Ambuya Stella Chiweshe (Queen of Mbira)


Stella Chiweshe (also known as Stella Rambisai ChiwesheStella Rambisai Chiweshe Nekati, or Stella Nekati Chiweshe, born 8th July 1946 in Mujumi Village, Mhondoro, Zimbabwe) is a Zimbabwean musician. She is internationally known for her singing and playing of the Mbira dzaVadzimu a traditional instrument of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. She is one of the few female players of the instrument, which she learned to play from 1966 to 1969 when even fewer females played the instrument.

Chiweshe has performed numerous times in Germany and has also participated in the WOMAD festival (1994 in the United States, 1995 in Australia and 2006 in Spain In 2004 she toured England with her daughter. In 2021 Ambuya Stella sang at the unveiling of the statue of Spirit Medium Mbuya Nehanda.

Chronology of musical career

  • 1966–1969 study years of Mbira dzaVadzimu
  • 1970–1973 Played in forbidden spiritual ceremonies under the danger of imprisonment through the colonial government before independence 1974, first recordings of her compositions with Teal Record Company of which her first single Kasahwa went gold.
  • 1975 – 1978 recorded more than 20 singles with the same company but were never promoted.
  • 1979 she started her band the Earthquake after the record company had refused to record Mbira.
  • 1981 – 1985 She became a member of the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe as Mbira soloist, actress and dancer. Performed in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Congo-Brazzaville, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia. India, Italy, Serbia, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, China, Korea. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France, USA, Croatia, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Canada, Slovenia, New Zealand, Poland and Austria.

She earned great success in a film where she played the role of Ambuya Nehanda the national heroine of Zimbabwe, who was killed in 1896 by the colonial government.

  • 1984 Solo tours in Germany, Great Britain, Italy, India, China, Korea, and concerts with her late brother Elfigio Chiweshe
  • 1985 Tour throughout Europe with her daughter Virginia Mukwesha
  • 1986 Introduction of marimba for Mbira music and toured Zimbabwe
  • 1987 Recording and publication of "Ambuya?" with Piranha Records/Germany; triumphant concert at Hackney Empire/London and the Beat Apartheid Road Festival in Germany with two members of an English band the 3 Mustaphas 3.
  • 1988 European tour with the Earthquake Band with shows in East Berlin for the "Festival des Politischen Liedes", West Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg.
  • 1989 Publishing of "Ndizvozvo" TV feature "Rambisai – Music of the Ancestors". She is the founder of the "Mother Earth women’s group in Zimbabwe and founder of Chivanhu Trust also in Zimbabwe.

Stella led her first workshop with 100 women in Cardiff/South Wales as a teacher, and a European tour with the Earthquake Band same year.

  • 1990 Publishing of "Chisi" with Piranha records for Europe and Japan, first release of "Ambuya?" for the USA. Her concert at the Heimatklänge-Festival in Berlin/Germany becomes the main act of the Festival. Concerts in Great Britain, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Led a women's workshop in Arhus/Denmark "Body in Soul".
  • 1991 First release of "Kumusha"; tour throughout Europe where she shared the stage with Mory Kante, Lucky Dube, Pepe Kalle, Empire Bakuba and John Peel Session.
  • 1992–1993 Tour in Greece, Turkey and throughout Europe with the Earthquake band. Led a women's workshop "Unter Wasser Fliegen" in Wuppertal/Germany as a teacher.
  • 1994 Publishing of "Shungu"; concerts in Germany and Great Britain. Solo tour in Norway, Finland and Sweden. WOMAD Festival with Peter Gabriel in North America, where she played solo in front of more than 12,000 people.
  • 1995 Tour in Europe with concerts in Slovenia, Switzerland, Austria, Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Hungary and Germany. Womad Festival in Australia with the "Trio"
  • 1996 Tour in Europe with concerts in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Great Britain and Ireland with her mother on percussion and the five musicians of her "Mbira Ensemble".
  • 1997 Solo tour in Europe with concerts in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and the Czech Republic.
  • 1998 "Global Divas" tour in the USA sharing the stage with Susana Baca (Peru) and Tish Hinojosa (New Mexico) through more than thirty concerts. European tour and a number of radio recordings in the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany with the Trio.

Recording of CD "Tapera" in Zimbabwe with Gramma Records. Collaboration project with "Bhatagumbo" – a group of senior ladies (55–80 years of age). Stella created, directed, choreographed and performed a theatre piece "Chiedza (light). Performed in Harare at the HIFA Festival with Bhatagumbo.

  • 1999 Magdalena Aotearoa Festival in New Zealand with concerts and workshops in Wellington and Paekakariki, solo. Invited to the "Global Interchange Conference: Artists in Conversation", in New York with support of the Ford Foundation.

Collaboration project with the Dimensions Dance Theatre, Oakland (USA). Tour in Europe with the Trio, concerts in Budapest, World Music Festival (Hungary), Kalaka Festival (Slovenia), tour in Italy with concerts in Genova, Casale Monferato, Torino, Bologna. Concerts in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. With Bhatagumbo group participation in the "World Senior Theatre-Festival" in Köln/Germany. The piece she created was the main attraction of the festival tour with her band in Zimbabwe.

  • 2000 Solo tour in Rome, Sicily/Italy and at the World Music Festival Lahore (Pakistan). Quartet concerts at Expo 2000 Hanover (Germany), Int. Frauenuniversität Hannover (Germany), in Greece. Performed at the HIFA Festival in Zimbabwe with the Earthquake Band.
  • 2001 Performed at the FESPAM Festival in Congo/Brazzaville with the Earthquake Band. Tour in Germany and the Netherlands with the Quartet.
  • 2002 Publishing of CD "Talking Mbira" CD by Piranha. Tour with the Trio in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium.
  • 2003 Performed in North America, Canada, Australia. On the New Year's Eve she was honoured with a 28 carat gold medal by Jenaguru Festival Company and in August the same year she was honoured by the University of Zimbabwe with a Masters in Arts degree.
  • 2004 Toured England with three musicians including Virginia Mukwesha her daughter. Performed in New York with Tiga from Haiti (Bonga Music) with his Voodoo drums, solo in California.
  • 2005 Performed solo, in Serbia, England, Italy, Zanzibar. Recorded in Zimbabwe "Double-Check" for Piranha Records. Won the Zimbabwe Silver Jubilee Awards (ZIMA Awards) for being the Most Outstanding Contribution in the Music Industry and for being "The Best Female Mbira Player"
  • 2006 February Solo concerts in: England, Italy, Germany,. WOMAD festival in Caceres/Spain. National Arts Merits Award (NAMA) for being the most outstanding female artist in the music industry and for being the ambassador of the Zimbabwean culture. Performed with the band (six musicians) in Italy, Austria Portugal festivals and WOMAD Festival in Reading/England. In November solo WOMAD festival in Las Palmas/Canary Islands in Spain and in Zagreb/Croatia.
  • 2007 January, February and March shows & rehearsals with band in Zimbabwe. May recording in Ireland. July tour in Canada with the band. Solo shows in Germany and North America.
  • March tour in Italy, Germany with the Trio as well as Solo tour in April in Italy.

 

Interview with Space craft project

Mothership: The Mbira sounds like runnels of rain, if rain was a liquid metal, or like little bells tolling deep in the sea. And this rain-on-the-roof (if the roof were a lake) sound has an amazingly immediate soothing-yet-enlivening effect on the body/mind. Mbira’s sound reminds us that cultures are shaped by local nature. Or at least it was this way before the increasingly exploitative mind set of the past few hundred years a dislocated capitalist culture that must deny nature and the spirit in order to do what it does. To disorient and dominate the heart/mind of the people, the mbira and other indigenous technologies were banned by the colonial regime in your home, Zimbabwe, often through the pronouncements and punishments of the missionaries. You lived through some of this one time even burying your mbira and drums and robes, to hide them from government officials. The mbira also played a role in the people’s struggles to overcome colonial rule. And you were part of that too. You have been devoted to keeping chivanhu (indigenous knowledge/lifeways) alive, primarily through mbira song and dance. Can you tell us about the importance, the place of the mbira in the culture of the Shona people? In what ways does it serve the community? How is it at the heart of Shona life?

Ambuya Stella Chiweshe: First of all, I would like to use this opportunity to explain about the word Shona to you. The original name is Svina, that could not be pronounced by the British people, who came to colonise us in Zimbabwe. They ended up saying Shona, a way that a two or three-year child speaks. There are nine different dialects called Shona people. The main being ChiZezuru. Mbira dzavaDzimu which I play originates from the VaZezuru people. I am a muZezuru, I speak and sing in ChiZezuru. VaZezuru are from the central part of Zimbabwe. Mbira is the name of the instrument and the music. The word mbira stands for both singular and plural as well as one key. It is an instrument that is found nearly all over Africa but, with different keys and names. Mbira is used for prayers as well as for entertainment.

MS: You first heard mbira when you were 8 years old. This age often can be such a clear time in life—a point in which we are becoming more awake and articulate and yet still free from scarring by social forces. I read somewhere that one of your songs is a melody you heard inside yourself as a child. To play the mbira, you not only overcame the oppression of the colonial regime; you also overcame the local gender oppression of mbira being withheld from women. You are the most famous of the first master-level female players of mbira. What drove you to set out on this path? And who helped you to break down the walls along the way?

ASC: What drove me to set out on this path was its soothing sound, then it’s healing energy that healed me.   I had suffered from heart pain for two years nonstop. The terrible pain stopped in a second when I touched mbira to learn. I was helped by the spirit of my mother’s fifth great-grandfather, then by my mother’s uncle taught me two songs, Elfigio Chiweshe and Time Makoni took over to help me be an expert.

MS: How is mbira taught?

ASC: The way I teach mbira is very easy for a person to know the basic keys of a song, in an an hour or less. Each mbira song has four phrases; each one has six keys. I teach one phrase or bar at a time. The learner repeats each phrase until he or she can remember it. We move on, until we connect all the four. Songs that have three bars are story songs and not spiritual songs.

 

MS: Can you tell us what “Mbuya/Ambuya” means?

ASC: “Mbuya” or “Ambuya” means the same thing, it means grandmother or woman spirit medium.

MS: As I’ve shared with you in the past, I first heard mbira during a difficult time, and from the very first notes (played live by a beautiful bright soul, the mbira player, Zimbabwe N’Kenya) I was surprised to find myself smiling. Some years passed, and I spent some time traveling away, and I didn’t hear mbira again for a long while. I then I ran across your Talking Mbira, at my local library. When I heard the first notes, that same deep-rooted smile sprang up immediately, like a light coming on. It was so powerful, that I wanted to know more about what mbira was, and who this was singing. I then read in the liner notes that some of the songs are about instances of grief and suffering and yet the sound of the songs was joyful, which I can only think must be the irrepressible radiance of being alive, despite whatever troubles we are wading through. Such wisdom in this. And it was validating to read in the Talking Mbira liner notes that mbira is considered a healing instrument. Can you tell us a bit about this aspect of mbira as medicine?

ASC: Mbira music plays a big part in the lives of all humans, as far as I have witnessed during my performances around the world. Mbira can heal spiritual illnesses, the kind of illness that the doctors say they cannot find anything wrong, when the person is really ill. I have witnessed mbira-healings a lot during my fifty years of playing it.

 

MS: Because dreams can be doorways for seeing and hearing things outside of our ordinary ways, it was also wonderful to read in the liner notes of Talking Mbira and Double-Check that your songs sometimes come to you in dreams. Is this way of songs appearing common in the mbira tradition? And are these night time dreams or are they trance-dreams that happen while you are playing? Dream and death are close countries, and so in the liner notes of your albums it seems that some of these dream-songs have come to you from dreams of recently deceased relatives, such as your brother and grandmother. Can you tell us more about this? You also mentioned in one of your interviews that each of the 23 keys of the mbira is a voice. Is this part of how the spirits/muses find their way?

ASC: Mbira songs can come through dreams, such as my song Mhanduyehove on the CD Double-Check. If you listen to that song, I added nothing from the playing to the lyrics. I recorded it exactly as it came. When I dream of mbira, I never see a person playing but mostly just the sound or, myself playing. It does not happen always though, but when it happens mbira must not be far because, the sound fades fast when I fully open my eyes.  For that reason, I always keep mbira beside my bed. It’s hard to be in trance on stage, since the songs are forced to be short. The natural way to play mbira is to let a song go on, until it reaches its destination, for each song is like a journey. Mbira songs do not come from my relatives who passed away, but from ancient times. Yes, each key is called a voice, so whether that’s how the spirits find us I cannot tell.

MS: Can you say more about what “ancestor” means in Shona culture?

ASC: In my culture ancestors are spirits of people who lived first on earth, in the beginning of time. Stones and trees are also our ancestors. Spirits have seven different levels that I know of.

 

Discography

  • Ambuya(1987)
  • Ndizvozvo(Piranha, 1988)
  • Chisi(1989)
  • Kumusha(1990)
  • Shungu(1994)
  • Healing Tree: Best of Stella Chiweshe(1998)
  • Talking Mbira: Spirits of Liberation(2002)
  • Double Check(2006)
  • Ndondopetera(2007)
  • Chakandiwana– Stella Chiweshe & Michele Longo" (2014)
  • Kasahwa: Early Singles(2018)
  • Ambuya!(2021)

 

Credits: www.stellachiweshe.com, Wikipedia, www.spacecraftproject.com

Photo credits: stellachiweshe.com, spacecraftproject.com,


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