Stella Chiweshe,
Double Check: Two Sides of Zimbabwe's Mbira Queen
(Piranha, 2006)

This CD is falsely labeled -- thank goodness. The cover of Double Check says CD 1 has "trance hits," while CD 2 has "classic hits." For "mbira queen" Stella Chiweshe, this seems like a threat to remix her music with pounding bass and drum machines.

What CD 1 contains, however, are newly recorded versions of traditional songs. Chiweshe has little accompaniment. She overtracks herself on vocals, ngoma and hosho. Taurai Chinama joins her on ngoma on four tracks, and Gideon Zamimba on guitar and synthesizer on one of them.

The mbira is an African thumb piano, a traditional instrument used in much of the continent. Ngoma is a generic name for drums, and a hosho is a shaker.

Four of the nine tracks on the first CD consist of drums, shaker, and vocals, with Chiweshe taking both parts of the lead and response singing. On four others she plays mbira, with the drums less prominent. "Vana Varikuchema (The children are crying)" is a slower-paced ballad.

This is quintessential African music, the type that many may have only heard in clips of field recordings or in "jungle" films. There is a trance-like element in its repetition. Listeners will not find a lot of melodic variation, for the mbira is a small instrument that can only play a limited number of notes. But there is also a beauty that should touch anyone who is open to the sounds of world music.

The 13 tracks on CD 2 are more familiar Afropop, consisting of hits Chiweshe has had in Zimbabwe over the years. On these tracks she is backed by a large band with marimbas, guitars, bass and drums. There are still call-and-response vocals in a number of places. She only plays mbira on two songs on the second CD, the marimbas carrying the melodies most of the time. Various tracks have soprano, alto and baritone marimbas.

These records have a bit of a Caribbean and/or reggae feel to them, but they have a sound all their own. It is rhythmic and upbeat, with an optimism that Western music rarely matches.

by Dave Howell
27 January 2007

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