IF tombstones were to be inscribed with words that summarise our works during our lifetimes, Chiwoniso Mararaire’s epitaph should have read: “Here lies a woman who revolutionised the mbira, the godly thumb piano of the Shona civilisation with amasing interpretation of the instrument”.
Born in 1976, in Olympia, the United States (US), the singer and songwriter was in the shadow of her father Dumisani as he taught music in the US.
Born several miles away from her native Zimbabwe, one would have expected her to get swallowed by the cultures of the mighty mystic concrete jungles of the US.
And born into the much touted and celebrated American dream, the Western repertoire could have easily rubbed onto her and dissuaded her from associating with an instrument much detested by the colonial government back home.
It was an instrument associated with deep African spiritualism; whose doctors had been labeled “witchdoctors” and whose priests and prophetesses had been renamed dark diviners, divinators in a godless inferior civilisation.
And yet quite to the contrary, Chiwoniso was awestruck by the instrument that spoke a unique soft and often deep language that took sophistication of the ear to interpret.
She yearned to play the instrument and thankfully horned her musical career in a country where the laws were freer than the strict laws back home where the mbira had been banned in colonial Rhodesia and women were not allowed to play it.
After her father, who was pursing his Ethnomusicology degree in the US, responded to her keen interest to learn, Chiwoniso got the green light to have her unique sessions and start her love affair with the mbira.
Playing the mbira united the young Chiwoniso with her African roots. Maybe it was her sheer absence from a home she had never known that bred that interest and grew the unique inquisitive curiosity within her.
She had a longing for something to fill the cultural gap – that culture shock in foreign lands could create and all of a sudden she found the agent to fill that void in the instrument from home.
In long bonding sessions she started learning the intricate details of the mbira as well as the various kinds of thumb instruments.
When she moved back to Zimbabwe, she attended Mutare Girls’ High School before taking Advanced Level evening classes at the University of Zimbabwe where her father was teaching.
Chiwoniso was honoured with the Decouverte Afrique by Radio France International after releasing her debut album ‘Ancient Voices’ in 1998. The album entered the World Music Charts in Europe three times and brought her a nomination in the category, Best Female Vocals of Africa for the KORA Award in 1999.
She started making waves after moving back home with her family in many different projects that involved a unique melding of international instruments with the mbira in a way totally different to the haunting ethnic manner in which her peers like Stella Chiweshe and Virginia Mukwesha did.
The reason why people frowned upon her music at the beginning became the reason they were endeared to it at the end — her performing in the English language.
Being flawless and well grounded in both her mother tongue and English meant that things that could have been lost in translation were kept intact and well articulated, what with her amazing grasp of the complexion of pronouncing both English and her Shona mother tongue.
Her soundtrack to the Zimbabwean movie ‘Everyone’s Child’ was moving and captured the spiritual and social aspect of the movie in orphanhood and tough childhood that it was as chilling and moving as watching the movie itself.
The song Tamari, also a soundtrack, brought out a voice that has left a mark not only on the face of Zimbabwean but ultimately in world music.
The stage had been set for the growth of another mbira goddess but sadly that dream has been cut short. At least Chiwoniso made an impact, which will remain etched in our memories for many years to come.
It was the unleashing onto the market of the album Ancient Voices that endeared her to people across the music appreciation divide. With tracks such as Amai, which spoke to her bidding farewell to her departed mother, the topic captured the bond between the maternal umbilical cord and the vulnerability of the child in a manner that was poignant and ridden with emotions that were little short of tangible.
Ivai Nesu, a plea to God written and performed in both English and Shona revealed just how Chiwoniso was not the Barbie-girl Shona singing Zimbabwean but the real deal as her lyricism carried certain language that was so deep that everyday Shona speakers, to whom the language was a mother tongue, encountered words and idioms that they were not familiar with.
She had risen to become a guru at playing her mbira instrument of choice which captured the person that she was inside; the nyunga nyunga loosely translated as the sparkling mbira. Indeed the gem inside her had begun to sparkle.
She was married to Mberengwa born coloured boy, Andy, who was popularly known as Muzukuru.
Hailing from a unique band Ilanga, which had built him and made him an international star as well as an amazing personal repertoire which had made him a musical god 10 times over, the two became the celebrity couple par excellence.
Yet at the height of their adrenaline levels, they proved too often to be a couple of bad meets evil. The Bonnie and Clyde of the Zimbabwean music industry and much as they were an adorable couple, they were evidently not healthy for each other.
While they helped each other grow musically, their lifestyle reduced them to a point that made their delinquency seem more apparent than their talent and that was not worth it evidently.
The fear had been that the relationship could end a tragic story of a crime of passion. Fortunately, it did not.
It did, however, end in divorce, a fate way better than death and self destruction, but the couple would stay in amicable terms until the death of Andy a few years after their official divorce.
Her experiences in her awkward marriage as well as other lessons life had taught her helped her chisel out lyrics to her albums Timeless and much later Rebel Woman.
In between she had worked with Adam Chisvo, a percussion god, Busi Ncube, who had also played alongside her husband Andy in the group Ilanga, Peter Mujuru nicknamed Mashasha and a handful other artistes in a formation known as The Collaboration and recorded Hupenyu Kumusha, Life at Home, Impilo Ekhaya. The band performed in Zanzibar’s Sauti za Busara 2007 Festival to wide appreciation.
The collaboration also breathed new life into another old favourite Zimbabwean classic popularised by the now self-exiled Chimurenga music supremo Thomas Mapfumo entitled Hurombo (Ndotya Kugara Ndega) giving it an up tempo youthful feel.
With experiences from working in the lowly publicised group Women’s Voice, Chiwoniso had mastered the art of collaboration so well and could work so effortlessly with other artistes, who were bedazzled by the creative antics of the princess of mbira.
Rebel Woman became her first international album and was a hit on release.
With the passing of Andy, a part of her had died with him and the two were always never good for each other but always a good pair together ironically. She had continued to carve a niche everywhere she went, being the vanguard of the women’s movement in making music and for the little holes, nooks and crevices left by the absence of Virginia and Stella Chiweshe, this refreshing voice has managed to hold fort and represent the womenfolk in that genre.
A proud single mother with several responsibilities on her shoulders, Chiwoniso managed to juggle her routines with candour and tact admitting that she was not perfect but showing every effort in making things work.
Yet when all is said and done, the true magic of Chiwoniso’s music was hardly appreciated to the full by her Zimbabwean fans who are seeing only her entertainment prowess today. We are all beginning to realise that we had a priceless gem in our midst whose personal discography should have been elevated to a higher pedestal.
Rest in eternal peace Chi; till we meet again!
– Philip Mataranyika is the Chief Executive Officer of Nyaradzo Group
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