Some artists project a stage persona which differs markedly from their everyday personality. Nothing could be further from the truth as far as Stella Chiweshe is concerned.
The 67-year-old Zimbabwe-born singer and instrumentalist, one of the star invitees of the Sacred Music Festival which will take place in Jerusalem September 9-12 as part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, is the real deal. Her singing and mbira (African thumb piano – mbira dza vadzimu, to give it its full name) playing are not just a joy to behold, they generally leave Chiweshe’s audiences spellbound and elated.
The German-resident musician exudes a sense of unbridled joie de vivre, and also pervading tranquility.
Both attributes are highly surprising considering whence she hails, and what she had to do to get where she is today.
For starters there was the not insignificant matter of foreign intervention in basic accessibility to her native Vazezuru tribal music.
“This is music that was played a long time ago in my country, but I didn’t hear it when I was born. I first saw this music [being played] when I was eight years old. By the time we grew up the traditions of the people had been banned. People were not encouraged to play their traditional music,” she explains. The party responsible for trying to keep Chiweshe apart from the indigenous sounds was the colonial government. “Few people were playing the music,” she continues.
It is clear, however, that Chiweshe revels in adversity, and nothing was going to stop her from steeping herself in the tribal sounds that so enraptured her.
“The music touched me so much that I wanted to hear it. It took me a long time for me to find someone to teach me.”
As if the British-controlled authority ban on the art form were not enough, Chiweshe also faced some serious obstacles from within too.
“The music was not for women to play and, at the same time, the police would arrest you if you were found with a mbira in town. They told us that it was music of the devil.”
That’s a pretty heavy duty and definitively slanderous observation, and most youngsters would, no doubt, be scared off taking their interest in the craft any further, but not Chiweshe.
“I was not going to listen to anybody, and I was not afraid of anybody,” she declares.
While that may appear tainted by hubris, there is nothing but genuine belief in her own way in Chiweshe’s makeup. She was simply caught up in the magic of the music and was determined to explore it sounds and vibes to the nth degree, come what may.
She felt it was her destiny.
In fact, the Zimbabwean – then Rhodesian – also had a personal vested interest in getting into the instrument.
“I had the feeling that if I played the mbira I would heal myself because I had pain in my chest in my heart,” she recalls. “I could not be afraid of anybody so I just kept on trying to learn to play it so I can heal myself.”
Gradually others began to appreciate the heady therapeutic qualities of Chiweshe’s developing skills. This was despite the fact that she faced stiff opposition on all fronts, including from womenfolk who steadfastly tried to cling to their traditional accepted social status.
But by the time Chiweshe was 15 or 16 she had begun to take part in music sessions.
“You know, where I come from women sat on the side [of dwellings and meeting places] and the men played the music on the other side,” she notes. The teenager played sandwiched between her older male counterparts and, somehow, she managed to keep going. “That was too much for the women, to see me sitting among the men.” Eventually she won them over. “All those people who were against me, like the local people, they started to invite me to play music when I could not even play for five minutes. I was only at the start of my musical journey,” she laughs.
Chiweshe laughs a lot. Despite all the trials and tribulations she has been through, including the loss of one of her three children, official bans and social ostracizing, a domineering first husband and the inevitable relocation to a very different ethnic and cultural milieu, the woman appears not to have a drop of bitterness about her.
“I was married very young, but my first husband eventually left me,” she recalls. That must have been tough, as a young mother, but Chiweshe says it was the best thing that could have happened to her. “I was happy he left because I could play my music again freely. He didn’t want me to play music. All those things that were against me, they just gave me greater energy.”
Chiweshe set out on the global concert circuit in the early 1980s and has released seven albums under her name to date. She is a regular performer at the prestigious WOMAD world music festival, and has performed all over the world. Her daughter Virginia also plays mbira, which is a testimony to Chiweshe’s trailblazing. Her endeavor and persistence has opened the door to other women to follow her musical, artistic and traditional social status-defying lead. Today, Chiweshe is a celebrity in her native country and has organized an international women’s music festival in Zimbabwe.
Although she sings in her native tribal language, somehow it is easy to follow the stories she spins in her songs.
“I wondered about that,” she admits. “I sometimes wondered what I was doing playing in places like Germany where people don’t understand the language I sing in.
But then I realized that the music sounds like water and, as our body is made of 70 percent water, the music is natural for all of us.”
Even listening to Chiweshe talk is like hearing the gently rippling flow of a stream or a small waterfall. You don’t get a sense of a battle-worn warrior who has fought to have her musical and artistic say.
“I am not fighting and I have never fought,” she declares. “I have just taken it easy. Some people only listen when they are beaten. It is better to listen without being beaten.”
Chiweshe has clearly never been beaten.Stella Chiweshe will perform at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem tonight at 8:30 p.m., as part of a double bill with Ethiopian singer and begena (Ethiopian lyre) player Alemu Aga. For tickets and more information: www.jerusalemseason.com