"I literally feel like I am a vessel"
The Nordic Africa Institute
Chiwoniso Maraire was born 1976 in Olympia in Washington State in the United States, where her father Dumiso Maraire was studying and teaching music. She composes, writes lyrics, and plays mbira with her band Vibe Culture.
How did you become a mbira player?
I was born into a very musical family, both my parents were musicians. My father was an amazing mbira player, my mother was a beautiful singer, so I was surrounded by this music from my conception really because they used to teach classes in the house as well, so this music was always going on.
But at the same time they loved to listen to other people, so I grew up exposed to James Brown, Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Bach, Mozart, you name it, it was being played.
My early years until I was about eight were in Seattle, Washington, and it was a beautiful time. My parents were surrounded by all of these people of different origins, and a lot of American people as well, and they were just making beautiful music. And they wanted to know about Africa, they and the sound, so my parents were special in the community that we were living in. I started playing mbira when I was three.
When we came to Zimbabwe the first time I was about eight, and already by that time I knew I was different to the children around me because we always sort of lived in the suburbs, upper middle class, and I was going to schools where there is a lot of white Zimbabwean children, Indian Zimbabwean children and a small percentage of black Zimbabwean children. I was not in the environment where I would encounter other children my age that were playing mbira.
We lived here for about six years and then we went back to the States again because my Dad was finishing up his PhD in ethnomusicology. So once again I was surrounded by all these great musicians and academics and people that were deep into Africa and music in general. This is when I started performing on the stage, with my father, with songs that my Dad was writing.
It was when we came back when I was fifteen that I really started to come out as a composer and with my own songs, in 1991-1992. I was very nervous about bringing my music out. I had started building relationships with other mbira players, but it was mostly men and most of them older than me. There were just a few women mbira players: Stella Chiweshe, Beaulah Dyoko, Irene Chigamba.
And all of them were playing the same style, deeply traditional, beautiful music, but all in Shona. Nobody was then even thinking about singing in English. I was afraid, like "Are they going to think I am diluting the sound? But I had a lot of sort of support from my father and my husband at the time. After about three years, my first CD, "Ancient Voices", came out. People think it is new, because it has only begun to be accepted.
One thing that has intrigued me is that the phenomenon of mbira music seems to be much stronger here in Zimbabwe than elsewhere in Africa where you also find similar instruments. Why?
One of the reasons is this depth that it has as far as a spirituality is concerned. There are many very strong spiritual believers in this country. They do not come as much into prominence as people practising Christianity, but they are strong force within the country.
And for them mbira is essential as much as drums, hosho, and songs sung in certain ceremonies. The instrument is so connected to the spiritual world, besides being of entertainment, I think this is what helped it survive the transitional period that the country went through.
There are lots of people in Zimbabwe right now that are going into the gospel music thing. I respect that, as musicianship it is OK. But one gets a very strong feeling that a lot of people are doing it because they have found out that it is easy money, because generally when people are going through something difficult their faith in God tends to rise because they need to believe that at the end of all their suffering something good will happen.
What worries me is that there is no questioning or deeper studying of the religion and the concepts of the religion and what it is saying. I say it very strongly like this because a lot of people within that circle will really disrespect the strength of the mbira instrument. If they bothered to listen to the message they would realise that it is saying exactly what they run into churches to try and find. It is right there in your traditional music, if you would open your ears for the message given to the people all the time.
What is your own personal experience of mbira ceremonies?
I am not a spirit medium but I am very much in tune with the spiritual world and most of my close friends are also very in tune. There have been times when I have been in ceremonies and you are just overcome by the strong energy, and how it affects other people deeply. I always taken these experiences them as a reaffirmation that we are not alone, that there is so much more about existence than what we are able to see and perceive.
The experiences I have had have always been very moving, very powerful.
What do you say with your songs and music?
The singing and playing of the mbira is not just about personal enjoyment. I have come to a point where I literally feel like I am a vessel. Some of the stuff I will be singing will be about myself and experiences that I, or maybe people close to me have gone through. But a lot of the songs that we sing with my band "Vibe Culture", are more about things that we have to do to maintain morality and just the genuine love for the next person and the decency of humanity.
I would like to ask you whether you touch on any of these themes: love, land, traditions, HIV/AIDS, diaspora, poverty, ancestors, women's rights, violence.
I think I pretty much touch on all of them. Love, definitely. I have got a song called "Wandirasa", which I sing in English and Shona, where this young woman sings to her lover: "You and I, when we're together alone I am pretty much the world to you, but then when we're around other people I am no longer as important and why have you thrown me away. So yes, I have written a few love songs.
I have written a song that touches directly on violence and women's rights, whose title translated to English is "Give me love". Again it is a woman singing to her husband who is physically violent and not really wrapped up in the life of the children and she sings: "Give me love, my husband. Did we not build our home together? Give me strength, my darling. You are meant to be my friend and your family's tried to speak to you, your friends have tried to speak to you, you don't listen and I would much rather leave now while I am still young and have my life intact than wait for you to kill me". So that song gets some women crying sometimes in the audience.
Poverty, yes. "Madam Twenty Cents" is a song on my first CD. I'd just I had started up at the College of Music and the street situation was beginning to be bad, and I remember with friends of mine we were saying:
There was this blind guy who would sit on one corner every day and he would sing “Amanda tambura, Amanda nitida, Amanda tambura, Ambandi batudi", which is "My family, my kin, my family, look at me, my life has gone hard for me”, please help me". I would hear this every day and I went home and I am just hearing this thing. And a song just dropped out. It is basically a young boy asking "Madam twenty cents, please, I have no money today, my mother's sick and disabled and my father, he ran away to the city 5-years ago. He was looking for a job, he never returned and now we are all alone".
I touch on land, I did an old song on how the land of Zimbabwe came through war. It is not like a war cry song and I am not telling everyone "Okay, grab all the shovels and guns and start killing each other again", no, but it is a song to say that we should remember that for us to get where we are now it took a lot of pain and difficulty and some people died for that, and it is just nice to have a moment to stop and think about that.
So yes, I do touch on all of these things. But without being political. We don't get into that. "Vibe Culture" doesn't get into singing politics and stuff, but we do talk a lot about the other elements and entities of life.
I tend to like to go to the root emotion. I like to make the kind of music that regardless what you do in your life you will be able to feel something in that song. And whether it makes you feel a little painful or a little uncomfortable you can relate to it. I think Bob Marley's music was very much like that.
And now you are going to Senegal, tell me more about it.
I am very excited about it. Basically it is UNDP, United Nations Development Programme, and United Nations itself, - I guess world leaders are realising that there is a lot of things that are wrong with the way things are happening on the African continent. I mean, definitely without a doubt the first thing is the corruption amongst a lot of the leaders, and I say this without disrespecting African leaders because I think that you have to be strong to be a leader on a continent like this. But that cannot be ignored, that there are people that are taking their whole role way beyond where it should be.
But then on the other side is the reality that there are a lot of outside forces that affect what goes on, and people in Africa don't know this. This is part of what this whole project is about. The date has been set until 2015 to really get people wide awake about poverty, wide awake about AIDS and the related diseases, wide awake about their own strength as African people to make the decisions.
They want to start now, and get this message out through the music with the help of what they consider the strongest voices coming out of the continent at the moment, which made me feel very honoured. And I think that that is really great. UNDP is actually not just saying to the musicians "Listen, could you give us a song about this, we are going to do a CD". No, they say: "Look, let's all get together in one room because these are the issues that you guys talk about and what do you think we should include in this project over the next twelve years".
I have spent the last three days speaking to friends of mine in different levels, like other artist friends of mine and business friends of mine and banker friends of mine and CIO friends of mine and my domestic workers at home, the people that help me out at home, and just finding out people's different feelings about what's going on right now. I have made it like a very conscious thing to do these last few days because I feel like it is important to include these thoughts in whatever I say in Senegal, it is not just about where I am coming from but a whole nation.
Did you find any consensus in what they are saying?
Yes, definitely. Everybody agrees that land had to be redistributed but now there is arguments, that is where the argument starts it is either some people say "The process was too fast" other people say "It was too slow". There is the general concern amongst everyone about title deeds, whether or not people are getting title deeds.
What I love the most is that there is knowledge, especially amongst black Zimbabwean people, that the decisions that were taken in this country have - okay, some of the things have made life difficult for Zimbabweans, but on other parts also it really did expose the fear that the especially western politicians have towards an African country or a Third World, as it is so badly described, country saying "We're going to change the rules". There is a very serious fear of that, which is sad but it is also cool that it comes out in the open.
And there is concern amongst Zimbabwean people about what's going to happen in this land, not only dealing with corruption within the government but also dealing with this fear now that has caused western leaders to say "Place sanctions on them" and those sanctions are hurting a lot of people right now. Or to say "Okay, if they're going to travel anywhere make the visa's difficult to obtain". The Zimbabwean people now carrying a Zimbabwean Passport just to go into England, just to apply for a visa, you have to pay $134 000. That is non-refundable. Now that is a lot of money in Zimbabwean dollars, it is a lot of money.
My whole thing about life goes way beyond colour and religion. My concern is about mankind and it shows that there is still this element of politicians There are some people that are very badly treated because the ones that have the power are placing importance on very destructive elements of living, and that is just go to change. It may not change in my lifetime, it might not even change in my daughter's life time, but at least it is great to know that people that are conscious of that are doing something about it.
[Interview in Harare on 26 July, 2003]
January 19th, 2011