Stella Chiweshe,
Talking Mbira:
Spirits of Liberation

(Piranha, 2002)

Have you ever heard of a musical instrument called a "mbira?" I had not until I listened to Stella Chiweshe's CD Talking Mbira: Spirits of Liberation. A mbira is an instrument from the Shona people of Zimbabwe consisting of 22 to 28 metal keys (made of whatever scrap metal is available including bicycle spokes or sofa springs) attached to hardwood. The keys are connected by wires to shells or bottle caps placed on a metal plate. The mbira is often placed in a large gourd called a calabash to amplify the sound.

As you might imagine with a homemade instrument of this type, the range of sounds the instrument produces depends upon the material used in its creation. Stella's mbira sounds a lot like a xylophone to me. Now, I would not normally think that a CD could be released around a xylophone as the primary instrument, but it actually works to some degree in this case.

Chiweshe is known as the Mbira Queen of Zimbabwe. Not only does she play the mbira, but she also plays the drums and shakers. She also provides lead vocals. Her voice is very scratchy and she sings from the throat as if she has smoked or screamed most of her life. In fact, if I heard this CD without knowing the artist was female, I would mistake her for a teenage male whose voice was starting to crack and deepen.

So, now that I set the stage, why would you want to listen to what sounds like a boy going through puberty, screeching in a language you can't understand while plinking on a homemade xylophone made of bottle caps? Believe it or not, there is something captivating about this music. There is a simplicity about it that I find intriguing. I might not understand the words, but I can hear the emotion. Reading through the CD liner notes, you find that Chiweshe is a very spiritual person, and a lot of that spirituality translates into her music.

In the notes, Chiweshe tells a lot of stories. Most focus on the healing aspects of mbira music and are told like parables. She ends with the statement: "We should experience the world as it is: filled by spirituality." Most of the songs, however, also focus on surviving a harsh life in Zimbabwe.

"Tapera (We Are Perishing)," for example, mentions that with "AIDS, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, bombings, hunger ... Wherever one goes, we humans are perishing." "Musandifungise (Don't Remind Me)" includes the lyrics "Do not remind me of the hard days. The hard days when a lot people were killed including my own father." I like the message behind "Uchiseka (Laugh About It)" even though I cannot understand the words. Basically the song suggests that you should laugh when your enemies try to hurt you and instead focus on how to not be hurt.

Chiweshe is backed up by several musicians on this CD including Virginia M'kwesha (mbira, hosho/rattles, clapping, chorus), Leonard Ngwenya (soprano marimba, synthesizer, chorus), Samson Mirazi (baritone marimba, chorus), Sabah Habas Mustapha (bass guitar), Houzam Mustapha (drum kit), Alphias Chikazhe (soprano marimba, chorus), Michael Kamunda (alto marimba, chorus), Gordon Mapika (drums), Ephraim Saturday (lead guitar, chorus), Maruva Chikwatari (hosho), Chinembiri Chidodo (African drums, chorus), Gilson Mangoma (percussion, chorus), and Washington Masango (bass guitar, chorus).

Talking Mbira: Spirits of Liberation is a pretty decent CD. I've heard better music out of southern Africa, but Chiweshe's music is not bad. I at least think her music is worth checking out by those of you who enjoy African music, new age and even trance.

[ by Wil Owen ]
Rambles: 2 November 2002

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