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African Jazz

Zimbabwe: Shona Mbira Music

By Published: January 16, 2003

Perhaps most revealing are the words: the liner notes convey the utter poetry of his work. Symbolism, metaphor, and deep abstractions surge throughout "Mbiriviri." Mashoko, to his credit, deals out a great deal of the unexpected. Midway through the story, he runs into a group of old men who break his "mat" (mbira) and replace it with a cow ("zva... zva... zva..."). Then he comes across a group trying to milk a frog. Psychadelic, yes. Mashoko puts it simply: "When I sing, you never know where I'm going next." The soul of mbira is poetry, and Mashoko serves as a wonderful example.

Stella Chiweshe
Talking Mbira: Spirits of Liberation
Piranha PIR1681

Heresy! Mbira music with electric guitars? What have the children come to?!

If there's anything that defines the Shona mbira music of Zimbabwe, it's spirituality and tradition. The instrument has become so integrated into magic and culture that it's generally performed only by men who have spent a lifetime mastering it. They rely on traditional pieces and melodic figures, reinforced by the layout of the instrument and common elements of group interaction. Mbira performances include mbiras, shakers, and vocals, and that's basically it.

Stella Chiweshe has decided to hold on to some of these traditions and dispose of the rest. She overcame her first problem, being female in a male-dominated culture, by stepping forward and creating serious art. (That's no small thing. She's the first woman to lead a band in Zimbabwe.)

She also disposed of the limited instrumentation of traditional Shona culture by introducing drums, electric guitar and bass—and, most notably, the marimba. Based on Chiweshe's combinations, the marimba and the mbira quite simply belong together. The marimba, a relatively recent invention in Zimbabwe, offers a warm wooden resonance to balance the ringing sound of the mbira. On all but two tracks of Talking Mbira, two marimbas appear along with one or two mbiras.

And that's where Chiweshe holds on to tradition. The melodies of her songs are inviting and accessible (read: World Music), but the underpinnings retain the interlocking patterns that have long defined mbira music. Her introduction of marimbas follows closely on the interlocking patterns and motifs of traditional Shona music. Rather than diluting or distracting from Chiweshe's own mbira playing, these instruments augment and enrich the music. In some sense, they become deeper mbiras. The idea is inventive, yet still built on the foundation of generations of ancestors. Bonus points for Chiweshe making this particular connection.

As for the rest, it's a mixture of styles from the relatively traditional to mixed up vocal pieces with different cultural elements thrown into the mbira stew. Among the latter: a country-inflected ballad (yes, and it's a bit scary), harmonized vocals borrowing from the South African isicathamiya tradition, and a helping of West African highlife music. All in all, Talking Mbira comes and goes, but it's always interesting to hear how the artist will make each new cocktail.

There's no doubt that Stella Chiweshe is a talented musician; it's the way she channels her energy that determines her success. In this case, it's mostly hit.

Track Listings

The African Mbira: Music of the Shona People

1. Kana Ndoda Kuramba Murume (When I Want to Split With My Wife or Husband 2. Tipe Tizwe (Give Me a Taste) 3. Misorodzi (Tears) 4. Gumbukumbu 5. Ndini Baba (Respect) 6. Urombo (Poverty, Mourning, Apology, Shame)

Shona Mbira Music

1. Nehamusasa: Instrumental Excerpt I 2. Nehamusasa: Instrumental Excerpt II 3. Nehamusasa: Complete Performance 4. Dande 5. Taireva [Version 1] 6. Nyamaropa Yekutanga 7. Taireva [Version II] 8. Shumba 9. Nyamamusango 10. Chaminuka We

The Soul of Mbira: Traditions of the Shona People

1. Nhemamusasa 2. Taireva 3. Nyamaropa 4. Kuyadya Hove Kune Mozove - Garage Nyamudya 5. Mbiriviri 6. Nhimutimu 7. Nyamaropa Yevana Vavamushonga - Muchatera Mujuru 8. Dangu Rangu - Mubayiwa Bandambira 9. Kumakudo

Talking Mbira

1. Ndabaiwa [Kassahwa Revisited] 2. Chachimurenga [Future Mix] 3. Uchiseka [Laugh About It] 4. Ndangariro [Memories] 5. Musandifungise [Don't Remind Me] 6. Paite Rima [Spiritual Lions] 7. Tapera [We Are Perishing] 8. Nhamoimbiri [Twice Suffering] 9. Manja [Respectful HandS] 10. Huvhimi [the Vision for Hunters]

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