“This is an extract from an interview of Chiwoniso Mararire which was conducted in Harare on 26 July, 2003. Extracted for The Nordic African Institute. You can read the full interview here “
Chiwoniso Maraire was born 1976 in Olympia in Washington State in the United States, where her father Dumiso Maraire was studying and teaching music. She composes, writes lyrics, and plays mbira with her band Vibe Culture.
How did you become a mbira player?
I was born into a very musical family, both my parents were musicians. My father was an amazing mbira player, my mother was a beautiful singer, so I was surrounded by this music from from my conception really because they used to teach classes in the house as well, so this music was always going on.
But at the same time they loved to listen to other people, so I grew up exposed to James Brown, Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Bach, Mozart, you name it, it was being played.
My early years until I was about eight were in Seattle, Washington, and it was a beautiful time. My parents were surrounded by all of these people of different origins, and a lot of American people as well, and they were just making beautiful music. And they wanted to know about Africa, they and the sound, so my parents were special in the community that we were living in. I started playing mbira when I was three.
When we came to Zimbabwe the first time I was about eight, and already by that time I knew I was different to the children around me because we always sort of lived in the suburbs, upper middle class, and I was going to schools where there is a lot of white Zimbabwean children, Indian Zimbabwean children and a small percentage of black Zimbabwean children. I was not in the environment where I would encounter other children my age that were playing mbira.
We lived here for about six years and then we went back to the States again because my Dad was finishing up his PhD in ethnomusicology. So once again I was surrounded by all these great musicians and academics and people that were deep into Africa and music in general. This is when I started performing on the stage, with my father, with songs that my Dad was writing.
It was when we came back when I was fifteen that I really started to come out as a composer and with my own songs, in 1991-1992. I was very nervous about bringing my music out. I had started building relationships with other mbira players, but it was mostly men and most of them older than me. There were just a few women mbira players: Stella Chiweshe, Beaulah Dyoko, Irene Chigamba.
What is your own personal experience of mbira ceremonies?
I am not a spirit medium but I am very much in tune with the spiritual world and most of my close friends are also very in tune. There have been times when I have been in ceremonies and you are just overcome by the strong energy, and how it affects other people deeply. I always taken these experiences them as a reaffirmation that we are not alone, that there is so much more about existence than what we are able to see and perceive.
The experiences I have had have always been very moving, very powerful.
What do you say with your songs and music?
The singing and playing of the mbira is not just about personal enjoyment. I have come to a point where I literally feel like I am a vessel. Some of the stuff I will be singing will be about myself and experiences that I, or maybe people close to me have gone through. But a lot of the songs that we sing with my band “Vibe Culture”, are more about things that we have to do to maintain morality and just the genuine love for the next person and the decency of humanity.
I would like to ask you whether you touch on any of these themes: love, land, traditions, HIV/AIDS, diaspora, poverty, ancestors, women’s rights, violence.
I think I pretty much touch on all of them. Love, definitely. I have got a song called “Wandirasa”, which I sing in English and Shona, where this young woman sings to her lover: “You and I, when we’re together alone I am pretty much the world to you, but then when we’re around other people I am no longer as important and why have you thrown me away. So yes, I have written a few love songs.
I have written a song that touches directly on violence and women’s rights, whose title translated to English is “Give me love”. Again it is a woman singing to her husband who is physically violent and not really wrapped up in the life of the children and she sings: “Give me love, my husband. Did we not build our home together? Give me strength, my darling. You are meant to be my friend and your family’s tried to speak to you, your friends have tried to speak to you, you don’t listen and I would much rather leave now while I am still young and have my life intact than wait for you to kill me”. So that song gets some women crying sometimes in the audience.
[Interview in Harare on 26 July, 2003]
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