A few weeks ago, I asked a friend to help me look up a certain album on the internet because I had searched most anywhere I could think of to buy music in the town but to no avail. Ancient Voices by Chiwoniso Maraire. Needless to say, his search was as good as mine. Nobody i know listens to this kind of music!!! I mean, if they did then surely they would know who I am talking about! Chiwoniso is one of the best-known young musicians in Southern Africa. The newest thing in the music scene in her country Zimbabwe is the revival of mbira music. The mbira or “thumb piano” which is a big part of her music, has a strong place in the culture.
Musically, I don’t know why mbira music has the effect it does although I remember giving it a try in the music lessons with the big deal that was the school choir in Buganda Road Primary School….and failing to ignore the blisters that came along with the continuos striking of the metal, and eventually giving it up and settling for the ‘Troupe fiddle’ (I always thought that name was concocted!) Anyway, an important feature of mbira music is that 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, it just produces a feeling of easiness. 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. Back in the day, when Ugandan men had exclusive rights to eating chicken, Zimbabwean men on the other hand 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. Thus the big deal about her and her music in Zim as it is so fondly referred to down there.
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. Lovers of tribal style vocal layers will be enthralled with the tracks “Mai,” “Nhemamusasa,” “Iwai Nesu” and “Wandirasa.” Contemporary jazz-oriented tracks include “Ancient Voices,” “The Way of Life,” “Tamari” and “Look to the Spirit” which has a slight reggae beat and a lovely flute part. The album closes with a soft rock tune entitled “Everyone’s Child” sung primarily with acoustic guitar and mbira accompaniment. (Beat that!!) The instrumental bridge is richly produced with traditional sounds. Vocal work is sweet, evocative and crystalline and demonstrates the artist’s viruousity. 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.
And so, to wrap this up, this album to me is as bright as the sun shining through a green leaf, illuminating the leaf to a bright near transparency!