Stella Rambisai Chiweshe is one of the few women playing the male-dominated mbira-based music of the Shona people. Born in the late 1940s, Chiweshe grew up in Zimbabwe’s forest region of Mhondoro, about 45 miles from the capital city, Harare. Chiwese began learning to play the mbira dza vadzimu in 1964. It was very unusual for a girl to play mbira at that time and Chiweshe had to face the disaproval of her community, where woman performers were often treated as “loose women.” Chiweshe perservered to become perhaps the best known player of the instrument outside Zimbabwe.
The mbira dza vadzimu is a sacred instrument used by the Shona people of Zimbabwe to call on the spirit of their ancestors in ceremonies called “bira.” In these traditional ceremonies the repetitive, chiming melodies and rhythms of the mbira combine with the hosho (gourd rattles), singing, and sometimes drumming (on the ngoma), to inspire the ancestors to offer advice and guidance through a spirit medium.
In 1974, Chiwese recorded her first single “Kasahwa,” useing a borrowed mbira, The song was a hit and she went on to record 24 singles over the next six years. She joined the National Dance Company in 1981 and began to travel to other countried to perform. These days Chiwese maintains a home in both Zimbabwe and Germany and tours extensively throughout Europe and the Eastern United States. In early 1998 she appeared as one of three women showcased on the Global Divas tour (the other two acts being Susana Baca and Tish Hinojosa), which toured all over the U.S.
(Biographical statement quoted from The African Music Encylopedia, Copyright © 1995-1998 Janet Planet <http://africanmusic.org/artists/chiweshe.html>)
For a timeline of Stella’s life and accomplishments, see her own website: http://www.stellachiweshe.com/about.php
Captain’s log: This interview was curtailed a bit, foiled by that contemporary trickster, the email glitch, as Stella Chiweshe is traveling to her rural farm in her home of Zimbabwe. Spacecraft hopes to post information about her nonprofit, Chivanu Trust (site currently under construction) at a later time. With thanks for your mbira magic, Mbuya. And with every good wish as you celebrate your 70th birthday!
Mothership: The mbira sounds like runnels of rain, if rain was a liquid metal, or like little bells tolling deep in the sea. And this rain-on-the-roof (if the roof were a lake) sound has an amazingly immediate soothing-yet-enlivening effect on the body/mind. Mbira’s sound reminds us that cultures are shaped by local nature. Or at least it was this way before the increasingly exploitative mindset of the past few hundred years—a dis-located capitalist culture that must deny nature and the spirit in order to do what it does. To disorient and dominate the heart/mind of the people, the mbira and other indigenous technologies were banned by the colonial regime in your home, Zimbabwe, often through the pronouncements and punishments of the missionaries. You lived through some of this—one time even burying your mbira and drums and robes, to hide them from government officials. The mbira also played a role in the people’s struggles to overcome colonial rule. And you were part of that too. You have been devoted to keeping chivanu (indigenous knowledge/lifeways) alive, primarily through mbira song and dance. Can you tell us about the importance, the place of the mbira in the culture of the Shona people? In what ways does it serve the community? How is it at the heart of Shona life?
Ambuya Stella Chiweshe: First of all, I would like to use this opportunity to explain about the word Shona to you. The original name is Svina, that could not be pronounced by the British people, who came to colonise us in Zimbabwe. They ended up saying Shona, a way that a two or three year child speaks. There are nine different dialects called Shona people. The main being ChiZezuru. Mbira dzavaDzimu which I play originates from the VaZezuru people. I am a muZezuru, I speak and sing in ChiZezuru. VaZezuru are from the central part of Zimbabwe. Mbira is the name of the instrument and the music. The word mbira stands for both singular and plural as well as one key. It is an instrument that is found nearly all over Africa but, with different keys and names. Mbira is used for prayers as well as for entertainment.
MS: You first heard mbira when you were 8 years old. This age often can be such a clear time in life—a point in which we are becoming more awake and articulate and yet still free from scarring by social forces. I read somewhere that one of your songs is a melody you heard inside yourself as a child. To play the mbira, you not only overcame the oppression of the colonial regime; you also overcame the local gender oppression of mbira being withheld from women. You are the most famous of the first master-level female players of mbira. What drove you to set out on this path? And who helped you to break down the walls along the way?
ASC: What drove me to set out on this path was its soothing sound, then it’s healing energy that healed me. I had suffered from heart pain for two years nonstop. The terrible pain stopped in a second when I touched mbira to learn. I was helped by the spirit of my mother’s fifth great-grandfather, then by my mother’s uncle taught me two songs, Elfigio Chiweshe and Time Makoni took over to help me be an expert.
MS: How is mbira taught?
ASC: The way I teach mbira is very easy for a person to know the basic keys of a song, in an an hour or less. Each mbira song has four phrases, each one has six keys. I teach one phrase or bar at a time. The learner repeats each phrase until he or she can remember it. We move on, until we connect all the four. Songs that have three bars are story songs and not spiritual songs.
MS: Can you tell us what “Mbuya”/”Ambuya” means?
ASC: “Mbuya” or “Ambuya” means the same thing, it means grandmother or woman spirit medium.
MS: As I’ve shared with you in the past, I first heard mbira during a difficult time, and from the very first notes (played live by a beautiful bright soul, the mbira player, Zimbabwe N’Kenya) I was surprised to find myself smiling. Some years passed, and I spent some time traveling away, and I didn’t hear mbira again for a long while. I then I ran across your Talking Mbira, at my local library. When I heard the first notes, that same deep-rooted smile sprang up immediately, like a light coming on. It was so powerful, that I wanted to know more about what mbira was, and who this was singing. I then read in the liner notes that some of the songs are about instances of grief and suffering and yet the sound of the songs was joyful, which I can only think must be the irrepressible radiance of being alive, despite whatever troubles we are wading through. Such wisdom in this. And it was validating to read in the Talking Mbira liner notes that mbira is considered a healing instrument. Can you tell us a bit about this aspect of mbira as medicine?
ASC: Mbira music plays a big part in the lives of all humans, as far as I have witnessed during my performances around the world. Mbira can heal spiritual illnesses, the kind of illness that the doctors say they cannot find anything wrong, when the person is really ill. I have witnessed mbira-healings a lot during my fifty years of playing it.
MS: Because dreams can be doorways for seeing and hearing things outside of our ordinary ways, it was also wonderful to read in the liner notes of Talking Mbira and Double-Check that your songs sometimes come to you in dreams. Is this way of songs appearing common in the mbira tradition? And are these nighttime dreams or are they trance-dreams that happen while you are playing? Dream and death are close countries, and so in the liner notes of your albums it seems that some of these dream-songs have come to you from dreams of recently deceased relatives, such as your brother and grandmother. Can you tell us more about this? You also mentioned in one of your interviews that each of the 23 keys of the mbira is a voice. Is this part of how the spirits/muses find their way?
ASC: Mbira songs can come through dreams, such as my song Mhanduyehove on the CD Double-Check. If you listen to that song, I added nothing from the playing to the lyrics. I recorded it exactly as it came. When I dream of mbira, I never see a person playing but mostly just the sound or, myself playing. It does not happen always though, but when it happens mbira must not be far because, the sound fades fast when I fully open my eyes. For that reason I always keep mbira beside my bed. It’s hard to be in trance on stage, since the songs are forced to be short. The natural way to play mbira is to let a song go on, until it reaches its destination, for each song is like a journey. Mbira songs do not come from my relatives who passed away, but from ancient times. Yes, each key is called a voice, so whether that’s how the spirits find us I cannot tell.
MS: Can you say more about what “ancestor” means in Shona culture?
ASC: In my culture ancestors are spirits of people who lived first on earth, in the beginning of time. Stones and trees are also our ancestors. Spirits have seven different levels that I know of…