Stella Chiweshe obituary | Music

Stella Chiweshe, who has died aged 76, was a rebel musician who transformed the music scene in Zimbabwe in the 1970s, when the country was still white-ruled Rhodesia. She did so by daring to play the mbira, the “thumb piano”, a small instrument with 22 to 28 metal keys, flattened at the playing end and attached to a wooden resonating box.

Often placed inside a large gourd for further amplification, the mbira plays a key role in the traditions of Shona culture, both sacred and secular, and is used to contact deceased ancestors and tribal guardians during all-night ceremonies. This “telephone to the spirits of people, water, trees and birds”, as Chiweshe called it, was considered so dangerous that it was banned by Rhodesia’s white authorities and by Christian missionaries. Traditionally, the mbira was only played by men, but Chiweshe defied convention, and became Africa’s best-known female mbira player.

A compelling performer, she was a great musician who had the aura of a priestess. Playing her last London show at Cafe Oto in November 2021, she came on wearing a long white robe and an elaborate headdress, and silenced the audience even before she reached the stage, with her thrilling and spooky ululating chants. She sat to play the mbira, creating both melody and bass lines from the tiny instrument, and then stood to sing, now backing herself with hosho rattles. She asked the audience to make bird noises as she sang about a time “when birds could communicate with humans”, and switched back to mbira for a song for the ancestors. “If you are listening to the mbira, let go of any thinking”, she told the audience. “Let your mind to do its own thing”.

Extract from a solo performance by Stella Chiweshe, storytelling with the mbira

Born in Mujumi Village, Mhondoro, to the south of what is now Harare, Chiweshe grew up listening to American country music and rock, favouring the Everly Brothers and Jim Reeves over traditional music. She was unimpressed when her grandparents invited mbira players from another region to play an overnight ritual, but two years later she said the sound of the mbira suddenly started ringing in her head “loud and endlessly”.

From that point onwards she was desperate to learn the instrument, but found that no male musicians would teach her, while mbira makers refused even to build an instrument for a woman. A great-uncle finally agreed to give her lessons, and after three years training, from 1966 to 1969, she began to play in public. She risked imprisonment by performing at all-night sacred ceremonies, while also developing a commercial (and legal) side to her work. Her first single, the gently hypnotic Kashahwa (1974), demonstrated her instrumental skill and the range of her relaxed vocal style, and she became a bestseller on the local market.

After independence in 1980, Chiweshe rose to be one of the stars of the new Zimbabwe. In 1981 she joined the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe, bringing her mbira skills to an international audience. She was also an actor, playing the title role in the film Mbuya Nehanda, which told the true story of a spirit medium who was executed after leading a rebellion against British occupation in the 19th century.

Although many of her songs were inspired by her ancestors and the spirit world, there was also a political side to Chiweshe’s compositions, which included a tribute to Samora Machel, the first president of independent Mozambique, and Chachimurenga (Let’s Unite and Fight Apartheid). After leaving the Dance Company to concentrate on her own career, she played solo but also worked with a band, the Earthquake, in which her mbira was backed by marimbas and rattles.

Further experiments were to follow. She recorded her first European album release, Ambuya?, in Germany, with help from members of the adventurous, globally-influenced British band 3 Mustaphas 3, whom she met in Slumberland, a bar in what was then West Berlin that was a celebrated meeting point for musicians.

That album was produced by Ben Mandelson, and he suggested that the Mustaphas’ bass player and drummer should be added to the Earthquake lineup, which included Chiweshe’s daughter Virginia playing hosho percussion. The result, he said, was “quite a radical record for 1987, and took her to a different place. It was a jump forward for Stella, showing what might be achieved beyond Zimbabwe”. Chiweshe was willing to experiment, but “she took her role very seriously. A lot of things came to her in dreams or from the spirit world”.

Chiweshe at the Bad Bonn Kilbi open-air music festival in Duedingen, Switzerland in 2018. Photograph: Anthony Anex/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Ambuya is Shona for grandmother, a term of respect, and was followed by a question mark, but when the album was rereleased in 2021 the title had been changed to Ambuya!, with an exclamation mark: a sign that the respect had been earned.

The album helped to transform Chiweshe’s career. It was followed by live shows with members of the new lineup, who also played on the first of two sessions made in the UK for the Radio 1 DJ John Peel. On returning to Zimbabwe she added guitar, bass and drums to the Earthquake band, in which Virginia was now also playing mbira, which she had been taught by her mother.

Playing either solo or with the full lineup, Stella built up a global following, with her live shows including major festivals in the UK, US, Australia and Spain. Her final album release, Kasahwa (2018), was a compilation of her singles from 1974 to 1983, previously unreleased outside Africa and a reminder of the brilliance of her early work.

While touring in Europe with the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe she met Peter Reich, a German who was the co-founder of the Slumberland bar. They married in 1988 and from then on Chiweshe spent much of her time in Berlin, with Peter acting as her unofficial manager while still helping to look after the bar.

She also became involved in fundraising for the Chivanhu Centre, which would be “dedicated to mbira music”, and would connect “children and elders” and “artists from Africa and other parts of the world”.

Peter died in 2022. Chiweshe is survived by her daughters, Charity and Virginia, from two previous relationships.

At her funeral, which was paid for by the Zimbabwean government and at which only traditional music was performed, Charity revealed that her mother was born Stella Nekati and that “Chiweshe was a totem she adopted as a stage name”.

Stella Rambisai Chiweshe (Stella Nekati), musician, born 8 July 1946; died 20 January 2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *