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Ambuya Chiweshe: Mbira music legend


On home soil, she has broken down barriers by becoming one of the few pioneering women mbira artistes, and excelled in the industry dominated by men like Dr Thomas Mapfumo, among others.

Her name is Stella Chiweshe, the Zimbabwean German-based mbira queen who has over the years assumed legendary status with her rich mbira music.

Like other contemporaries of her time, the mbira maestro also used her music as a weapon to denounce colonialism in pre-independent Zimbabwe. That was during an epoch when the colonialists, seeing the power carried in mbira music to inspire Africans against their rule, banned this music.

And it is not a misnomer that she earned herself the title Ambuya, which in Shona culture and tradition is bestowed upon a grand matriarch, a mother of all, a custodian of the people.

It is also interesting to note that her musician is revered both locally and abroad for her unparalleled role as the country’s ambassador internationally with her music steeped in mbira, one of the most ancient traditional musical instruments of the Shona people.

The potency of her music, mbira dzevadzimu — played to communicate with ancestral spirits — was, and still is being felt abroad where she plays before predominantly white crowds who are driven into frenzies by its movement and rhythm.

In spite of her advanced age, Ambuya Chiweshe exemplifies how far women can go in asserting the extraordinary power they possess in a world that views them from a warped and stereotypical prism.

No wonder she became the first local woman artiste ever to earn an honorary degree in arts from the University of Zimbabwe, after Dr Mapfumo, of course.

Clive Malunga also recognised her enormous contribution to Zimbabwean music by offering her an accolade in honour for her contribution to the local music in the last three decades.

Born Stella Rambisai Chiweshe Nekati in Mujumi Village, Mhondoro, on July 8, 1964, the musician first learnt to play the instrument between 1966 and 1969 when fewer women played it, since it was viewed as taboo.

But so determined was she in quashing this notion that she borrowed some mbira instruments to record her first single, Kasahwa, that announced her arrival on the local music and indeed caused heat-waves. The single went gold in 1975, breaking existing records that had been set before.

A catalogue of 24 other hot singles by the artiste followed in the next six years, and later, in 1981, when Zimbabwe was just a year old, the doyen joined the National Dance Company to perfect her dancing skills. Windows for international tours then began to open up.

Most people were taken by surprise when Chiweshe became one of three international female artistes from different corners of the world to participate in the Global Divas tour of the United States alongside Susana Baca Tisha Hinojosa.

Ambuya Stella Chiweshe also toured Europe from 1983, in the process releasing hugely successful albums that include Ndizvozvo Ambuya, Chisi, Kumusha, Shungu, Tapera, Healing Tree and Talking Mbira.

But it is Germany that has literally become her home away from home, where she has performed at many shows apart from staying with her German husband.

She has became almost a regular feature at the WOMAD Festival touring the United States in 1994, Australia in 1995 and Spain in 2006.

While she plays mbira and marimba, Ambuya Chiweshe has not been resistant to change as she has also fused her music with contemporary instruments, to create a cosmopolitan feel. One of her songs, Kumusha earned her the international Billboard Music Award on the Alternative World Music Album, in 1993.

To ensure posterity, her daughter Virginia Mukwesha, has been performing with her mother during most of her international tours and is an accomplished artiste in her own right.

Ambuya Chiweshe’s vast talents, however, have not been limited to music alone. In 1989, she starred in Godwin Mawuru’s film I am The Future, about a woman fight for her own personal freedom in pre-independent Zimbabwe when people around her were fighting against oppressors.

Although she has been quiet on the local music scene for a long time, there is no doubt that Stella Chiweshe is one of the few women musicians who defied odds to straddle the music podium from Harare in Zimbabwe to Berlin in Germany.

She also deserves to be honoured more for her enormous contribution to Zimbabwean music, inspiring future women generations after her such as Chiwoniso Maraire, Beaulah Dyoko, Benita Tarupiwa and the late Ambuya Madhuve to follow in her music footsteps.

Zimbabweans are already nostalgic about her traditional homecoming gigs and cant wait to see her perform on stage.


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