Women De-Mystify Mbira Music
By Joyce Jenje Makwenda
Harare — Zimbabwean traditional women musicians have made a name for themselves in the arts, despite “modern” patriarchally-structured society.
The socially constructed patriarchal structures have made it difficult for women to enjoy the cultural space and create their own niche. But through this orchestrated confusion the women musicians have made great strides and are ambassadors of Zimbabwean music to the outside world.
Through dreams, ancestors have played an important role in enabling women to have their space in traditional-popular music.
It is important to understand the mystification that surrounds gender and patriarchy in traditional-popular music, especially gender and spiritual beliefs.
Traditional instruments and performance have been surrounded by myths that exclude women.
The spirituality and sacredness of traditional instruments and performance has been used as a way to stop women from participating in traditional music because women are supposedly unclean.
The excuse of lack of purity is undermined by messages coming from the spirits who suggest that they want women to play mbira. Such incidents exemplify a struggle between the spiritual world and earthly patriarchal society.
Women musicians overcame patriarchal rule by using the strength that comes from the spiritual world. The ancestors provide an open door for some women.
Women have entered the sphere of traditional-popular music using various channels and guides. Dreams have been a particularly strong force of inspiration that has pulled women towards traditional performance against human patriarchal rule that has tried to stop them. Dreams are a strong force in the spiritual world as they are one of the ways ancestors communicate with the living.
According to Veit Erlman, a renowned international ethnomusicologist, music is thought to be a product that the ancestors communicate, through dreams, to those whom they like.
Ambuya Rena Chitombo, who at the age of 83 in 1998 was still active in music, would make sure that when going to bed she had a book and pen under the pillow as most of her songs came through dreams.
She said: “Dreams are very powerful because that is the way one communicates with the spiritual world.”
In Zimbabwe ancestors who reveal themselves to traditional women musicians through dreams, want to continue the tradition of the music they played before they died.
They played music for different purposes. It was dreams that allowed the first woman in recent times to become a well-known mbira player.
During the 1950’s, Beaulah Dyoko, had been very sick for more than a year when she was taken to a traditional healer. The healer said the young girl was possessed by an ancestor who had played the mbira and wanted her to play the instrument.
But because women were forbidden to play the mbira, these instructions were not followed and Beulah remained sick for another year until she herself dreamt of playing the mbira.
This time her mother, believing it was a further sign, agreed to buy her one.
In 1996 Dyoko told me how she was initiated by the ancestors into playing mbira.
The day her mother brought her the mbira she dreamt of playing a song called ‘Buka Tiende’ (Wake up and go). “When I told my mother I had dreamt this song she asked me to play it and when I did it was as if I had been playing mbira for a long time because I played it so well that day,” she said.
When Beaulah started playing the mbira she was healed.
As a result, those in her community near the border with Mozambique grudgingly accepted that a woman could play the mbira.
During the 1960s, Dyoko became the first woman to record mbira music.
She had been chosen by the ancestors.
“If it is true that the mbira instrument was supposed to be played by men only, then . . . (the spirit) could have gone to Beaulah’s brother or could have waited for Beaulah to have sons which she has anyway,” said Dumisani Maraire (ethnomusicologist) in an interview before he passed way. “But the spirit chose to possess Beaulah.”
Beaulah returned to the studio later and Stella Chiweshe, now known internationally as the mbira queen, came onto the scene.
Chiweshe had also learned to play mbira after a dream. Her mother dreamt being told that she had to teach all her children to play mbira.
But while her brothers easily found teachers, no one wanted to teach Stella until an uncle came to her rescue.
She excelled far beyond her siblings.
This was in keeping with the Shona belief that not everyone can learn to play the mbira, some are simply born to play while others are not.
In 1974, Chiweshe recorded her first single “Kasahwa.”
It became a hit and was followed by 24 singles over the next six years.
Chiweshe and Dyoko made the mbira popular by adding guitars and taking it beyond the biras, (night vigils).
Soon they were no longer just considered women who play the mbira but among the best African musicians worldwide.
Their powerful female influence on this instrument laid the path for the next generation of women to make their own mark on the mbira. It is also through dreams that Zimbabwe saw its first and only female imbongi (praise poet) Elizabeth Ncube. Elizabeth also was sick of an incurable illness.
When the family had tried everything to treat the illness she had a dream in which she was shown what her ancestors wanted her to do — to be an imbongi.
It was through her grandfather’s spirit that Elizabeth became an imbongi when she was eleven in 1974.
Her grandfather, Mtetwa, had been an imbongi for Mzilikazi, the Ndebele king who led the Ndebele people into Zimbabwe after battles with the Zulu King Shaka in South Africa.
Elizabeth had a dream in which she was wearing clothes which her grandfather used to wear, and it was these clothes that she used when performing.
Ncube’s choice was not easily fulfilled, she was nearly killed by a male imbongi at a competition in Harare.
He tried to attack Ncube with a spear as she was performing, but Ncube overpowered the man.
She attributed her ability to overpower the men to her warrior spirit.
At this competition Ncube beat the two men, including her attacker. When Elizabeth met the man some months later and confronted him about why he wanted to kill her, the man said “Wake wabona ngaphi umfazi otanyula inyawo pambili kwabantu!”(“Where did you see a woman who opens her legs in front of people!”)
The use of praise poetry in the Ndebele culture was fundamentally political.
It was meant to sing praises or warn the head of state and also to praise fighters when they left as well as when they returned from war.
Albert Nyathi, a famous Zimbabwean imbongi attributes the lack of female imbongi to the limitations that women face because they had children and therefore could not go to war.
It was the duty of the imbongi to go to war and to give moral support to the soldiers through praise poetry. However, since women were also involved in the Zimbabwe liberation struggle in the 1970’s, it became appropriate for them also to be involved in the art of imbongi.
Elizabeth Ncube started her imbongi performances at political gatherings and she performed to give the cadres moral support in the camps.
Zimbabwe’s liberation war was another form of authority that was able to partially override petty patriarchal rules. Although in the 1890’s a woman like Mbuya Chahwe, the medium of the Nehanda Spirit, had fought the British, the role of women in war had been forgotten or downplayed for decades.
owever, women were to resurface as freedom fighters during the liberation struggle and they took their place in the political arena.
Mbuya Nehanda’s spirit played an important role in guiding the cadres and in ensuring that women mbira players could also become important during the war.
Irene Chigamba also played for freedom fighters during the 1970’s, as did Stella Chiweshe.
Another challenge to the belief that women could not or shall not play mbira came from non-patriarchal men who argued logically against such beliefs.
For instance, Dumisani Maraire, who introduced mbira to the American West Coast in the 1960’s, strongly disputed the notion that mbira is not supposed to be played by women.
He argued that he himself played the mbira because of his great grandmother.
During an interview in 1999, he said that if women were not allowed to play mbira in pasichigare (pre-colonial period), then his grandmother and other women could not have played the instrument.
Maraire also encouraged his daughter Chiwoniso to play the mbira and today Chiwonsio is known in Zimbabwe and internationally as one of the country’s best mbira players.
Chiwoniso Maraire further revolutionised mbira by adding English lyrics and church songs.
It was a natural choice for Chii, as she is affectionately known.
She was born in Washington State, the United States, where her Zimbabwean parents were studying and teaching mbira. Chiwoniso started playing mbira at the age of four and at 12 she was performing with her parents on stage.
Chiwoniso has won many musical awards.
Similarly, Irene Chigamba plays mbira with her father, which has not gone down well with hard core traditionalists.
When Chigamba started playing mbira she was discouraged by relatives but her parents stood by her
The most sacred and highly respected musical functions of the Shona (mbira) and Ndebele imbongi, were passed on to women by their ancestors.
Ancestors chose whom they wanted to continue with their tradition.
l Joyce Jenje Makwenda is a Researcher, Archivist, Writer and Producer she can be contacted on- [email protected]