe.

“I was a member of the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe and also got an opportunity to do some of my songs.

“When we toured Australia once the organiser approached me and told me he wanted to invite me on my own. When I returned to Australia, he (the organiser) started insulting my ancestors and it was not exactly what I had hoped,” said Chiweshe.

Though the tour of Australia was a forgettable one for Chiweshe, it, however, proved to be the start of many others to scores of countries.

“I have played in 25 countries and I would have people surprisingly coming to me claiming that they had heard my songs before but the question was from where?

“People should know chivanhu chimwe chete (religion is universal) and mbira unites spirits.

“No matter where it is played ancestral spirits come down and my wish is to have the instrument played all over the world just like the Bible has spread across nations,” she said.

The mbira matriarch wants the new crop of mbira players never to underestimate the spiritual significance of age-old music instrument.

“Always remember that mbira was there before you. Nobody taught me the rules of the mbira.

“I had to learn everything by myself. One of the rules is: never let anyone touch your mbira.

“For 10 years I allowed people to touch mine. It got stolen one day and I felt very guilty and developed fear of the mbira.

“For two years on a daily basis I would dream of a mbira coming to smash me in the face.

“I went into the market one day hoping to buy a new mbira and surprisingly I saw the exact mbira I had been dreaming about.

“When I narrated how I had lost my mbira to the old man who was selling the mbira I had dreamt about, he laughed at me and told me it was because I was letting people touch my mbira,” Chiweshe said.

Comments (2)

nice one hey !

Wiseman - 2 July 2013

This woman is amazing. Reading this I thought I should share an experience I had in South Wales around 1993 at the United World College of the Atlantaic near Llantwit Major. I was tasked as a student with looking after artists appearing at the annual culture event, Mbuya Chiweshe was allocated to me, she had a midnight performance, I had her the whole day and just as it was 2330hrs I lost track of her! I risked not getting paid for my services if I didnt find her and bring her on stage. AS I searched for her in the dark I also noticed a bunch of parents looking around for their young kids, to cut a long story short: We found the kids half a mile away from the stage, sitting entranced to Mbuya Chiweshe telling them a story in SHONA! These were all white Welsh kids and they were listening attentively to this Zimbabwean language, we had to wait till she was done with her story, it was a performance I cant ascribe to anything other than mystery!

E.M. Hoza - 2 July 2013

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