Music trickles and flows like water from the hands of Zimbabwe’s thumb-piano player Stella Chiweshe, the ‘Queen of the Mbira’
In the early 1960s, when Stella Chiweshe was a teenager in the southern African country of Zimbabwe, she wanted to learn mbira — a thumb piano with metal keys that was used primarily in spirit ceremonies. Cultural leaders refused to let her play, saying tradition dictated that only men handle the instrument. Women in Chiweshe’s circle also chastised her, warning her she shouldn’t spend days and nights with male musicians.
“I couldn’t find anyone to teach me,” Chiweshe recalls in a phone interview.
“The community where I was living was outraged. . . . I asked (mbira-makers) to make one for me, and some of them got angry and some of them laughed — like it was an insult. One man I asked said, ‘Who do you think I am to waste my time making a mbira for a woman?’ ”
Four decades later, Chiweshe can almost laugh herself at the roadblocks she encountered on her way to becoming one of Zimbabwe’s best-known musicians and singers. Along with Miriam Makeba, Chiweshe is part of a select group of women from southern Africa who lead their own bands and regularly perform around the world. Chiweshe appears on Wednesday at Berkeley’s Ashkenaz, where she’ll display the instrumentation and compositional spark that are hallmarks of someone now dubbed, “The Queen of Mbira.”
The mbira produces hypnotic, soothing sounds that Chiweshe likens to drops and streams of water. Others liken the instrument to the xylophone or even gamelan metallophones, but whatever connections people make, Chiweshe says the mbira really does summon spirits and heal people — even if it’s used in a concert format, where people are attending with the sole purpose of being entertained. Chiweshe cites the time in Germany (where she lives half the year) when she performed for people with disabilities. After listening to several songs, a woman who had used a wheelchair for years stood up and sang on stage, bringing tears to those in the audience, Chiweshe says.
“The mbira touches the souls of human beings, of animals, of trees — this is why this instrument is very magical,” Chiweshe says.
Chiweshe can certainly take credit for expanding the instrument’s use outside of Africa. Like Thomas Mapfumo, another prominent artist from Zimbabwe,
Chiweshe has married the mbira with other instruments, including the electric guitar. As interest in world music has skyrocketed in the past decade, the mbira has taken its place alongside other formerly exotic instruments like the sitar. Record companies have released more albums featuring the mbira (most recently, on Nonesuch’s Explorer Series), and people who stroll along Haight Street in San Francisco will even occasionally see a sidewalk musician playing mbira.
In contrast to Mapfumo, who emphasizes protest songs aimed, however obliquely, at Zimbabwe’s leaders, Chiweshe focuses on songs about culture, tradition and a spirit world she says is important to understand. On her latest album, “Talking Mbira,” she remembers the deaths of loved ones, including her brother and father, and she pays tribute to her great- grandfather, Munaka, a resistance fighter who was hanged by the British, who ruled over Zimbabwe for decades. The British named the country Rhodesia in the 19th century (after imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, whose name is now associated with the Rhodes scholars program). When Chiweshe was a teenager, whites still were in control — and tried to limit Zimbabwe’s indigenous culture. Chiweshe remembers missionaries who would call mbira songs “Satan’s work.”
“Not only in Zimbabwe, but the whole of Africa, (colonizers) attacked the culture,” she says.
At age 57, Chiweshe has witnessed many changes in her homeland and in the mbira traditions that now include women. Soon after Chiweshe managed to borrow her first instrument and play publicly, men in Zimbabwe began to accept her artistry. Today, many women there play mbira.
“We say there are so many women playing mbira now that you can find them in every corner,” she says. “Some of them thank me. Last year, people in Zimbabwe gave me a gold medal, just to say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
E-mail Jonathan Curiel at firstname.lastname@example.org.