Stella Chiweshe learned to play the mbira dzavadzimu at a time when such a practice should have, by all social norms of the time, been inaccessible to her. As a woman, tradition forbade her from playing the instrument; as a resident of colonial Rhodesia before the full force of the revolution that saw the rise of such political musicians as Thomas Mapfumo, the law forbade spiritual ceremonies, and all of their elements, including the Mbira genre of music Chiweshe plays. The obstacles have been many.
Today, though, Stella Chiweshe is perhaps the most recognizable mbira player in the world. Often called the “Queen of Mbira”, she plays WOMAD and shows up on Rough Guide albums as one of Zimbabwe’s biggest stars. Kasahwa: Early Singles gives us a glimpse into some of Chiweshe’s first commercial works, eight tracks beginning with debut “Kasahwa” in 1974 and taking us through to 1983. Though largely unknown to her global audience, these are the songs that brought Chiweshe local fame and remain both crucial in that regard and sublime on a purely sonic level.
“Ratidzo” — fittingly translated as “Managing to Do What People Considered Impossible” — opens the album with a whistle that leads into a resonant thicket of mbira sound and understated percussion. On “Chipindura” –“The Herb That Transforms Anything” — Chiweshe’s voice dances amid a midtempo melody that moves in soothing circles. The titular track, which the tracklist translates to “Innermost Emotional Pain Is Like a Fishbone Stuck in the Throat”, is Chiweshe’s first major hit, one she recorded on a borrowed mbira, as no one would build a new one for a woman. Her vocals here are at their strongest, as nimble as her thumbs; it’s not hard to understand how such a track constituted a true breakthrough for her.
The spiritual quality of Mbira music comes through in the hums and repetition of each track. The two-part track “Mayaya” lasts for more than eight minutes with the same theme running through the entire piece as Chiweshe’s vocals grow more and more ecstatic as they punctuate each iteration of it. “Musarakunze” is an entrancing waltz that gets almost imperceptibly sharper throughout the piece, and driving “Nhemamusasa” ends the collection of singles on an exhilarating note as Chiweshe’s voice soars and dips. Listening to each track is a dizzying experience in the best way as Chiweshe takes the music that, she says, started as a ringing inside her and casts it into both the physical and metaphysical world.
It’s the distinct timbre of the mbira that makes it such an appealing instrument in general. Woodsy, metallic, and full of natural reverberation, Chiweshe has always used it to create a soundscape that reflects a blissful, thriving sense of nature. The compositions showcased on Kasahwa blend this lush atmosphere with the electric energy of a voice that brings activity and life to every note, every line. As stripped-down as the actual arrangements are across her repertoire here, Stella Chiweshe shows, even in her early years, an embrace of a musical practice that no one could deny her.