In this article, ArtMatters.Info publisher OGOVA ONDEGO meets legendary Zimbabwean mbira player and musician, Chiwoniso Maraire in Harare, and interviews her on her music career, family, and current issues in the southern African nation smarting from socio-political and economic problems.
I started hearing about you in the 1990s and had assumed you would be aged about 50. How did you become a legend in your youth?
I am 29 years old. I am not a legendary figure yet but I am continuing to learn from life. I canï¿½t be complacent. I want to be an iconic figure in important things in life. I am the kind of person who wants to walk about freely. I donï¿½t even own a car. I like to walk from my house, party, drink wine and dance till 6.00 in the morning. I love my friends and family. They are very important to me. The more I start being pulled into ï¿½youï¿½re a starï¿½ thing, the more I draw closer to my family and friends for balance and advice. I get angry at the kind of stories that appear in the newspapers about me. For example a couple of days ago I was drawn into the controversy between the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe and the Union of Musicians. The newspaper used my picture though I have nothing to do with the story as I am neither one of the aggrieved parties nor an official of the Union of Musicians that the National Arts Council wants to perform due to complaints from aggrieved members
I have been true to people, to music, to myself, and to art. This endears me to people. Some people call me to perform saying Iï¿½d be made famous by being beamed across the world. I didnï¿½t go into music for the limelight, the money or to be pushed into peopleï¿½s living rooms. My relationship with music began in my childhood. Iï¿½m aware of how people manipulate musicï¿½politicians, businesspeople, artists. I canï¿½t abuse music.
Are you religious?
I left the Christian church at 16 and explored Buddhism and Islam. I do not follow any particular faith but I take values from all religions. Belief in God is important. God is found in nature, in beauty, and in the wind. I believe every single human being is God.
Are you married and do you have any children?
I am divorced with two children and I am currently in a powerful relationship.
What contemporary issues concern you?
I am concerned about the kind of history children are learning in Zimbabwe. They need to know about migration in Africa. I liked history but it didnï¿½t expose me to what I wanted. That was why I left it. I touch history in my music. I compose, perform, and sing about history.
What do you think of Operation Restore Order the Zimbabwean government has recently carried out in major towns ridding them of informal settlements and hawkers?
It is wrong to knock down peopleï¿½s homes. No one chooses to live in ghettoes.
What position do women hold in Zimbabwean society, and how has this come to be?
Traditionally, women were protected in Zimbabwean cultures. You couldnï¿½t make decisions without consulting them. If I make a decision, I have to consult my aunt who in turn is expected to inform my father or uncle according to custom and tradition. However, domestic violence and abuse are now rampant in contemporary Zimbabwe. I was rushing here to meet you, some people openly expressed their disgust that I, a woman, was seen smoking in public. ï¿½Youï¿½re not a marriageable kind of woman,ï¿½ one man shouted at me. Even some Zimbabwean women donï¿½t see how a woman can smoke.
How do you assess the performance of the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe?
The council has done well. It is a respected body that facilitates the travel of Zimbabwean artists and culture practitioners abroad.
How do you assess the involvement of Zimbabwean women in music?
They are doing their best. Stella Chiweshe started performing and playing the mbira at a time when women were forbidden to do so. Mbira Madube is another performer I can single out. Duduzile Tracy Manhenga and Prudence Katomeni-Mbofana represent women well in jazz with Irene Chigamba in traditional mbira music. She conducts workshops and teaching.
You are in showbiz where you are expected to bask in the media glare yet one would not be wrong to describe you as self-effacing. Why is this so?
I like my privacy, going about incognito.
Please describe your ‘Ancient Voice’ and ‘Timeless’ albums
I started recording Ancient voices at 19 and released it when I was 20. A debut solo album, it is driven with hard-core guitar, flute, harmonica, and bass drum that blend with the mbira. It involved some of the best and most powerful musicians in Zimbabwe: Andy Brown, Sam Mataule and Ian Hillman. They made the album to succeed. I was the youngest musician among them as we recorded this album in English and Shona. Ancient Voices was a tremendous success that brought critical acclaim to Zimbabwean mbira music. Ancient Voices was released in 1996 and won the RFI ï¿½Best New Artistï¿½ award in 1997. I recorded Timeless in November/December 2003 at Metro Studios in Harare and released it in South Africa before releasing it in Zimbabwe. It features acoustic mbira.
Is it true you produce your own music?
I self-produce to avoid being controlled by record companies. I make my own music but music companies may distribute it if they like the music. I am planning to incorporate a company in the next 8-12 months.
What challenges do you face working in Zimbabwe that is currently facing socio-economic problems?
Youï¿½ve got to be good to work in Zimbabwe where politicians are trying to manipulate artists. Being mirrors of society, I believe artists should talk about whatï¿½s happening as a reflection; they should remind society what happened in the past or present. I donï¿½t want to mix nationalism with art although some people use my name even after I had declined invitation. Artists are being pulled into politics. I donï¿½t want it. I want to have freedom to chart my way independently. Thomas Mapfumo took sides with the people while Oliver Mtukudzi appears to have steered clear of politics. I donï¿½t want to be forced into taking sides against my choice. I believe in differences of opinion. I sit in the middle, neither identifying with MDC nor ZANU-PF. I donï¿½t want to be manipulated and controlled by politicians.