Zimbabwean musician Chiwoniso Maraire, died on July 24, 2013, at age 37. Doreen Gaura pays tribute to the revolutionary mbira player, spiritual songstress and gifted lyricist.
You may not know me, but I have known you for about 20 years now. The first time I met you was back in 1992 or was it 1993, I can’t really remember, and you and your friends/ band mates, A Peace of Ebony, came to visit with me and my sisters. We were all sitting in the kitchen of my grandparents’ old house in Mutare, Zimbabwe and you guys came in through the speakers of my older sister’s old radio cassette player and introduced yourselves to us through your song From the Native Tongue. My “twin sister” Judy and I were so excited to meet you, we were laughing, dancing and snapping our little fingers along to your song and that first encounter is one I have taken along with me throughout the journey that is my life. As your then classmate at Mutare Girls High School, I remember my older sister was very excited to make the introduction and I am forever grateful to her for it, even if the introduction was just to your cassette and not to you in the flesh.
I am grateful because it was then that, without even realising it at the time, 7/8 year old me fell ridiculously in love with the fiercely inspirational and gifted woman that you were without even really understanding what your music meant, what it stood for, what it represented or that as time went on, you would proceed to be one of Zimbabwe’s best known female musicians and cultural icons. I had no idea back then that you would go on to establish a name for yourself in your 20 year + career as queen of the mbira – both as a solo artist and as a member of bands like A Peace of Ebony, Andy Brown & the Storm, Women’s Voice and Ancient Voices. In your short but very full life, you received various accolades for your talents both locally and internationally and collaborated with other artists from around the globe which include Ambuya Stella Chiweshe, Tumi & the Volume, Busi Ncube, Baaba Maal, Sinead O’Connor and Mari Boine and as one who eagerly followed your progress, I was filled with nothing but admiration and pride every step of the way.
I was out with friends when I got the news of your passing two nights ago and I shocked both myself and my friends with the amount of grief that overwhelmed me. I was embarrassed and confused by my little episode and I still am in a lot of ways. I make no pretences here of having had any sort of reciprocal relationship with you outside of the one way one which really boiled down to me being insanely and unabashedly in love with the person I saw in you and your music and the Spirit within you. I never got to know you personally and unfortunately have only ever spoken to you once, about 8 years ago, when I found myself dining one table away from yours at the Italian Bakery in Avondale, Harare and I came up to you, made an idiot groupie of myself and asked for a photograph with you, to which you happily obliged. I have never even attended any of your shows (and please believe me, it wasn’t to a lack of trying) and I have only ever seen you perform live once at this past HIFA edition where you cameod in the Noisettes’ performance, so why was I, and still am, taking this so hard? Me, of all people. The same person who has in the past judged others very harshly for making a big deal about celebrity deaths. Heck! I have even written a whole blog post that generously served up my judgement when Whitney Houston died for crying out loud!
Upon deeper introspection a lot of possible explanations come to mind which include my own mother’s death at thirty six (just one year younger than you were Chiwoniso when you left us) 10 years ago exactly on the 17th of July, as well as me empathetically grieving for a newly made friend (along with her siblings) who not only had a mentor but a mother in you. Grieving for them and all the other people I know, mostly young Zimbabwean artists, who did in fact have real and mutually beneficial relationships with you, those who called you sister. Grieving for my nation, for even though some may not realise it, but we have suffered a great loss. We have lost a musical and cultural icon, pioneer, teacher, warrior and leader.
It is from the last reason that I find the courage to write you this letter because I think you and the world must about the impact you have had on so many young Zimbabweans’ lives, even if it is only from my humble and very personal perspective. I cannot going to give a historical account of your life or career as I do not know anymore than what is already available on dozens of websites on the internet but I will share the story of your life within my own and possibly the lives of other fans out there.
Although I am not a musician (Lord knows I wish I was), you and your music inspired me to be myself and be unapologetic for it in spite of any resistance or judgement that may come my way. What I admire the most about you is that despite having partly grown up in the U.S. you were still very in touch with your roots and identity as a Manica woman, probably more so than a lot of young Zimbabwean women of both our generations are. Indeed you came from a very musical family but to assume that to be the only source of your great talent would be a great dishonour to your memory. I believe that your courage and passion that resonate through your music played a big role in gaining you status as a gender bending female mbira player and cultural ambassador despite the fact that traditionally women weren’t known to play the mbira. Your music speaks a lot to identity. The identity of tribes and cultures, of a nation, of the feminine and of the individual and it was through this that you inspired my love for culture, love for the Spirit of the mbira and my reverence for ancestry.
When I saw you on stage with the Noisettes, Hope Masike and Tariro Ruzvidzo or when I watched your music videos on youtube, I saw Spirit in you. The Spirit that chose you and gave you its gift of music. Gift of the mbira. Having learnt almost a year ago that I have a calling to become a sangoma, I have struggled to accept this new reality and I have battled with it. I have cried and I have pleaded with my ancestors to choose someone else because I did not want it. I have been terrified by the idea of never moving back home because I would be too afraid to live in Zimbabwe amongst the people I have known and grown up with and shared a life with now that I have this “thing” that only served to make me even more weird, more random, more of a misfit and now added to the mix, “untouchable” but then I saw the Spirit in you Chiwoniso and it was nothing short of inspirational and almost comforting.
I am sure you knew this all too well, that ours is a country of mostly (Christian) conservative people that don’t like anything too “unusual” or too eccentric (never mind that in Zimbabwe something as simple as dreadlocks is enough to have you qualified as eccentric and/or troubled) so it is no real shock that I have heard people describe you as “very talented but a bit too radical” or say “she has lost the plot” in reference to you. Some even had the gall to say that you are “too crazy” and attributed your extraordinariness to “smoking too much weed” as though they knew you like that. It is no real shock but it is infuriating all the same. Like I said, I never knew you personally but I saw what a lot of these people did not see and that was your gift, your calling. Callings come in various forms and it is not everyone who has a calling who is meant to be a healer. Some become artists, social instructors, messengers as it were, through their art and you were one such person. You embodied ancestors from your family line that had chosen you. The Spirit of the Mbira, the ancestors, chose you to be an instructor just as my Spirit has chosen me to be a diviner. Staying true to the meaning of your name, you brought enlightenment to all those who took in your music. The Ancient Voices really and truly did speak through you and will continue to do so through the legacy you have left behind as a gift to us.
I do not know if this is something you knew about yourself or even acknowledged but if I am to hazard a guess based on the subject matter of your music and the person I saw in you, I would say you did and not only that but you embraced it and lived it and because of this, you inspired me to embrace and live my own calling too. Although, we are probably nothing alike, you certainly, directly and indirectly, declared to the world through your stage presence and the conviction in your voice and your relationship with the mbira that it was ok to be nobody else but yourself, Chiwoniso Maraire, making it possible for me (and hopefully a lot of other young brown women and girls) to declare the same of myself.
Your strength and integrity resonated in your music and your relationships with both those you knew and those you didn’t, family/friends and fans alike. You unwittingly helped shape my personal and communal identity as a young Zimbabwean brown woman and although I only ever became conscious of the impact your music and your person had on me in my late teens, your work on me started over two decades ago, on one random week night when you and your friends came to visit with us in my grandparents’ kitchen in Mutare. So to you I say “Mai, fambai zvakanaka. Basa masiya mapedza. Thobela!” (Go well mother. Your work here is done. Rejoice!)
Peace, love and light,