Stella Chiweshe: Talking Mbira

Stella Chiweshe
Talking Mbira

Talking Mbira will very likely end up as one of my top five records this year. It is gutsy and tuneful and smart, and beauty lurks around every corner of every track, waiting to surprise the listener. It’s not the easiest album to listen to at times, because Stella Chiweshe refuses to confine herself to just being the sum total of her many gifts. Damn this is getting confusing. Let me just skip to what it is I mean.

What I mean is this. Chiweshe is an amazing mbira player, and she could very easily trade in on just being the best one in the world if she wanted to. (Oh, yeah: the mbira is an instrument of metal keys attached to a wooden board, played with the fingers and thumbs. The people who play it usually do so inside a large gourd for natural amplification. The mbira is a hypnotic instrument, both a rhythm instrument and one capable of playing two melodic lines at the same time, and it is used in a lot of religious music of Southern and Western Africa and popular and secular music as well. It sounds kind of like a kalimba, if you know what that is.) (Man, that was a long parenthetical comment. New paragraph.)

You hear Chiweshe’s proficiency on the very first song, a nine-minute one-woman show called “Ndabaiwa”. Chiweshe, who is from Zimbabwe, sings in the Shona language. All the liner notes tell us about this song is that the title means “I Survived”, and that some of the lyrics translate to “If it wasn’t for you my guardian”, so it’s anyone’s guess what it’s all about. But it’s simply a tour-de-force, and sums up a lot that is great about Stella Chiweshe. It’s simple enough rhythmically and melodically — a 16-bar endless loop of mbira plink-plonks, with Chiweshe’s percussion and voice the only other tones. But that loop is as hypnotic as Kraftwerk or Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and more interesting because it’s one woman overdubbing herself to create the effect. But here it is Chiweshe’s voice that carries the piece. She sings in her weathered voice, she chats in a sing-song, she mutters, she makes animal noises, she hums and keens and coos and croons and whispers — I guess it’s an avant-garde sort of performance, but it’s always on point and always in the service of the song. (Well, as far as I can tell. I don’t speak Shona.) What it is, is vocal bravery at its most daring and innovative.

“Ndabaiwa” is one of only two solo performances here. The other, “Huvhimi”, closes the record. It is similar in structure, but it is the single most haunting piece of music I’ve heard this year. Again, the mbira locks into a repetitive groove that cannot be denied, but this time Chiweshe overdubs her vocals until she becomes a choir, chanting along to her own lowing harmonic backup. This song, apparently an old hunting dance, simmers along for eight minutes, bubbling up occasionally into beauty and then settling back down into dark portent.

These two tracks were recorded in Berlin in 2001. The rest date from a 1998 session in Harare, with a full band featuring two marimba players, four percussionists, electric guitar and bass, and synthesizer. When these songs blast forth, they sound more like other Western and Southern African music you might have heard, and attest to Chiweshe’s skill as a bandleader. “Uchiseka” (“Laugh about It”) sounds like South African township jive, with its give-and-go vocal lines and highlife upbeatness. “Nhamoimbiri” (“Twice Suffering”) resembles the darker shadings of music from Senegal or Mali, and the mbira/marimba attack sounds like a Baaba Maal jam. Songs like “Manja” and the nine-minute slow/fast/slow/fast party of “Musandifungise” are so relentlessly upbeat that it’s impossible to sit still for them. And the music-box blues of “Tapera” are so understated and hushed and so damned sad that you almost know what the song’s about before the chorus even starts to chant, especially when you read that the title means “We Are Perishing”. (Zimbabwe’s rate of HIV/AIDS infection among adults is 25%. Twenty-five fucking percent.) Chiweshe, as a songwriter and leader, is just as effective as when she is singing or playing the mbira by herself.

The combination of mbira and marimba makes for a relentless attack. Chiweshe was the first to combine these two sounds, and songs like “Ndangariro” show why. Chiweshe dreamed that her brother appeared to her to tell her to play this song, that if she managed to play it correctly it would help him in the afterlife. I can see how she might have needed some help from beyond. The rhythmic interplay is as complicated (but much more organic) than anything Phillip Glass has done, but it doesn’t lapse into self-parody. But not every song hinges on the mbira. One of the most effective pieces here, “Paite Rima”, is all a cappella call and response in its plea to the lion spirits of the Shona religion to stop all the war in the world. It’s incredibly effective, and the only percussion is the gentle sway of the human voice.

And then there’s the outlier, a 1988 performance by Chiweshe and an entirely different band. We won’t discuss this other than to say that it’s swamped with funk bass, pounded relentlessly by pop drumming, drenched in reverb, and the most infectious thing you could ever hope to hear. This song, “Chachimurenga”, sounds like Haircut 100. That makes it classic from the word go.

Stella Chiweshe has made her masterpiece . . . but it might not be her last. I can’t wait for what comes next.