June 22, 2024

From Berlin with love: Stella Chiweshe honoured posthumously in Germany

A RURAL girl born and raised the colonial era of Zimbabwe would never have imagined a life of adoration in her own country, let alone thousands of miles away in distant Europe. But geniuses are born, not made. Often this kind cannot be ignored, no matter who you are, where you come from.

When her musical talents first came to the fore, a young Stella Chiweshe would have been chuffed to achieve icon status in her homeland. She went a step further, beyond her youthful imaginations, to become a hero to many in Germany, a country that became her second home until her death at the age of 77 at the beginning of this year.

 Since 1983, the late Mbira music maestro had lived in Berlin, married to Peter Reich, a German national. They will never forget her talents in Germany and recently she received a befitting and emotional honour posthumously at the Durchluften Festival in Berlin. Her daughter Virginia Hetze, nee Mukwesha, was joined on stage by former students of Ambuya Chiweshe as well as Zimbabwe’s foremost female rapper, Awa Khiwe, who is also based in Germany.

They performed a tribute performance. Born Awakhiwe Sibanda and hailing from Nkayi, the rapper is known for her enchanting click sounds as she fuses hip-hop and Ndebele songs. The tribute show was attended by Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Germany, Alice Mashingaidze and Ambassador Udo Volz and Head of Culture, Katrin Simon, of the German Embassy in Harare.

Ambuya Chiweshe was born Stella Rambisai Nekati Chiweshe on 8 July 1946 in Mujumi Village, Mhondoro, Zimbabwe. She was internationally known for her singing and playing of the mbira dzavadzimu, a traditional instrument in Zimbabwe. She learned to play mbira from 1966 to 1969 when even fewer females played the instrument.

Mbuya Chiweshe performed numerous times in Germany and also participated in the WOMAD festival (1994 in the United States, 1995 in Australia, and 2006 in Spain). In 2004 she toured England with her daughter.

At the time of her death on 20 January 2023, Ambuya Chiweshe had relocated to Zimbabwe. She told us in a feature that we did that it had been a request of her vaDzimu, to assign her to another task. Her first task, she told me, was to go out and teach people overseas how to return to their roots after they were brainwashed and made to lose their traditions by the Romans.

Having accomplished that task, her next assignment was to establish an arts village called Chivanhu Trust. Chivanhu Trust was registered in 2011 and it is located in Masembura village near Bindura. According to Ambuya Chiweshe she said Chivanhu Trust centre was to be built of stone and not bricks to ensure that it stays for long. One of the key areas of the centre was to respect and learn other cultures. As fate would have it, Ambuya Chiweshe did not live to see her dream of building Chivanhu Trust centre after she succumbed to cancer in January.

A cultured and revered traditionalist, Ambuya Chiweshe represented the female musicians on international stages. Her fame did not come overnight as Zimbabwe was not ready to embrace the use of mbira on the big stage. One of her worst memories as a gwenyambira was when she performed at the PLO solidarity concert in the Harare Gardens. During that performance Ambuya Chiweshe said she was booed off stage before she could finish her three-song set. Some attendees even abused her verbally because at the time people didn’t understand mbira. “I wanted to cry but I didn’t because that would mean I was offended by the boos. But what made me want to cry was, in fact the impact of colonisation on our people such that they had lost their roots,” she once said.

“My first song was Nehondo and people kept glued to the stage and when I played Huya Uzoona the crowd went ecstatic. I closed off the set with ChaChimurenga. By then, the security had to move in to control the crowd that wanted to mob me and apologise for the insults. ‘They went sorry! sorry!’”

After the show she went back to Germany and upon her return there were several mbira groups that emerged and she was happy with the development.

ChaChimurenga, arguably one of popular hits, was first recorded in 1975. Then it was just mbira and a remake was done in 1987 fusing it with guitars and marimba to try and lure the younger generation to appreciate Zimbabwean traditional music.

During her spare time Ambuya Stella Chiweshe would play mbira by the sea or in the forests for the birds.

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