Stella Chiweshe - providing the food and drink of African music
Banjo players, accordionists and drummers may feel they get a raw deal in western society, being the butt of constant jokes. For the mbira players of pre-independence Zimbabwe, however, playing their instrument had much more serious possibilities - including jail sentences.
For a woman, playing an instrument that was regarded as a male preserve and which was viewed by local missionaries as Satan’s work presented further problems, as Stella Chiweshe quickly discovered.
Now a major star of world music, Chiweshe is known as the Mbira Queen of Zimbabwe. Although, unlike her uncle, she was never thrown in jail for playing the thumb piano, as the mbira is also known, she was initially stigmatised and was forced to play underground at all-night ceremonies to avoid the authorities.
"Why did they feel they had to ban the mbira?" she echoes my question. "I could ask the same of you. But with traditional music people can express themselves and be more grounded. To be able to rule over us, they had to stop us from any cultural activities. This happened in the whole of Africa, of course, and to other countries outside of Africa as well."
Chiweshe grew up in the Mhondoro forest region some forty-five miles from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, and as a child she was, she says, "always drumming, on the door, on a dish. I couldn’t stop making rhythms."
She attended her first mbira ceremony at the age of sixteen, in 1962. After listening to this hypnotic, chiming sound created on a series of metal tines housed in a gourd, she was smitten.
"That sound just kept ringing in my head afterwards," she says. "For two years I carried that sound around with me until I finally got an mbira to play."
This was easier said than done. You couldn’t just go into a shop and buy an mbira and when you found someone who made them, if you were a young woman, you might well be considered insane. It was also dangerous to own an mbira – Chiweshe remembers one incident when, warned of a police raid, her family had to bury all their musical instruments and other traditional symbols in a big pit in a field so that when the police arrived, they found nothing.
"Since only men played it, my desire to play the mbira made my people think that I had lost my mind," she says. "Indeed, if there had been a clinic for mentally disturbed people where I was, they would have locked me in – and this was just because I said I wanted to play. I still didn’t have one at this point."
Eventually, the mbira elders relented and reluctantly agreed to teach her, but because Chiweshe had to sit with these men to learn from them, the women around about started calling her names, saying that she was loose.
"They were ashamed of me and very uncomfortable with me playing mbira," she says. "But two things enabled me to keep on. The first was that the more strongly they refused to see me play, the more courage they gave me. And the second was, I had a burning desire in me which became more and more painful. So to heal myself, I knew I had to play mbira."
To achieve her ambition, Chiweshe had to lead a double life, playing at mbira ceremonies by night and working as a maid by day. She made her first recordings of traditional music in the early 1970s for the Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation, still using a borrowed mbira.
Then one day in 1974, at a football match, she heard music coming over the public address system and seeing the crowd’s response, she decided she had to record a particular song. Kasahwa became her first single. It sold well – going gold - as did the twenty or so singles that followed, but the financial rewards didn’t seem to match the sales.
Disillusioned, she took a break from recording until the late 1980s. Meanwhile, she toured as an actress with the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe and when the company visited Germany, she decided to set up home there, at least for part of the year.
It’s an arrangement that still suits her. She uses Germany as her base for touring and business and returns to Zimbabwe to play music, as she says, "for my elders and for my ancestors in the countryside."
As well as communing with the spirits, she has also passed on her mbira skills to her daughter, Virginia, who has followed her in becoming the Mbira Princess of Zimbabwe.
For Chiweshe, the appeal of the instrument remains its sound, which she likens to the sound of water and is thus readily familiar to people across the world, and the healing quality that she recognised it having early on.
"The mbira, for me, is so comforting each time I play," she says. "No matter where I play it, it heals troubled minds, it soothes, it promotes meditation and, above all, it reduces stress. These things along with a sense of togetherness are what I want the audience to take from my music. There’s sustenance in it too, so don’t come with a full stomach because mbira music is food and drink in one."
From The Herald, July 12, 2006.