If colonialism is on its last gasp, in Rhodesia, it seems capable of holding its breath for a very long time. It’s the early 1950s and an eight-year-old girl can hear drums, loud powerful drums, that rock her world and accompany the mbira she is listening to. Only, no one else can hear the drums.
There are no drummers to be seen in Mujumhi, by mortal eyes at least, only those drummers felt by a child who will grow up with one foot in this world and one in the next.
The child that hears things that others do not finds herself on stage playing mbira. She wants to flee, she doesn’t want to be a musician, she wants to be a painter
That country has long gone, replaced by Zimbabwe and the little girl is now a great-grandmother eating goat curry in a kitchen in White City. What haven’t changed are the spirits and their elliptical messages. One night recently, Stella Chiweshe, godmother of mbira, is having a dream. Now, dreams are when the spirits get their best chance to talk to you. She dreams that she is walking on stones down by a river. The stones turn into snakes, thousands of them surround her and she soon realises that there is no point in fleeing. The king of the snakes asks her, “What is it with you humans? You walk on us without so much as an ‘excuse me’. Can you imagine how that feels?” Stella apologises and promises to be better behaved in future, the snakes return to stones and now a gentle ‘excuse me’ and a pinch of snuff greet the stones that she can not avoid walking on.
The child that hears things that others do not finds herself on stage playing mbira. She wants to flee, she doesn’t want to be a musician, and she wants to be a painter, “painting landscapes and trees, sitting quietly. I didn’t even want to talk to a person who plays music or so much as look up at a poster.” She makes a step towards leaving the stage but something inside her stops her in her tracks. Is it the voice of a polite child not wishing to upset people who are enjoying her music or something from the other side driving her?
Her music is a varied bestiary of baboons, fish, lions, dogs and other creatures. Sometimes appearing as themselves and sometimes as ancestors or spirits
The need to develop the musician in her she describes as a “pain the size of a golf ball in my chest burning and hurting me and the only remedy was to play to heal myself.” If there is one thing that the British authorities, the clergy, local traditions and the police are agreed on, it is that playing mbira is not a proper thing for a girl to do, “I could not stop because everything they say is giving me courage.” She suspects something is not quite right when even the police are saying it is against God. There’s only one person she can turn to. She asks her grandfather why everyone wants to stop her. He tells her, ‘they think that a woman who becomes a musician will always be on the road and will never marry.’ When she hears that it all boils down to that, she laughs dismissively and gets on with her vocation.
Her music is a varied bestiary of baboons, fish, lions, dogs and other creatures. Sometimes appearing as themselves and sometimes as ancestors or spirits. ‘Wanyanya’ on her new double album for example admonishes the listeners not to monkey around with baboons. “If you don’t announce to them what you are planting, the baboons get so aggressive…” I wonder if it is enough to pay your respects in this way, “near where my parents live, the baboons were hiding in the fields and they passed ours by and did not even touch our maize but ate everyone else’s,” she replies matter of factly. The alternative is to shoot a baboon but God help you if you do that because killing one will call down a thousand angry animals on your head.
The first disc of the new album is the sound inside that eight year old’s head. The drums have been supplied by master drummer Taurai Chinama, who she felt got her and her music as he too was a country dweller and a down-to-earth person like her. The music in the child’s head is simple, pared back, abstract and ethereal but of the soil.
I left my body and the Creator sent me back, I live in the world of spirits. I am not singing and I am not a singer, I am talking in a melody to tell people something…
On one track, she uses a different mbira than usual, one she didn’t know how to play. For four years, it sits unused waiting for a musician friend to teach her how to play it and one night she has a dream about fish. She notices how you always get one in a shoal that scouts ahead and drops back as if to say to the others, ‘it’s OK for now, no humans’. “We human beings are the enemy of fish. Nets for the fish are like bombs for us… All the lyrics and the tune came to me in a dream.” And that is still the only thing she can play on that mbira.
These percussive musical parables are in total contrast to the classic hits on the second disc. The opener sets the tone; ‘Mese Maikwana’ is good time music. “It’s for celebrating and it means come a dozen or come a thousand, let’s celebrate!” This is music that has a full band sound and huge energy whether it is on upbeat subjects, sad things, spiritual or political issues.
‘Ndinogarochema (I will always cry when I think of Samora Machell)’ leads us onto a discussion of musicians who have passed away (or as Stella puts it, fixing me with her special over-the-glasses stare, ‘gone home’). So many have left now but she sees them still when she plays. She herself has crossed that line, “I left my body and the Creator sent me back, I live in the world of spirits. I am not singing and I am not a singer, I am talking in a melody to tell people something. It’s like visions and sometimes I hear voices, many voices and they said tell this to the people…”
She had been shocked to hear that John Peel had passed too. He had given her the opportunity to record a session for his show, unfortunately that night he didn’t make it in person and now she will never get to meet the mercurial mixer of music whose influence was felt around the world and whose patronage helped her reach thousands whom she would never otherwise have got to.
In person, it is clear that Stella is a complex mixture of things. Part grandmotherly, she admonishes me for not eating up some plantain; mystically she tells wild tales of trapped gorillas asking her for snuff and mischievously she complains that banning smoking in public because of health risks is as crazy as banning sex in case it leads to illness. She concedes with a giggle that there is no such thing as safe smoking though.
She packs up her instrument case with enough time to ensure she has leeway to, “get lost in the airport.” Something she expects to do with some sense of fatality and good grace. She wraps her mbira up very tight in layer after layer of cloth. Partly for protection and partly to get her own back on the inevitable search from a customs officer she will undergo. She is keen to get back to Berlin, where she now lives, and is feeling guilty about the German classes she has missed.
Before she leaves though she makes sure I have her email in case the grass starts talking to me one day and I need to speak to someone who knows how these things go. I am genuinely moved. If there is anyone out there who can understand these things it is Stella Chiweshe.
Stella Chiweshe — Double Check: Two Sides of Zimbabwe’s Mbira Queen DCD-PIR1900 is out now on Piranha Records
July 2006 UK Tour Dates:
1st – Newcastle/Gateshead, Sunderland Kite Festival
15th – Stirling, Tolbooth Arts Centre
17th – Norwich, Norwich Arts Centre
21st – Ely Cathedral [Stella solo]
22nd – Birmingham, MacFestival
30th – Reading, WOMAD Festival
Stella’s own site
African Music Encyclopaedia