Stella Chiweshe - The Zimbabwe Queen of Mbira

Stella Chiweshe - The Zimbabwe Queen of Mbira

Written by:

Beatrice Sommer

Published:

July 16, 2019

Stella Chiweshe is a musician from Zimbabwe, known globally for her singing and playing of the mbira dzavadzimu, a traditional instrument of the Shona people of Zimbabwe (a Bantu ethnic group native to Southern Africa). In her home country, she is called Ambuya Stella Chiweshe as a sign of utmost respect.

During the third edition of our festival Outernational Days (which took place in 2018 between September 19-23), Stella Chiweshe played an otherworldly concert in an old Anglican Church from Bucharest. After the concert, we got the chance to talk to the Queen of Mbira, to learn more about the healing powers of her music.

I sing for peace amongst us. I am praying most of the time for the people, not just for myself. I talk to Mother Earth; she is the one who holds all the energies that keep us strong.

2. The Early 70s

Chiweshe has performed numerous times in Germany and has also participated in the Womad festival (1994 in the United States, 1995 in Australia, and 2006 in Spain). In 2004 she toured England with her daughter.

"I’m used to performing in churches. I think they are holy places and I am playing music for my forefathers”, Mrs Chiweshe says, with a smile on her face. "I was so excited when I heard about this invitation, because it’s my first time to perform in Romania.”

Stella Chiweshe is one of the few female players of the instrument, which she learned to play in the ‘60s, when even fewer women played the instrument in her region. "When I was a kid I loved singing, but I did not want to make noise for other people”, she recalls. "I wanted to hear how far my voice can go, to the point where the people in the village would call me singer when I was very little. This is how I grew up.”

Amongst the Christian community where she grew up, it was not allowed for people to sing their traditional songs. "It was hard, because the people’s music can never be killed.” Mrs Chiweshe grew up with the sound of drumming in her chest. "My elders could not tell me what made such a sound, because they were afraid that if they would tell me I would go about saying that the sound of the drum is being played in my chest. I grew up with that until I was six years old, with this sound of the drum, but I could only hear it by myself.”

When she was sixteen she encountered the mbira, the instrument that she’s playing now. "The rhythm of that drum - and the sound as well - has the same rhythm with the mbira. Then, after two years following that ceremony, I started to hear the sound of the mbira that was played that day afresh. It was as if it was from somewhere, but it was really from my head.”

In the early ‘70s, Mrs Chiweshe played in forbidden spiritual ceremonies under the danger of imprisonment through the colonial government before the independence in 1974, first recordings of her compositions with Teal Record Company of which her first single Kasahwa went gold. During her childhood, she remembers that all their songs were being banned from the Christian community and people were being forced to go to church every day, attending the 6 o’clock mass. "So, at six in the morning they were already there, attending the mission. These people who were trying to ban our music called us people who make the music of the devil. As children, we watched out for those people from the church and if we saw one, we were asked to run a report that we’ve seen a stranger, a hider. I couldn’t find one because I had the drumming inside me”, she laughs.

Even though she didn’t have to hide her music from the people, Mrs Chiweshe recalls one day "when people who searched for traditional instruments were about to come and if you were found with some traditional instrument you were going to be imprisoned. So, we took everything and hid it in a hole dug in the middle of the field; I hid my mbira there. After one week, we saw that no one was coming to search and I had to go to dig out my instrument and, unlike another one there, the mbira was intact.”

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3. The Spirit of Mbira

Stella Chiweshe
Stella Chiweshe

"Talking a lot usually disturbs. The music that I play, the mbira, it does not need to talk a lot, because we work with sounds, right? If I explain a song, it means that I explain what I think that certain song does. If I just play it, then people can find out themselves, within the different melodies. An explanation is not really needed.”

Throughout the years, Mrs Chiweshe developed a very personal relationship with the mbira instrument. "The music enters the person, it is very powerful. It connects with the people in a shorter time because we know that the mbira music is the voice of water, so it gets in touch with people faster than anything else.”

This idea, that the mbira may sound like the water, has unconnectedly grown into her mind and her spirit and reveals an eerie relationship between the conscious and the unconscious. "What I see in my dreams when I am asleep is different than what I see when I am awake. And what I see when I am awake is what other people see; so, I see it just as an instrument you play at. But when I am asleep, the piece of wood with keys becomes spirit who comes and talks to me. Whenever he comes he introduces himself: I am Mbira. So then, I am under the observation of mbira. I don’t do what I like; I can say that I’m going to play this song and that song, but that’s a lie. When I start playing, the song starts in my head. I don’t really make a program, I just open up myself to receive. Then, when I hear a song, I receive it and I make it.”

"You are always dreaming about people you don’t know”, Mrs Chiweshe says. "Those people are your forefathers and mothers. I also dream things other than the mbira; the stones talk too. The stones talk to me and ask: what kind of creatures are you, you human beings? You step on us, you sit on us and you use us for anything that you want without excusing yourselves. Tell other creatures like yourself that we are just breathing and seeing and thinking just like you, human beings.

4. Dreams

The mbira acknowledged queen often dreams about primordial, transcendental spirit visits. "One time I have dreamed that the Earth talked to me. I dreamed that I was on the top of a mountain and the mountain was still going higher; I was looking at a man who was going up there, when a voice on my right said to me: do you see that person who is going up there? And I said yes, I see him. And the voice said: before I tell you what I want you to know, look to your right and see who is talking to you. Then I looked to my right and I saw the Earth talking and I saw a very big face, saying: I am the Earth talking to you, now look back at that man. And I looked back at that man and the Earth said Do you know where that man is planning to go? I don’t want anybody ever to go there. And then I said So, how are you going to stop him? He is just about to arrive there. And the Earth said Just keep on watching, you’ll see what I will do to him. And that person tried to sit there and there, always changing. Ah, not here… Ah, not here, before he even touched the ground and then he thought I’ll just put my bag here and then he left. And then I laughed and thought how is the Earth talking to you? So now I know that the Earth, as we see, it talks. The stones, they talk too. The trees, they talk too. That’s something that I know.”

As mbira playing was entirely within the male dominion in Zimbabwe, Mrs Chiweshe spent a lot of her time around men, which made the women in her village to look on her as being outlandish. "I was little. I was just lucky because there is no cleaning to people’s mentalities. They could have dragged me into there because for them it was that I had really lost my mind. I see it now that it was a struggle, but for me, back then I was just laughing at everyone who was thinking that I had gone crazy because a voice talked to me and told me that the only remedy that was going to heal my heartache was for me to play mbira. I had heart pain all the time. I was healed by mbira. I had to learn because I wanted to heal myself.”

5. The Healing Power of Mbira

Stella Chiweshe
Stella Chiweshe

In her own opinion, the mbira instrument has healing powers. "I’ve often seen that the mbira makes wonders. Since I was playing in the countryside going around in Zimbabwe, I was seeing people bringing a very ill person, carrying the person who could not stand up anymore, and putting the person in front of us, the mbira players. And playing for that person made him stand up and start to dance.”

In other occasion, Mrs Chiweshe recalls that one day, she was playing and there was a woman who came there in a wheelchair she was being pushed in. "I could not take my eyes from looking at her. I kept on looking at her and then, in the end, she stood up and the audience stood up and went ‘yay! Yay! Yay!’. I didn’t know what was happening. And then she folded her chair and went up on stage to shake my hand. And then I asked the people what were the screams about and I was told that they had never seen that woman walking by herself.”

One day she was invited to play for the handicapped in Oakney, the islands above England. "There was a girl who was always swinging back and forth and I was wondering how could I help her. Then I thought ‘okay, let me play in the same rhythm’. She immediately stopped and looked at me; I looked down because I did not want her to see that I was looking at her. Then she started swinging again and I followed the rhythm again. Then, in the end, she was stable and the people were really surprised because from as long as she was brought to them, she was always like that and it was the first time that she had stopped.”

Mrs Chiweshe laughs that she often doesn’t know the reason behind some people inviting her to play. She believes that the intention that you put when the mbira is being played is very important. "A person from Turkey invited me because he had heard that mbira can bring rain; in that region it was 50 years of not raining well. He just wanted to try. And after two weeks after people building their houses along the water path, it rained so much. Then he told me afterwards that he wanted to try to see if the mbira could really bring rain.

The mbira player is told the truth of why you have invited mbira so that when playing, I focus on what you invited mbira for. People confuse me with mbira. I am not mbira, yeah? Mbira is something else that is quite different from me. It’s only that people don’t know.”

Mbira music usually talks about spiritual encounters and transcendental experiences, such as that certain dream of the stones talking. "We can’t stop these energies of the Earth. If an earthquake starts here, we cannot stop it. If it starts to rain, we cannot stop it. I am always thinking of all those things and sing. I sing for peace amongst us. I am praying most of the time for the people, not just for myself. I talk to Mother Earth; she is the one who holds all the energies that keep us strong. I don’t just talk to my old spirits. Also, the spirits of all the people who lived before us are now at one place because in the afterlife we all go to one place.”

There is an ancestral and deeply powerful ritual before any concert where Chiweshe is invited to play. "Before I go to a country, I tell the spirits that I and the mbira got invited, so that I can announce my coming to the forefathers of that land. When I arrive, I announce my arrival to the ancestors of the land and they talk to the ancestors who lived in that place for the first time. So, the people who first lived there are the spirits who acknowledge my being there. I have to humble myself because I don’t know the spiritual order of that region, so I have to announce myself to them, to the people of the land.”

About the Author

Beatrice Sommer

Beatrice is an Anthropology student and everyday life enthusiast. She has an affinity for avant-garde music and is involved in the alternative underground scene of Bucharest.

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