Our Daily Bread 279: Stella Chiweshe ‘Kasahwa: Early Singles’

August 6, 2018

Review: Words: Dominic Valvona



Stella Chiweshe  ‘Kasahwa: Early Singles’ (Glitterbeat Records) 14th September 2018

Spearheading a second revival and paving the way to a comeback of a sort, the previously only available as a digital-release version (via that increasingly encroaching behemoth, Bandcamp) of the Zimbabwe music icon and maestro of the mbira instrument Stella Chiweshe’s Kasahwa: Early Singles collection, has been picked up by the award-winning global music label Glitterbeat Records. To be released on the full gamut of formats (both physical and digital) this remastered smattering of previously rare healing paeans and emotional tumults will for many, be an introduction to the diaphanous and earthy roots metal-y springy mbira accompanied soul of Chiweshe.

With her most formative years spent in colonial Rhodesia, before Zimbabwe’s eventual independence in 1980, in an environment that didn’t exactly encourage or foster equality between races let alone sexes, the strong-willed Chiweshe nevertheless pursued a career in music. More attuned to the Western sounds of Rock’n’Roll and Country than the atavistic culture of her native homeland, feasting instead on a diet of Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Jim Reeves and The Everly Brothers (and why not), it would take some time and an epiphany before Chiweshe picked up the mbira: an instrument and style she would soon master; so much so that she would be hailed as the ‘Queen of Mbira’ in the following decades.

Confusingly for the student and novice, mbira refers not only to an instrument – made-up of 22 to 28 metal keys, mounted on a ‘wooden healing tree body’ – but also an all-encompassing Zimbabwean spiritual but also secular culture and way of life. Mbira, which is cultivated by the Shona people of the region, involves the ceremonial ritual practice of invoking contact with deceased ancestors and tribal guardians through musical accompaniment; just one of the influences that imbues the voice and playing style of Chiweshe’s captivating songs.

Showing the independent spirit she’d long be admired and celebrated for, a younger Chiweshe would, despite meeting stoic opposition, overcome the bigotry of her male compatriots and elders to embrace not only the Mbiri heritage but the instrument too. Stiff resistance from teachers and even instrument makers, outright refusing to build her a mbira, wouldn’t stop her from recording a debut single (the one that give’s its name to this compilation) in 1974: even though she would have to borrow an ad hoc thumb piano; unable to lay her hands on a mbira. Chiweshe would not only preserver but flourish.

Trumpeted in our modern virtue-labeling 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. In a decade that saw a surge in Western interest in ‘world music’, thanks in part to (in the UK anyway) such global music explorers and passionate advocates as Andy Kershaw and John Peel (who would play host to two Chiweshe performances on his coveted Radio 1 sessions), the Mbira star would soon be touring internationally: first as a featured soloist with the New National Dance Company of Zimbabwe, and later under her own name. Chiweshe would even make a second home for herself in Berlin, criss-crossing between the German city and her native home for the next 35 years.

Still performing her spiritually soulful intense and trilling vocals and mbira craft, but perhaps not as prominent a figure on the world stage, this re-introduced eight song package of formative years recordings will revive an interest in not only Chiweshe but the music of Zimbabwe: a state that looked to be finally emerging from the grasp of Robert Mugabe, whose role (lets face it) has soured and hidden the true face and culture of the country; though in the aftermath of his resignation and after new elections, his successor in the ZANU-PF party, candidate President Mnangagwa and self-declared winner of those elections, has meted out extreme violence on oppositions supporters (killing a number of them in the process) taking to the streets in protest at the contested results. An uneasy tension exists, even with outside observers presiding over these elections, as Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change candidate Nelson Chamisa stoically refuses to back down, rejecting the results outright.

With helpful encapsulation style suffixes summing up each song’s theme, the early singles opens with the determined ‘Ratidzo’; a high whistling and trickling stream like mbira melodic accompanied invocation of the lush landscapes of Zimbabwe that pretty much encompasses Chiweshe’s struggle to become a musician with its matter-of-fact subtitle, ‘Managing to do what people considered impossible’. More traumatic themes follow, with the unceasing waterfall cascades of the mbira and earthy lamented ‘Musarakunze’ suddenly making an emotional impact when translated as ‘An orphan seeing what the late elders never saw’; so beautifully played as to almost hide the plight. The ‘Innermost emotional pain is like a fishbone stuck in the throat’ ‘Kasahwa’ has a similar air of beautiful delivery even when kicking up the dust and rotating to a more abrasive and rubbing scratchy percussion; the pained evocations confined to that title rather than performance.

Mbira as a living tradition and healing process is enacted on the grasslands lilted ‘Chipindura’‘The herb that transforms anything’ – and the placeable tubular turning ‘Mayaya’ (in two parts no less; the longest articulation on this entire collection) – ‘The effect of healing herbs’. Both of which, whether it’s intentional or not, feature a percussion that reflects the rubbing, grinding preparation of these herbs. Elsewhere the routine travails of a people kept through colonial oppression and then the misrule, surviving in abject poverty, is evoked on the yodeled sung ‘Nhemamusasa’; a song that describes and articulates ‘Cutting branches for a temporal home’.

Channeling the very soul of Zimbabwe, performing the mbira with energy but also certain serenity, and in a soliloquy manner voicing the empirical, Stella Chiweshe’s early recordings may sound swimmingly diaphanous, yet they serve as a reminder to the struggles of change. Recorded during the Chimurenga – roughly translating from the Shona language as ‘revolutionary struggle’, this, the second such ‘war’ or uprising, pitted African Nationalist groups against the predominantly white minority government; also known by its eventual victors as the Zimbabwe Liberation War, it would lead to independence and the rise of one of the resistance’s key figures, Robert Mugabe – revolution these singles, no matter how lilting, could be celebrated as a testament and clarion call for not only a resistance to the patriarch but seen also as a break from the atavistic status quo, with Chiweshe’s twist laying down the path for those to follow; a more equal rebalance giving voice to the often repressed matriarchal singers and musicians of Africa.




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