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Mbira magic
The mysterious ways of Stella Chiweshe

At a recent solo performance at NYC’s Joe’s Pub, Stella Chiweshe, a Zimbabwean singer, percussionist, and mbira player, took the stage wearing a flowing white robe, the long, metallic strands of her silver headdress mingling with her ropy black dreadlocks. Standing at the microphone accompanying herself with a small shaker, she invited the audience to join in on a song she claimed to have learned from mermaids during her first flight across the Indian Ocean, in 1984. "No one else on that airplane could hear those mermaids," she said, recalling it as if it had happened yesterday.

The audience didn’t quite know what to make of this revelation, but she continued, explaining that a voice in a dream had told her that of all the songs she had sung in her life, this one alone would be remembered a thousand years from now. That said, she sat down, picked up her mbira, its 21 iron prongs hidden within a rotund calabash, and began to tickle out a clear, deep-toned Shona melody. By the end of a 90-minute set full of mbira songs, chants, meditations on death, and celebrations of life, the audience was under her spell. Chiweshe will attempt the same feat this Friday when she makes a rare solo appearance at Harvard Square’s First Congregational Church.

After almost 30 years of recording and performing, Chiweshe treats her solo shows more as spiritual encounters than as just another gig. "When I am preparing myself to go on stage," she told me after her New York performance, "I refrain from talking. I listen to sounds. When I first came to Europe, I was sitting on stage and thinking, ‘These people do not understand my language. The music is very far from them. What are they thinking?’ Then I said to myself, ‘They understand.’ And as soon as I said that, they came; they moved towards the sound of mbira. The sound of mbira for me represents water. It goes over the boundary of our thinking as human beings. When I hold the mbira, my energy and my playing are taken into something that I cannot control. It’s like I am driven."

The mbira is a sacred instrument among the Shona people, used for centuries to attract ancestor spirits for their insights and advice. But for Chiweshe, even that’s too simple an explanation. Her mystical stage presence is no mere affectation, and it’s the honesty of her presence that gives a Chiweshe solo performance its power.

These days, she divides her time between Germany and Zimbabwe, maintaining a four-piece traditional group in Europe and a full-scale mbira pop band in Zimbabwe. She has recorded in both settings. She claims to sleep with her mbira at her side, and to receive many of her songs through dreams. She says she never performs a song the same way twice, and she’s been reluctant to commit any of her music to written form because she views the songs as living things. (She doesn’t even like to write out set lists.)

On her most recent CD, Talking Mbira: Spirits of Liberation (Piranha), Chiweshe ranges from spare, hypnotic solo mbira and voice pieces to marimba-driven pop with pumping bass lines and electric guitar tastefully interwoven in the mix. "Musandifungise" ("Don’t Remind Me") plays like an African gospel song. "Paite Rima" ("Spiritual Lions") is a moody call-and-response chant. The disc also features a remix of "Chachimurenga," the most exuberant track from Chiweshe’s late-’80s international debut, Ambuya! (Shanachie). Its lyrics deal with Zimbabwe’s liberation war, and she says she’s brought it back because it remains the most requested song in her repertoire. It’s easy to hear "Chachimurenga" as a call to arms, but Chiweshe has a different slant: "When our war starts, you will see it, my child. It will be death after death. It’s the war of the spirits."

The new album and current tour are filled with references to death, disease, disaster, and suffering. There is a sense, as in the songs of Zimbabwean pop icon Thomas Mapfumo, that these things come about because people have lost touch with ancient religion and with the ancestor spirits that once protected them. But she insists she is not making a political statement about the largely man-made problems her country faces today. "It is not only the people of Zimbabwe. It is the whole world."

Chiweshe is a survivor of her country’s travails, and also of two decades in the world-music spotlight as the "Queen of the Mbira" — she was one of the first women to perform publicly on the instrument. But on stage she transcends worldly boundaries of gender and geopolitics, emerging as her own kind of woman, playful and possessed, a genuine enigma.

Stella Chiweshe performs at the First Congregational Church, 11 Garden Street in Harvard Square, this Friday, February 21, at 8 p.m. Call (508) 270-2771.

Issue Date: February 20 - 27, 2003
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