‘The Flame Lily of Zim Music’


It’s totally in character that three of the most acclaimed musicians from Zimbabwe − Thomas Mapfumo, Stella Chiweshe and Chiwoniso Maraire − play what could be defined as Chimurenga music.

Mapfumo, the main exponent of the genre, is marooned in the United States, from where he watches the country of his birth with longing and pain. Chiweshe, known affectionately as “queen of the mbira”, has been based in Germany for decades. Chiwoniso,was born in the US in 1976 to Zimbabwean parents. (Her father and teacher, musician Dumisani Maraire, was teaching the mbira to Americans when Chiwoniso was born; her mother, Linda, was also an mbira and marimba player.)

All of these musicians have what could be described as an ambivalent relationship with their motherland. Maybe there is something to be said about Chimurenga music and its natural inclination for exile − and for revolution. Chimurenga music is named, after all, after Murenga Sororenzou the priest-king who inspired the first war, in 1896, against British settlers. His simple exhortation − to the litany of complaints, forced labour, endless taxes, eviction from their ancestral land − after the arrival of the settlers was: If they wanted to be rid off all their troubles, they should kill all the white men.

Named Sororenzou (elephant head) because of the enormous head that sat on his shoulders, his spiritual children still stalk the land. Chiwoniso is, without doubt, Sororenzou’s daughter, a rebel woman who, again, without doubt, would still be alive if she had lived a conventional life.

Chiwoniso Maraire was known simply as Chiwoniso, or Chi (in Igbo, “chi” is an individual’s personal god). She was one of the few people in Zimbabwe who was personable and popular enough to do away with the banalities and convention of the surname. Mention the name Chiwoniso and everyone knows exactly who are you talking about.

She died last year on July 24, of pneumonia, at the age of 37. What James Baldwin said of Richard Wright is appropriate: “Unless a writer is extremely old when he dies, in which case he has become a neglected institution, his death must always seem untimely.”

In Chiwoniso’s case, it is particularly true. She had put out just three solo albums: Ancient Voices (1998), Timeless (2004), and Rebel Woman (2008). Ancient Voices, her greatest achievement, came out when she was just 22 and there was hope, which each passing year proved futile, that she could replicate the charm, the cool, the brilliance and the poise of the album that writer Ranga Mberi described as the one that pioneered “this generation of ‘cool mbira’”.

She updated the instrument and the Chimurenga sound for her generation by infusing hip-hop and R&B accents. She not only spawned a generation of new exponents of the mbira, especially women, but an attitude, a new swagger, for that generation of artists that was trying to steer a path for themselves away from the clichéd, well-worn paths trodden by Dambudzo Marechera, Mapfumo, Chiweshe and others.

Last week at Book Café, her spiritual home on Harare’s Samora Machel Avenue, scores of artists (including Prudence Katomeni Mbofana, Eve Kawadza, Mawungira eNharira, Bengt Post, Norman Masamba, Freedom Manatsa, Comrade Fatso and Daves Guzha), relatives, fans and friends gathered to celebrate and remember a stormy, and for that very reason, full life. Hers was a life in whose arc, etched and tingling as it is with premature success and death, love and pain, most have the faintest idea of. The gig, dubbed ‘Chiwoniso Maraire: The Rebel Woman, the Flame Lily of Zim Music’, provided a moment to reflect on a life that seems to portend and promise a lot but feels like an unpaid debt. After the discussion chaired by Extra-Blessings Kuchera, involving musician and teacher Fred Zindi, poet Chirikure Chirikure and arts administrator Tsungi Zvobgo, the audience was invited to throw up personal reminiscences of the rebel.

I didn’t stand up to share a tale of a Chiwoniso show that never happened. It was in 2008, or thereabouts, at The Baseline in Newtown, Johannesburg. The show was not advertised, as is the nature of these things, but spread by word of mouth. After two songs, in which her voice was wrong and the notes on the mbira false, it was decided people should just drink and be merry. So we drank and were merry.

It is clear that in Chiwoniso we had a genuine talent and a daring innovator. That claim is even truer now in the finality of death and the passing of time. So we shuffle our feet, sigh resignedly, shake our heads in sadness and imagine what could have been.

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