Mbira queen getting better with age

Watching her perform on two occasions when she returned to Zimbabwe recently, one would think that Chiweshe is still in her early thirties because of the way she swayed and swerved as she danced to her lovely mbira tunes.

Ambuya Chiweshe returned to Zimbabwe for live shows after years of absence from the local scene and her first performance was at the Rainbow Towers Gardens in Harare on September 21 before an appearance at the Mzee Bira gala in Mutare the following night.

At Rainbow Towers, she shared the stage with equally gifted musician Chiwoniso Maraire who can aptly be regarded as the princess of mbira music in Zimbabwe.

Chiwoniso saluted Ambuya Chiweshe giving her credit for popularizing mbira music and inspiring many a female mbira player.

“I feel very humbled by Ambuya Chiweshe’s presence here. She has the energy of a youth and no one can match her musical prowess. She has indeed achieved a lot for the mbira music industry, for female musicians, for Zimbabwe and Africa at large. She is just good and sharing the stage with her makes us feel like little babies learning to crawl,” said Chiwoniso as she introduced Ambuya Chiweshe on stage.

I saw her in meditating under a tree at the garden before going on stage – probably communing with the spirits that she claims to have led her throughout her music career – and realised how religiously she handles her career.

Clad in all white, Ambuya came up the stage amidst wild cheers from her long time fans and her sign-in gesture was playing the African drum.

“The drum is an integral part of our tradition and it defines who we are and demarcates the various clans and tribes that we have in our African culture.

People from various parts of the continent can be identified by the type of drum and rhythm that they play. But the drum has always played second fiddle to other instruments when it comes to commercial and international music so we decided to give it a leading role in our music,” she commented after playing traditional mbakumba and dandanda drums.

Then she took to the dance floor and the whole garden exploded with cheers of appreciation. The energy and verve with which she danced left many questioning the source of the aging musician’s strength.

“She is very robust and her dances defy her age. One cannot believe that she is 60 years old. She has the energy of a teenager,” commented one fan after the show.

After the rainbow Towers show, Ambuya Chiweshe performed at Mzee Bira, a musical gala held in honour of the late Vice -President Simon Muzenda, at Sakubva Stadium in Mutare.

The energy with which she stormed the stage again shocked thousands that were at the stadium and millions that were watching the gala on television. Ambuya is indeed still full of energy and raring to go.

She still has the strength with which she stole the limelight on the Zimbabwean and international music scene in the early 1990s.

Ambuya Chiweshe was the first female artist to gain prestige and has been honoured with recognition in a music tradition that has been dominated by men: in Mbira music – known as the backbone of Zimbabwean music.

She is one of the few musicians in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa, who since more than 35 years have worked tirelessly to popularise traditional mbira music.

When Zimbabwe was still a British colony, Ambuya secretly took centre stage in spearheading forbidden African ceremonies through mbira music.

Before independence Mbira instruments had to be kept hidden, because the colonial government had banned the instrument fearing its magical powers.

Playing Mbira was punished with prison but Ambuya took it upon herself to sometimes play through the whole night at forbidden reunions.

She decided to pursue music at a higher level and released more than 20 mbira singles of which her first single Kasahwa went gold in 1975.

After Independence she was invited to become a member of the original National Dance Company of Zimbabwe, where she soon took the part of a leading Mbira solo player, dancer and actress.

Her solo work established her as one of the most original artists in the contemporary African scene using popular music to show the deepness and power of her traditional spiritual music at home and abroad.

The fusion of Ambuya’s mbira and contemporary guitars has not only made her an international figure, but also as Zimbabwe’s cultural Ambassador.

Apart from her merit combining Mbira with Marimba in modern Zimbabwean music, she has built a considerable fan base in Europe where she is now based.

She boasts of seven internationally successful albums that include Ndizvozvo Ambuya, (1987), Chisi (1989), Kumusha (1991) and Shungu (1994).

Kumusha track won her a 1993 Billboard Music Award for performance on the Adult/ Alternative/ World Music Album of the year.

She has also compiled her best songs on the album The best of Stella Chiweshe that was released in 1998 while The Healing Tree, Tapera and Talking Mbira are some of her successful albums.

Certainly she broke significant new ground for the likes of Virginia Mukwesha (her daughter), Chiwoniso (daughter of celebrated mbira player, the late Dumisani Maraire) and the countless other female musicians in Zimbabwe.

The combination of mbira and marimba might seem relatively obvious nowadays, but Chiweshe is often credited as the first artist to actually bring the two together. She said she had been searching for a sound that had been evading her since her very first recording back in 1974.

After almost ten years it clicked, and she now uses two marimbas to recreate the sound of one mbira based on the idea of reconstructing the mbira sound on guitar.

For her success and determination the University of Zimbabwe awarded her a Master of Arts Honorary Degree in 2003 for popularising mbira music both locally and internationally.

October 2006
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