Ancient Voices

by Barbara Flaska


Chiwoniso is one of the best-known young musicians in South Africa. The newest thing in the music scene in her country Zimbabwe is the revival of mbira music. The mbira or “thumb piano” has a strong place in the culture.

Musically, I don’t know why mbira music has the effect it does. An important feature of mbira music is cylical accents, with each new chiming repetition varying slightly from the last. Sometimes, it’s hard to get into the music, but that soon fades when you pay attention to the instrument. If you concentrate on the sound, the very gentle consonance of the tones produces a feeling of easiness, as if there is no need for further resolution. I can liken the rhythm and tones to the beginning patter of a welcome rain, a restful rhythm of drops that transforms into something larger. Chiwoniso plays an mbira called the knugwa-knugwa, which means “brilliance-brilliance.” Taken with her remarkable sweet voice and singing, this is a good description of the music she writes and performs. This record is as bright as the sun shining through a green leaf, illuminating the leaf to a bright near transparency.

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Ancient Voices


Around mbira revolves important traditions of story telling, ritual, and healing. As in most countries, the sixties brought much change musically. Exclusively men played the mbira until the 1960s when legendary players like Stella Chiweshe led the way for other women mbira players, such as Chiwoniso and her mother. The mbira has an important spiritual significance for the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The Shona believe that the spirits of their ancestors remain with them. People call on the spirits when they need guidance, support, or to be healed. When called, the ancestors come and speak directly to them. What calls the spirits up is the playing of the mbira.

You can see writing about Chiwoniso can be a complex topic. I think about Chiwoniso singing in Zimbabwe and the Paris studio where she recorded this music. Becoming a citizen of the world can be a tough and lonely business, but a visceral and intellectual understanding of compassion is a key requisite.

Empathizing with the suffering of another is the essence of love. Many of history’s greatest artists and philosophers have described empathy as the wellspring of their inspiration. That’s because it is so fundamental an experience, linking all creation in a common bond. If empathy is the ability to reach out and connect with the suffering of another, then goodness is the result.

That’s what all of her songs say, first in one way and then in another. I can understand her lyrics because most of the songs are sung in English. Of the ones that are not, such as her exquisite “Iwai Nesu” surely no one could remain unmoved by her soulful spirituality. Her music is both appealing and modern, and so is perfectly poised for a larger listening audience. As hers is uplifting spiritual music reminding human beings to strive for understanding and compassion, I hope her music successfully crosses over into the pop market. She has much to say to people in Zimbabwe and much to say to people everywhere. I for one am grateful for the reminder there is brightness in Zimbabwe.

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