Tag Archives: Zimbabwe

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.

Freemuse X Shouts Artist’s Voice: Zimbabwean musician Cris Gera

Artist’s Voice is a collaboration between Freemuse and Shouts – Music from the Rooftops!. The collaboration aims to provide a platform for artists to share their stories, in their own words, brought to light through interviews published on a shared blog. The blog is available on Shouts and Freemuse websites as well as on corresponding social media channels.

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Interviews are undertaken by Shouts managing editor Halldór H Bjarnason. All interviews will be published in the artist’s own words. Cover art by Maria Dzvonyk.

Freemuse and Shouts believe that the right to freedom of artistic expression is a right for all and will work together to create a platform for these expressions.

Freemuse and Shouts cooperated on the below interview of Zimbabwean musician Cris Gera. Gera was forced to flee his country after receiving death threats in relation to his song Chema Zimbabwe.

After completing the ICORN residency program in Sweden, he now lives there and can create his music freely.

Halldór Bjarnason: You are from Zimbabwe but now you live in Sweden after having fled your own country. Can you explain to our audience why you had to leave your home?

Cris Gera: First of all I would like to say no place is better than home, but when you see one fleeing a home that he or she loves the most then there’s a serious problem with that home. I love my home so much but I left for safety reasons, that’s all I can say!!!

Halldór: Why do you think the authorities in your country got so upset about your song, Chema Zimbabwe?

Cris: “CHEMA ZIMBABWE” is an initiative I did in response to the crisis in Zimbabwe and the pain that has gripped the ordinary life in our country. As a Christian musician, I encouraged my fellow countrymen to raise a cry to God for deliverance while also chronicling the corruption and abuse of power that is causing many to suffer. The song exhorts the people of Zimbabwe to cry before God and to the world seeking intervention against the axis of evil that is causing suffering to all. It describes the vices of this life that are causing and exacerbating the suffering including corruption and disintegration of health delivery services, poverty and unemployment and cash shortages among other things.

I have stipulated what the song is all about on the text above and it tells you exactly that when one is found wanting with the song’s lyrics, he or she gets upset so that was the case for me.

Halldór: How and when did you first realise that you could use music to connect with people and get a message across?

Cris: Since way back before I even recorded my first solo project in 2009 I always dreamt of myself doing music that addresses things and real life issues that affects people in a special way. I never wished doing music for myself, but for the people. In a nutshell I am a mouthpiece!

Halldór: You recently released a new album, called Nziyo Dziri Mandiri (Music In Me). For people who do not speak Shona, can you tell us a bit about some of the topics of your songs on your album? What motivates you to write down some lyrics?

Cris: I get inspired by things that I sometimes experience, see, read and hear. My recent album touches on a lot of stuff!

Nziyo Dzirimandiri (Music In Me) reveals my passion for social justice and for questions that affects people’s daily life. This Afro sound delicacy is a collection of eight songs which touches a variety of subjects and inspires your heart and soul. NZIYO DZIRI MANDIRI is my way of touching other people’s lives.

I bring up a lot of dark issues in my music, relevant, important ones. It makes you think, but through my vision and my sound, through the music in me, we move towards the light.

Halldór: The album is released through a rather unique record label, LIDIO, (a label dedicated to releasing music from artists, musicians and composers experiencing censorship, threats or persecution due to their musical activities). What did it mean for you to have this label collaborate with you in releasing the album?

Cris: LIDIO to me is a GATEKEEPER and I don’t know what the world of art will be like without them. Art and freedom of expression is indeed important for it is a very powerful tool which can be used to better the world for the good. I am grateful for LIDIO for availing themselves to stand against censorship and this gives me the hope that freedom of expression’s future is still safe!

Halldór: What kind of power do you think music and art can have in society? Do you think music can help generate positive changes?

Cris: Music indeed connects people together and so is my connection with you. There was never a day in my life I thought or dreamt about being a Swedish resident but through my artistic work but here I am. That’s how vigorous music is, it can do the unexpected!

Halldór: Can you tell us about some of your musical influences? Who has insipired you to use your voice for good?

Cris: Of course I do have many artists from around the world who inspires but at the same time am inspired more by events or things I see happening in the world in our day to day lives.

Halldór: Is it common for Zimbabwean musicians and other artists to use their voice and talent in protest? Do you follow any contemporary artists (from your country or around the world) that use their music in this way?

Cris: There are talented Zimbabwean musicians I know who recently used their voices in protest and ended up in a miserable predicament. I do follow quite a few contemporary musicians from my country but a lot from around the globe. In my country some musicians opts to turn a blind eye for fear of reprisal but I don’t blame them at all for I understand the reason behind their fears.

Halldór: What can people around the world do to help Zimbabwean artists?

Cris: The best way to empower Zimbabwean artists is to avail them many state-free electronic and press media platforms.

My passion is to see a liberated Zimbabwe with full respect for human rights, freedom of expression and speech as well as the liberty of artists to voice the socio-political ills without being victimised. I believe Zimbabwe has potential to be the greatest nation in Africa and the world if the aspirations and labour of her peoples are respected and protected.

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

Cris: I will be more than grateful if my music achieves to provide; good news, hope, positivity, advice and impact change in people’s lives.

Halldór: What is on the horizon for you?

Cris: I have quite big plans and I am happy that I have already started working on them to become a reality. So I would say keep tracking my space through my social media platforms and you get to understand what am referring to.

Halldór: Thank you very much for participating and for the music you make. Anything else you would like to shout from the rooftops?

Cris: I have nothing more left to say except thanking you for availing me an opportunity to express myself the way I did. Once again, thank you!