As the first artist to be released on Germany’s globe-spanning Piranha label, it’s fitting that this terrific double-disc set from Zimbabwean mbira master Stella Chiweshe should be that label’s 100th album. It is a wonderful celebration of an artist who has had to face many obstacles in her career. Since the early ‘90s, Piranha has worked to establish Chiweshe’s reputation as the world’s premier player of the mbira, which is casually referred to as the African thumb piano. Double Check thoroughly cements that reputation, and even augments it.
The album is accurately subtitled Two Sides of Zimbabwe’s Mbira Queen, and each disc is individually named, as well. The packaging is initially a bit confusing, with both titles suggesting that each CD is a compilation. Disc two, Classic Hits, is indeed a retrospective, collecting full, modern band cuts from three prior albums (along with one previously unreleased track). The first disc, however, Trance Hits, is actually comprised of all new recordings. Thankfully, all of this information is clearly laid out in the generous liner notes. And I mention it not at all as a criticism. Double Check is a double treat, what with a fantastic “best of” disc accompanied by an equally excellent new release. And, true to the album’s subtitle, we are treated to two markedly different aspects of the music of Stella Chiweshe.
As mentioned, Chiweshe’s career has been an uphill struggle. The battle over her music even predates the artist. The very existence of the mbira was threatened by colonial suppression in the 1930s. The second song of Trance Hits tells the story of how the police were ordered to destroy the instruments, but were enchanted by its sound and were unable to complete their mission. This is exactly the kind of trance state to which the disc’s title refers. It has nothing to do with the genre of electronica music also called trance. Rather, this beautiful music will transport you to a dreamy stasis. The sounds of this album are pure and almost entirely unadorned. Along with mbira, the ancient instrumentation consists of hand drum (ngoma), shaker (hosho), and voice. Impressively, Chiweshe recorded most of these parts herself. Maybe the idea of overdubbing tarnishes the notion of authenticity the music itself so deeply conveys, but it’s difficult to care. Haunting and full of raw emotion, this first disc sounds like a splendidly captured field recording. It’s a very powerful sound, and one that Chiweshe says she’s had inside her all her life. To hear the spiritual conviction in these recordings, there is little doubt. And it was this same obsession that led her, a female musician in a patriarchal society, to buck the system in the first place. Although her fellow Zimbabweans initially didn’t know what to make of her presence in the scene, she is now called Ambuya Chinyakare (“Grandmother of Traditional Music”) and is embraced as an ambassador of her country’s music.
An already highly satisfying listening experience, the second disc, Classic Hits, is the party after the prayer. So, take a reflective moment as your changer releases one CD and guides the other beneath the laser’s light. Take a cleansing breath and shake your body loose, because now it’s time to dance with the Earthquake band! Essentially a rock band (guitar, bass, drums) melded with a marimba band, the rollicking and ebullient music of disc two follows much more our contemporary concept of “world music”, in which Western pop lends support to the folk music of a foreign nation. In the case of Stella Chiweshe, it s the joyous sounds of Zimbabwe. All of the happiest sounds on the planet conspire here to rid you of your gloom. Marimba notes leap as if their plinks and plonks are spring-loaded, while highlife guitar lines dance along the pentatonic scale. The rhythm sections bounces along friskily, and Chiweshe’s sing-chanting is contagious.
For anyone already a fan of Stella Chiweshe, Classic Hits offers a far superior retrospective to Shanachie’s 1998 compilation The Healing Tree. And Trance Hits serves up something entirely new (and also very old, with its traditional sound). For someone wanting to explore her music, there could be no better place to start than the excellent Double Check.