Remembering a music legend

HARARE - When Chiwoniso Mararire died in July last year, it was not easy to know what her legacy would be.

She left us too soon — not just at a tragically early age, but also at a middle chapter of an illustrious mbira musical journey.

We watched for years as erratic behaviour and tabloid rumours tore away at her reputation, obscuring the Chiwoniso we used to know — a singer so nationally adored and limitlessly talented that she could perform feats of magic like turning the Amai song into a blockbuster hit.

It felt impossible for a talent as immense as hers to suddenly, silently disappear without one last burst of glory. And yet, when Chiwoniso died on July 24, 2013 at South Medical Hospital in Chitungwiza, aged 37, that’s exactly what seemes to have happened.

The cause of death was suspected pneumonia, and it was just a year after the death of her ex-husband, Andy Brown, also a prominent musician.

But a year after her death, it’s clear that Chiwoniso did not — and never will — just disappear. Not in the music industry that she helped shape, breaking boundaries as a proud Zimbabwean, as a woman, as a mbira star, as a voice awe-inspiring enough to redefine what mbira music could sound like. And certainly not in the hearts of her fans, who still celebrate her music and her memory.

The late Nyunga Nyunga mbira player, was described by many as a marvel. Others described her as one of the most respected custodians of the mbira music genre.

This was the gushing praise on Thursday evening at a forum to mark the first anniversary of the mbira maestro’s death.

The discussion at Book Café in Harare was dubbed “Chiwoniso’s impact in the lives of the people around her, Her music and spirituality.”

The panelists included music writer Fred Zindi, poet Chirikure Chirikure, who collaborated with the late mbira star, and Amarra Brown, daughter of the late famed musician Andy Brown - Chiwoniso’s husband.

Musicologist Extra Blessings Kuchera chaired the discussion session. Speaker after speaker described how Chiwoniso impacted on their lives and how they came to know her.

Zindi first met with Chiwoniso through her late father, Dumisani Maraire,  in 1983 when she was seven years old.

“The thing that impressed me most was the fact that although she sounded American, when she spoke in English, she also could speak Shona very eloquently,” Zindi said.

Chiwoniso’s father returned home from the US and joined the then ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, in the Department of Arts and Craft, with a responsibility of promoting the performing arts industry.

In this capacity, he tried to advocate for Zimbabweans to take mbira music  as a unique cultural heritage that would be a major identifying characteristic of Zimbabwe’s music industry.

“He did not care whether the instrument was played by a man or a woman. To prove his point, he taught his own daughter, Chiwoniso, to play the mbira,” said Zindi.

Maraire had much influence on his daughter’s introduction to the mbira. He was so into the mbira instrument that he tried to introduce the music to the Methodist Church. But this effort was met with a lot of resistance, said Zindi.

Zindi further interacted with Chiwoniso when she attended the Zimbabwe College of Music where he was teaching a national certificate in music programme.

“It was there that I discovered that she was not only accomplished in mbira playing, but that she also possessed a golden singing voice,” he said.

Renowned musicians Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi visited the college of music at the invitation of Zindi. Chiwoniso and another student, Miriam Mandipira, were asked to sing for the living legends. They were both impressed.

A year later, Zindi said Kanda Bongo Man from DRC visited the college and Chiwoniso and Mandipira were asked to sing.

“He too was impressed and he asked me if he could take them to the DRC to become his backing singers. I asked him for payment as well as the rest of the conditions. When he became evasive, the deal was off,” said Zindi.

Chiwoniso was a well travelled musician. Zindi said she toured 72 countries across the globe.

She performed a lot of collaborations with various musicians. She travelled with poet Chirikure to a number of countries, performing what the poet called Detembira, a fusion of poetry and mbira.

Chirikure described one of his shows with the late ‘Chi’ as she was known to her multitude of fans. The poet said on a visit to Mozambique for a show, Chiwoniso impressed a top government official in that country. The officials asked her to visit his home.

Once at the top official’s home, Chiwoniso was asked to play solo mbira to a newly-born child in her mother’s hands.

“She played so well and when she finished the top official announced that he was naming the child after Chiwoniso,” Chirikure Chirikure said. “I had never seen Chiwoniso looking like she did at that moment, she was between smiling and tears. She was so touched.”

Chiwoniso recorded her first song Tichazomuona when she was about nine years old. Chirikure analysed the song.

“It was an original gospel song but one should listen to the rendition which father and daughter had put in it,” he said. “Arrangement and the balance in terms of content, the touch on Christianity and Shona beliefs was awesome.

“Chiwoniso threw names of departed relatives in the song, it was an intricate balance between Christianity and traditional African religion. And yet it is a very original Christian song. As complicated as it is for a young girl to have mastered the song and go into the studio and record it in a time of analogue recording, it was so smooth and natural it flows.”

He added: “But when you listen closely it tells you of something that the Maraire family would have let develop in her. But you cannot plant a seed in the desert and it grows, she was a fertile spiritual being placed in the right arms and the right moment. The tree was planted at the right time and it developed and matured. The tree that we are celebrating now brought out the fruits that we are enjoying now and the world is enjoying.”

Chirikure believed that one can go to university to be trained as a writer or an artist. 

Chiwoniso used to sing mature lyrics. She was conscious of her environment and she used to sing of her challenges, said Chirikure.

“She was very conscious of everyday challenges that affected people, Chingwa nemaruva was a direct protest of the harassment of vendors and you listen to the songs appealing for children, all very basic straight forward challenges, but the way she put them across, it was a prayer appealing for assistance,” said Chirikure.

Although Chiwoniso travelled a lot and sang before different crowds, she always played in the context of shona culture, said Chirikure.

Ammara Brown, Chiwoniso’s step daughter, broke down when she was talking about her relationship with the late mbira maestro. Ammara said she only felt warmth when she first met the late Chiwoniso.

“I was very close to Chiwoniso and she taught me how to play mbira. I remember when I was in the States and I used to call her and say I was missing her, she would say just play your mbira my baby. She was so warm and I got along with her a lot.”

Chiwoniso was born in 1976 in Olympia, Washington, US, where her father had gone to study. She came back to Zimbabwe and she did her secondary schooling at Mutare Girls High.

She formed her own band called A Piece of Ebony. She later joined The Storm, an Afro-beat band led by Andy Brown, with whom she later had two children, Chengeto and Chiedza.

After Chiwoniso split up with Andy, she formed her own mbira band. She started to do her own recordings. One of her early recordings, Mai was dedicated to her late mother, Linda Nemarundwe.

In 1995, Chiwoniso recorded an album, Ancient Voices, where she mixed the traditional and modern beats. Chiwoniso was the leader of her acoustic group Chiwoniso and Vibe Culture since 2001.


Comments (1)

Rest In Eternal Peace. We will always remember you

Ronzo - 30 July 2014

Post a comment

Readers are kindly requested to refrain from using abusive, vulgar, racist, tribalistic, sexist, discriminatory and hurtful language when posting their comments on the Daily News website.
Those who transgress this civilised etiquette will be barred from contributing to our online discussions.
- Editor

Your email address will not be shared.