Tag Archives: gender equality

Stella Chiweshe: Zimbabwe’s mbira queen, rebel music star and pioneer

This article was originally written by Gibson Ncube and published by Music In Africa and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialCC BY-NC licence.

Stella Rambisai Chiweshe, affectionately known in Zimbabwe as ’The Queen of Mbira’ or ‘Ambuya (grandmother) Chiweshe’, passed away on 20 January 2023.

The late Stella Chiweshe. Photo: Frans Schellekens/Redferns via Getty Images

Chiweshe was born in July 1946 in the rural area of Mhondoro in the Mashonaland province of northern Zimbabwe. She began playing the mbira, an ancient thumb piano, in the early 1960s. At the time she was reproached by both men and women because she had dared to play an instrument that was ordinarily played by men.

Chiweshe was not only a singer, songwriter and musician who performed extensively across Africa, Europe and the US. She was also a cultural activist, a pioneering woman and an educator. She founded the Chivanhu Centre in Zimbabwe, home to the preservation of traditional music and culture.

Chivanhu is a Shona word for humanity. One of her goals was to ensure that the mbira continued to be the heartbeat of Zimbabwe’s people. As the African adage goes: “When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.” Her death is indeed a great loss to the country.

Pioneering force

The mbira, a powerful spiritual instrument used to communicate with the ancestors, was often played at traditional ceremonies by men. Historians trace its origins to 3 000 years ago on the west coast of Africa and to 1 300 years ago in the region that is now Zimbabwe. Chiweshe explained in an interview that: “Men played mbira, and for me to play mbira meant that I had to sit with men on either side of me. It made the women very uncomfortable.”

Not only did the young Chiweshe face criticism from her family and community. She also had to contend with a ban on the instrument by the British colonial administration because the idea of ancestral worship went against their Christian values.

Chiweshe was a rebel by nature. She defied the British and played at underground night ceremonies. She would go on to be a pioneering force in several other ways.

She took mbira music beyond Zimbabwe and did important work in popularising the art form.

She was able to help fight the stigmatisation of this spiritual musical instrument.

She championed, with great pride and reverence, the dominant Shona ethnic group’s tradition and folklore through her music, which evoked a deep spirituality and connection to the ancestors.

Finally, she blazed a trail for other women, especially musicians.

I explain in a book chapter in Victors, Victims and Villains: Women and Musical Arts in Zimbabwe that her performances combined mystery, presence and the use of traditional lyrics to challenge not just patriarchy but also colonial rule.

Her music, like that of other Zimbabwean musicians such as Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi, was the soundtrack of the Second Chimurenga (the war of liberation against the white minority Rhodesian regime).

Female trailblazer

Although she did not openly call herself a feminist, as a female mbira custodian and practitioner she was one. British music writer Dominic Valvona explains: “Trumpeted in our modern virtue-labelling climate as a ‘feminist’, the outspoken star was certainly strong-willed, even a rebel. Making a name for herself overcoming the obstacles of tradition and a patriarchal-dominated society, her obstinacy soon garnered attention, not only in Zimbabwe but further afield.”

Chiweshe fought for recognition as a talented artist and gave voice to Zimbabwean womanhood, in all its complexity. By making her body visible and her voice heard, she defied musical and cultural rites deeply rooted in ancestral tradition. This defiance challenged the marginalisation of women which denies them autonomy and agency.

Chachimurenga (It’s Time for Revolution) is probably her most famous song. This timeless song is a call to arms. It refers to the liberation war against the Rhodesian regime and highlights the bloodshed and sacrifices made to liberate the country. The song, like most of her songs, features a fusion of mbira and other traditional instruments like marimba, drums and hosho (rattles).

Inspiring musician

Chiweshe inspired many young female mbira players, even though the mbira remains an instrument predominantly played by men. One of the notable musicians she inspired is the late, award-winning singer and mbira player Chiwoniso Maraire. Maraire emerged in the early 1990s and showed that the mbira could still evoke deeply spiritual emotions when combined with western musical instruments. Her songs resonated with people at all levels of society and offered messages of inspiration and hope as well as resistance.

Chiweshe also inspired Hope Masike, affectionately known as the ‘Princess of Mbira’, the contemporary custodian of this mystical instrument. Masike’s bold, urban fusion music shows that the mbira should not only be considered in its traditional role. She has coined the term ‘Gwenyambirakadzi’ to describe female mbira players. Popularising the mbira among young people, Masike has helped debunk the myth that the mbira is an instrument associated with the occult.

Queen of the mbira

Stella Chiweshe refused to bow down to oppression, discouragement or even threats to her musical aspirations. She used her music to comment on and highlight issues relating to tradition and contemporary socio-political and economic issues.

She entered a male-dominated domain and made her mark as one of the first women ever to play the mbira in public. And she showed considerable staying power. In a musical career spanning five decades, she enjoyed the spotlight as the queen of the mbira. Through her music, she cut across social limitations and geopolitics to emerge in a class of her own as spirited, talented and playful – yet always spiritually grounded in her traditional beliefs.

Gibson Ncube is a lecturer at Stellenbosch University. The article first appeared on The Conversation.

Professor Studies Sounds Of Justice

This article was originally published by UVAToday and Anne E. Bromley and republished here with the author’s permission.

What is the power of one human voice, in speech or song?

The sound of a human voice can bring us together or can be ignored.

When Nomi Dave got her dream job with the United Nations, little did she know it would lead to a path very different than she had imagined, one that would range from studying music in authoritarian Guinea, to documenting women speaking out for gender justice, to teaching at the University of Virginia.

Dave, an associate professor of music who just gained tenure, recently won a book prize for best first monograph, “The Revolution’s Echoes: Music, Politics, and Pleasure in Guinea” from the Society for Ethnomusicology.

With ancestral roots in Africa, Dave had known since she was a teenager that she wanted to spend time somewhere on the continent. Her route was circuitous, however.

She and her brother were born in London, where their parents had studied. The family also spent time in Kenya when she was little and moved to the U.S. when she was 11. (Although her family originated in India, they were part of a long-standing Indian diasporic community in East Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.)

“Those experiences lit a fire in my imagination,” she said.

Dave earned her B.A. at the University of Florida, majoring in French and politics with a minor in African studies. She knew she was interested in international policy, and law school would give her the tools to work in international human rights. She then moved to New York City and worked at the United Nations headquarters – at the time, a dream come true, she said – for two years before applying for a post with the U.N. Refugee Agency.

She spent three years in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, from 2002 to ’05, working with refugees, including those in detention and in prison, and then focusing on women and children caught in armed conflicts. Hundreds of thousands of people had fled to Guinea from civil wars in nearby Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast. Dave worked on family reunification cases involving unaccompanied minors, trying to trace and connect them to their families. Cases of sexual violence were not uncommon.

“I felt like I was putting out fires without time to understand what was happening below the surface,” she said.

“It was extraordinary, but I became disillusioned about the huge bureaucracy.” Dave said working in Guinea itself was tangential.

“I felt frustrated I didn’t know about this place where I was living,” she said. She was still interested in law and politics, but also felt drawn to music – an interest that tugged at the edges of her life. She loved Guinean music. She found that people were often hesitant to talk with a foreigner about politics, but opened up talking about music, and she realized they were linked.

After taking a break and thinking about what to do next, she decided to go back to school.

From Lawyer to Sound Researcher

Dave went to Oxford University, completing her Ph.D. in 2012 in anthropology and music, returning to Guinea for field work. She now conducts research and teaches about the role music and sound play in culture and politics, as well as uses of the human voice, literally and figuratively.

Since Guinea gained its independence from France in 1958, several authoritarian rulers led the government and have used music to reflect pride and look back on the country’s history with nostalgia.

Back in Guinea as a doctoral student, she dug into the authoritarian undercurrents and the dynamics of music and politics, looking at what it all might mean for ordinary people.

Alya Camara, a bolon player, shown in 2019 in Conakry, Guinea, in front of a mural of the former president. (Photo by Nomi Dave)

The tradition of praise-singing – paying musical homage to nobles and rulers – evolved to promoting the postcolonial state, with musicians and audiences actively participating.

Political theory, Dave pointed out, has long acknowledged that emotion plays a role in politics – leaders can use their charisma to invoke fear as well as pleasure.

“In fact, authoritarianism works not just through fear or false consciousness, but also through creating a sense of belonging and collectivity for people,” she said.

In her own experiences while doing research, she could feel the palpable sense of public pleasure at concerts, she said, even when the musicians were singing about an authoritarian leader that people disliked. 2010 brought democratic elections, but the shift to a post-authoritarian state has been destabilizing and slow, she said.

“My main argument,” Dave wrote in email about the prize-winning book that resulted from her research, “is that people always love the idea of protest music – especially in Africa, foreigners are always looking for stories of protest musicians – but in fact the vast majority of musicians intentionally don’t engage in protest or politics. That’s true in Guinea, in the U.S., in most places around the world.”

Dave, with her former vocal teacher, Diaryatou Kouyaté, in Guinea in 2009. (Photo by Cheick Kouyaté)

Today as Guinea makes an uneasy transition to democratic rule, such spectacles of public pleasure are becoming increasingly unstable, as new forms of protest and political voice complicate older aesthetic practices, she said.

“There’s been an increasing amount of open, vocal dissent and protest in the country, in which people – journalists, students, street protesters – call out politicians directly,” Dave said. “Musicians are trying to navigate this change – from the old pleasures of musical and poetic shout-outs to a new political culture of calling out. What’s important to note here is that for the most part, musicians aren’t leading the vanguard to protest; instead, they’re really torn between old and new ways.”

Sounds of New Research and Teaching With Community Engagement

Dave’s scholarship has also shifted. She has returned to her earlier work as a lawyer to see how people try to seek justice – with their voices, in the streets and on the radio.

With her background, Dave is bringing together law, anthropology and sound studies, a subdiscipline that looks at what sound means to us.

Beyond metaphor, the way we hear different sounds is filtered through ideas we already have, Dave said. It is still all too common that women’s voices are criticized in stereotypical ways – for being whiny or shrill, for example, but they continue to speak out anyway.

Women activists in Guinea have been protesting against gender-based violence on the radio and in the streets. Before COVID, Dave had planned a radio series with women in Conakry to familiarize listeners with the women’s voices, but that was cut short by the pandemic and not being able to return and interview women there.

With Bremen Donovan, a UVA doctoral student in anthropology, Dave is making a short documentary film about a defamation lawsuit against a Guinean journalist and activist, Moussa Yéro Bah, who covered sexual violence cases – a legal tactic that has been used to silence journalists, she said.

Dave and Donovan presented an early rough cut of the film at the RAI Film Festival, held virtually March 19 to 28. Sponsored by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, the biennial conference is “the leading forum for exploring the multiple relationships between documentary filmmaking, anthropology, visual culture and the advocacy of cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue through film,” according to its website.

Dave said they’re also organizing a roundtable at UVA, to be held in early May, with “some amazing participants here”: media studies professor Meredith Clark, law professor Anne Coughlin and filmmaker Kevin Everson. 

Donovan, who lived in Sierra Leone, has known Dave for several years and said in email, “This film project has been a wonderful experience of collaboration around our mutual interests in law, justice and creative approaches to research, that live beyond the university. Working with collaborators [in Guinea] for this project has been a highlight of this year.”

In this still from the film Dave is making, Guinean activists hold a press conference after a guilty verdict in a defamation lawsuit. (Photo by Nomi Dave)

Dave has woven some of this research into her teaching as part of the College of Arts & Sciences’ Civic & Community Engagement program. She described her course, “Musical Ethnography,” as “a yearlong course that’s half classroom-based learning on methods and ethics in ethnographic research, and half creative projects and collaborations with local musicians and artists in Charlottesville.”

She said the students have been amazing, reimagining and turning their projects into virtual concerts for an open mic series; a video-recording of a song by a local group of eco-activists, The Green Grannies, produced for Earth Day; and a virtual benefit concert for the Shelter for Help in Emergency, featuring many of their artist-partners. 

This year, Dave’s third and last year of teaching this course for a while, one of the students, Noelle Buice, came up with the idea of making an arts-based time capsule focusing on the COVID pandemic.

“Students are making a short film, a podcast, a photo essay, and a text collage about artists’ thoughts and memories for this past year,” Dave said, adding that the class is partnering with the local organization, the Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, and WTJU, to host the virtual time capsule on the Bridge’s website. “We’re also creating a physical time capsule with objects collected from artists and community members that represent something from this past year.

Activists at a protest in Guinea, September 2018. (Courtesy of Nomi Dave)

“Despite Zoom life and everything else, the students have been so impressive with all their ideas and engagement,” she said.

Next year, Dave will teach a new civic engagement course, “Amplified Justice,” connected to a collaborative project she’s working on with Coughlin and music professor Bonnie Gordon. The project and the course will explore sound, voice, protest and gender. Students will have an opportunity to work on the collaborative project, she said.

Both “Amplified Justice” and the film on the Guinean journalist are part of an initiative Dave has dubbed the “Sound Justice Lab,” which received initial funding from the UVA Equity Center and aims “to bring together students and faculty bridging law and the humanities at UVA, with a focus on questions of justice in everyday life.”

Sounds like we’ll be hearing more about these projects in the future.

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A Protest Music Interview: Valerie Orth

In her latest music video, Valerie Orth shows imagery from Brazil, Hong Kong, USA. This is not surprising for those who know Valerie because she started out as an activist long before she started using music as a tool for change. Today, with her music, Valerie envisions a better world, and along with her music, she educates the young girls and women of today through the social projects that she helps to manage. Check out Valerie’s webpage where people can join her VIP club called Planet Orth.

Halldór Kristínarson: Your background lies in activism, rather than music, and you have traveled all the way to China for that work, but when did you start making music?

Valerie Orth: Actually I started singing when I was very young – 5 years old. Music has always been in my life. But once I started getting very involved in activism, I couldn’t focus on both. Grassroots organizing around economic and social justice took center stage. I was able to bring back music later, after college. I studied songwriting and formed a band in San Francisco.

HK: Not everyone is receptive to politics or activism in music. Do you consider that when you make songs? Have you ever felt resistance to your music or performances because of the message in the music?

VO: That’s a great question. I got more resistance from inside the industry (certain people I played with, managers, others trying to mold or direct me) than fans. I think my fans were instead drawn to my music because of its message, because of my outspokenness.

Photo by Elizabeth Maney

HK: In your home environment (where you live), are there many musicians using their talents for good, for activism or in protest? Any contemporary, protest musicians/colleagues you want to give a shout out to?

VO: Because of the pandemic, I’ve been temporarily displaced from Brooklyn and am staying with my mom in Maine. But back in NYC, yes, the very act of being a musician is a form of activism, ha, it’s such a financial challenge. And writing authentic music, music that’s really true to the artist, as opposed to what we’re told everyone wants to hear, is almost counter-culture. And being a woman in music – especially a female producer or engineer – whoosh, that is a whole other level of activism.

But women and gender-expansive artists and producers have come together in supportive collectives like Gender Amplified (NYC) and EQ Loves Music (Sweden) that have impacted me and many others. I’d like to give a shout out to all the folks involved in those groups.

See also: Song Of The Day: I Believe We Will Win By Valerie Orth (Video)

HK: Can you tell us a bit about the activist projects you have going on besides your music, for example Beats by Girlz and the podcast you produce? Has this Covid year given you more time for such projects or have you kept busy performing online?

VO: I help run the Beats By Girlz NYC chapter with another great artist/activist/producer, Krithi. We teach music production to youth, which COVID has made extremely challenging, since our students generally don’t have access to laptops and stable internet, so remote teaching is difficult. We just got a grant (yay!) and are continuing to fundraise to get our chapter running again. I co-founded Song Camp, in the meantime, with soul singer/songwriter Michael Inge, to teach co-writing and collaborative production, especially in this time of isolation when kids really need community. We’ve been able to create a creative community for the kids and it’s been amazing. We’re planning on continuing with camps throughout 2021.

Last year, I launched and produced the League of Badass Women Podcast, which was an awesome way to incorporate my feminism and music (I wrote the theme music and also edited each episode). I got to have very vulnerable conversations with very powerful women.

The pandemic has given me more time to sit and do nothing, which has given me perspective. Yes, I released the album that I worked on for nearly 3 years, I produced new music (mashups, in particular, while teaching myself how to mix), and I taught production and songwriting. But I chose not to perform a lot online. In fact, I avoided being online because it felt so unhealthy for me. Instead I took a lot of walks on the beach, with my mom’s dogs. I was never good at meditation, but I think the walking and the dogs cleared my head, and allowed me space to shift priorities in my life, based on what’s most important.

HK: If young girls want to start exploring feminist music, where should they start?

VO: That’s a big question! I believe any woman really being her authentic self is creating feminist music. So it depends what kind of music you like. Ani DiFranco is kinda the mother of feminist music, and she was my idol growing up. But for youth now, there’s not one direction to point to – except maybe themselves! The coolest thing about music technology now is that a young person can start creating pretty quickly, regardless of music or production experience.

HK: You just released a new album titled Rabbit Hole. Can you give us a glimpse into the theme of the album and some of the songs on it? How was the making of this album different from previous ones?

VO: Rabbit Hole is the best sounding album I’ve released, hands down. It was a long process making it, but I’m extremely proud of how it turned out. When I wrote the album, I went away, by myself, for 3 weeks, and wrote a song every day, good and bad. I wanted to see what would come out, the deeper I dug. It was a lot of obsession around a boy, around how social media has affected me personally and changed us all culturally, and around the political state of the world. When I produced the album, it became an even deeper exploration of the disappearing lines in gender, genre, time and cultures, and how technology relates to that concept. My co-producer and I went to art museums regularly in LA, while we were working, for inspiration. I hadn’t looked to other types of art so much to inspire any of my other albums. And that’s one reason the production on Rabbit Hole is much more layered than my other work. Takes several listens to really soak it all in.

In terms of specific songs…. “I Believe We Will Win” is a stand-out song. It incorporates hip hop and folk, politics and togetherness, and voices from over a dozen countries around the world. And it was a satisfying way to tie in my activism with my music. I also love “Tourist In Nature” because there’s something hypnotic about the production, mimicking how I feel when I’m away from the city, and in nature. I wrote “99¢ Dreams” for a stranger I met, and ended up talking to for hours on my writing retreat. She had such a sad love story, and I wanted to take her and shake her and say, “but you deserve so much more!” I realized friends have said that to me, though, and I know others’ words and warnings don’t work on us strong, stubborn women. We need to learn for ourselves, again and again.

HK: What do you hope to achieve with your music?

VO: I’ve always had the simple goal of being able to make the music I want to make, and make a sustainable living from it. Over a decade later and I haven’t quite figured out the financial part of that dream yet! But I’m working on it. And I just want to continue learning, to work with producers who are more experienced than me, to always have a strong and relatable message in my music and to keep getting better – as a songwriter, artist and producer.

HK: What is on the horizon for you, music or activism wise?

VO: Throughout 2021, I’ll be releasing lyric videos for all the songs on Rabbit Hole. As singles this year, I already released the lyric videos for title track “Rabbit Hole” (my favorite video) and “I Believe We Will Win,” (in time for the election). Xavier Li is the motion designer for all of them and is ridiculously talented. I’ll also release covers and remixes and might even release a few original singles… we’ll see! For the most part, I want to stay close to and grow my fanbase. Fans can join the Orthlings! Facebook Group and sign up for my newsletter. And I started a VLO VIP membership club, called Planet Orth, where my fans can subscribe to my music and get exclusive treats through my website. My activism will continue to play out both in my music and teaching.

HK: Thank you for participating and for the music. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

VO: Speaking of Bandcamp…. It’s impossible to stress exactly how tough getting your music heard is, as an independent artist. And very few artists get what they deserve financially from their talent and hard work.

Music lovers: When you stream a song on Spotify, an average of $0.003 goes to the artist. When you buy a song or album on Bandcamp, 80-85% of the funds go to the artist.

I’d like to give a shout-out to Bandcamp, which I see as a “fair trade” platform for independent artists like me. And I’m looking forward to coming together with more of my fans there.

Cover photo retrieved from Valerie Orth’s webpage.

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