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Chiwoniso: The Power of an Ancient Voice

26 Jul

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It’s a school night, either in 1992 or 1993, I can’t really remember, and I am sitting on our kitchen counter in our old house in Mutare, Zimbabwe with my “twin sister” Judy and we are laughing and snapping our little fingers to a song we are hearing for the first time that is blasting from our older sister’s radio cassette player. The song is From the Native Tongue by 90s Zim hip hop outfit A Peace of Ebony. My older sister is excited to share this awesome song by one of her former classmates at Mutare Girls High School, Chiwoniso Maraire, with us and she joins us in our revelry that night, singing and dancing along to the music in my grandparent’s kitchen.

It was then that, without even realising it at the time, 7/8 year old me fell ridiculously in love with this fiercely inspirational and gifted woman without even really understanding what her music meant, what it stood for, what it represented or that as time went on, she would proceed to be one of Zimbabwe’s best known female musicians and cultural icons who established a name for herself in her 20 year + career as queen of the mbira – both as a solo artist and as a member of bands like A Peace of Ebony, Andy Brown & the Storm and Women’s Voice – nationally and internationally. In her short but very full life, she received various accolades for her talents both locally and internationally and collaborated with other artists from around the globe which include Ambuya Stella Chiweshe, Tumi & the Volume, Busi Ncube, Baaba Maal, Sinead O’Connor and Mari Boine.

I was out with friends when I got the news of her passing two nights ago and I shocked both myself and my friend with the amount of grief that overwhelmed me. I was embarrassed and confused by my little episode and I still am in a lot of ways. I make no pretences here of having had any sort of reciprocal relationship with Chiwoniso outside of the one way one which really boiled down to me being insanely and unabashedly in love with her and her music and her Spirit. I did not know this woman personally and had only ever spoken to her once 8 years ago when I had found myself dining at a table away from hers at the Italian Bakery in Avondale, Harare and I had gone up to her to make an idiot groupie of myself and ask for a photograph with her, to which she happily obliged. I have never even attended any of her shows (and not due to a lack of trying) and I have only ever seen her perform live once at this past HIFA edition where she cameod in the Noisettes’ performance, so why was I, and still am, taking this so hard? Me, of all people. The same person who has in the past judged others very harshly for making a big deal about celebrity deaths. Heck! I have even written a whole blog post that generously served up my judgement when Whitney Houston died for crying out loud!

A lot of possible explanations come to mind which include my own mother’s death at thirty six (just one year younger than Chiwoniso was) 10 years ago exactly on the 17th of July, as well as me empathetically grieving for a newly made friend (along with her siblings) who not only had a mentor but a mother in Chiwoniso. Grieving for them and all the other people I know, mostly young Zimbabwean artists, who did in fact have real and mutually beneficial relationships with Chiwoniso, those who called her sister. Grieving for my nation, for even though some may not realise it, but we have suffered a great loss. We have lost a musical and cultural icon, pioneer, teacher, warrior and leader.

It is from the last reason that I find the courage to write this because I think the world must hear about her and the impact she has had on so many young Zimbabweans’ lives, even if it is only from my humble and very personal perspective. I am not going to give you a historical account of her life or career as I do not know anymore than what is already available on dozens of websites on the internet but I will tell you about her life within my own and possibly other fans out there.

Although I am not a musician (Lord knows I wish I was), Chiwoniso and her music still inspired me to be myself and be unapologetic for it in spite of any resistance or judgement that may come my way. Having partly grown up in the U.S. Chiwoniso was still very in touch with her roots and identity as a Manica woman, probably more so than a lot of young Zimbabwean women of both our generations are, and this set her apart from the rest. Indeed she came from a very musical family but to assume that to be the only source of her great talent would be a great dishonour to her memory. Her courage and passion that resonate through her music played a big role in gaining her status as a gender bending female mbira player and cultural ambassador despite the fact that traditionally women weren’t known to play the mbira. Her music speaks a lot to identity. The identity of tribes and cultures, of a nation, of the feminine and of the individual and it was through this that she inspired my love for culture, love for the spirit of the mbira and my reverence for ancestry.

When I saw her on stage with the Noisettes, Hope Masike and Tariro Ruzvidzo or in her music videos, I saw Spirit in her. The Spirit that chose her and gave her its gift of music. Gift of the mbira. Having learnt almost a year ago that I have a calling to become a sangoma, I have struggled to accept this new reality and I have battled with it. I have cried and I have pleaded with my ancestors to choose someone else because I did not want it. I have been terrified by the idea of never moving back home because I would be too afraid to live in Zimbabwe amongst the people I have known and grown up with and shared a life with now that I have this “thing” that only served to make me even more weird, more random, more of a misfit and now added to the mix, untouchable but then I saw the Spirit in Chiwoniso and it was nothing short of inspirational and almost comforting.

Ours is a country of mostly (Christian) conservative people and they don’t like anything too “unusual” or too eccentric (never mind that in Zimbabwe something as simple as dreadlocks is enough to have you qualified as eccentric and troubled) so it is no real shock that I have heard people describe Chiwoniso as “very talented but a bit too random” or “she has lost the plot”. Some even had the gall to say that she is too crazy and attributed her extraordinariness to “smoking too much weed” as though they knew her like that. It is no real shock but it is infuriating all the same. Like I said, I didn’t know her personally but I saw what a lot of these people did not see and that was her gift, her calling. Callings come in various forms and it is not everyone who has a calling who is meant to be a healer. Some become artists, social instructors, messengers as it were, through their art and Chiwoniso was one such person. She embodied ancestors from her family line that had chosen her. The Spirit of the Mbira, the Ancestors, had chosen her to be an instructor just as my Spirit has chosen me to be a diviner. Staying true to the meaning of her name, she brought enlightenment to all those who took in her music. The Ancient Voices really and truly did speak through her and will continue to do so through the legacy she has left behind as a gift to us.

I do not know if this is something she knew or acknowledged but if I am to hazard a guess based on the subject matter of her music and the person I saw in her, I would say she did and not only that but she embraced it and lived it and because of this, she inspired me to embrace and live my calling too. Although, we are probably nothing alike she certainly directly and indirectly declared to the world through her stage presence and the conviction in her voice and her relationship with the mbira that it was ok to be nobody else but herself making it possible for me (and hopefully a lot of other young brown women and girls) to declare the same of myself.

Her strength and integrity resonated in her music and her relationships with both those she knew and those she didn’t, family/friends and fans alike. She unwittingly helped shape my personal and communal identity as a young Zimbabwean brown woman and although I only ever became conscious of the impact her music and her person had on me in my late teens, her work on me had started over two decades ago, on one random week night in my grandparents’ kitchen in Mutare. So to her I say “Mai, fambai zvakanaka. Basa masiya mapedza. Thobela.” (Go well mother. Your work here is done. Rejoice.)

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