"You do what you do to keep yourself smiling," she elaborates about life in that nation, in a conversation about the album.
Yet she’s been on the receiving end of some expressions of anything but happiness of late. It happened as word got around that she’d decided to move from her home in the capital Harare and relocate near San Diego in California.
"There was quite a lot of anger," she says. "I didn’t expect that."
But the singer — professionally known just by her first name and to friends and family simply as Chi — does understand it, as would anyone who’s even peripherally followed the recent events in Zimbabwe. The country’s economy collapsed (news reporters loved showing bank notes worth 100 billion Zimbabwean dollars that would buy nothing more than a few eggs). And great rancor and violence surrounded the contested election last spring in which long-time president Robert Mugabe refused to relinquish his controversial, forceful rule despite independent organizations indicating that challenger Morgan Tsvangirai had won the vote.
"There’s still a lot that needs to happen in Zimbabwe in order for people to be happy," she says. "It’s at a point where you either have or don’t have and it’s hard to understand how people are surviving. There had been a lot of repression, rights to free speech, a lot of beatings. Spiritually, it’s a very difficult situation for an artist. I really picked up on people’s vibes. It didn’t mean people weren’t having fun and going out dancing. But it’s very difficult for a lot of people. And the arts have taken a big hit."
In that light, she says, the move, though, was necessary both for her family and her art. On the latter front, she had been talking about resettling either in Europe or the U.S. — where she was born and where some of her family still lives — for a long time, wanting to have access to musicians and facilities that would allow her to push her already accomplished reach into new realms, with hopes to mix such things as western strings and West African kora. ‘Rebel Woman’ offers many clues to future directions, the mix of traditional tunes rooted in the mbira (thumb piano), the Zimbabwean shangara dance rhythms, the pioneering fusions of national hero Thomas Mapfumo and her own expansive sense of soul and style. Co-produced by her and long-time collaborator Keith Farquharson in Johannesburg, South Africa, it spans from her Shona origins to the all-embracing attitude she learned from her father, an ethnomusicologist and percussionist teaching in Olympia, Washington for the first seven years of her life.
The exposure to a variety of music and cultures via her American early childhood and her father’s pursuits stayed with her in Zimbabwe after the family moved back, the latter in particular figuring in her first performing experiences with her father and siblings by the time she was 11. She became a hip-hop fan — "I listened to KRS-One, Salt-N-Pepa were my girls when I grew up! Kris Kross!" — and as a teenager in 1990 became lead vocalist in Zimbabwe’s first hip-hop group, A Peace of Ebony, which mixed rap with local traditional styles. She also focused specifically on the traditions with her first solo album, ‘Ancient Voices,’ her first teaming with Farquharson in 1997. After focusing on raising her daughters and various charity/community music projects, she released a second album in 2004, the mbira-centric ‘Timeless.’
And then three years of writing and recording brought the fuller approach of ‘Rebel Woman,’ which manages the neat trick of capturing all aspects of her interests and talents — songs that lean more traditional, songs that are more modern, songs with Shona lyrics and songs in English — without seeming forced or scattered, without ever losing sights of a solid foundation.
"The album’s first song, ‘Vanoropa’ [listen to the track below] has the shangara coming through," she says. "The second one, ‘Matsota,’ is a traditional melody on which I put new words. Or ‘Irobukairo’ is a song my father used to sing, so I’m drawing on his musical world. Then look at ‘Pamuromo,’ which was also sung by Thomas Mapfumo."
That latter song is one of the keystones to the album, a song of very few words ‘Pamuromo’ comes with just two lines, translating as "Having nothing/the cheekiness of one who has nothing," which in the liner notes she explains is a traditional admonishment against speaking too much and for "choosing your words carefully." It is not those criticizing her move at which the song is directed. Nor is it a caution against her own outspokenness, though she admits that she does have to watch what she says sometimes.
"Of course! Coming from Zimbabwe of course I do," she says. "But this is not so much about warning a person about being fearful what you say when you say the right thing, but when you say destructive things. The title means Big Mouth, not when you talk to much but when you say things to cause trouble, which could be out of malice or ignorance."
And ‘Nerudo’ takes a different, but nearly as concise, tone with its total of four lines:
Let us have love in our hearts, my friend Let us have love in our hearts, my loved one Let us have love in our hearts, my brother Let us have love in our hearts, my loved one.
"The melody was created by Keith," she says of the meditation. "I was listening to it and it’s one of those things where the lyrics just came themselves. Initially I thought Id write more, but we started performing and Keith said, ‘This is beautiful.’ Some times simplicity is a beautiful thing. Singing it over and over like a mantra, and it did work for me. A song that just says, ‘Let’s have love in our hears.’ Nothing more, nothing complex. Just love."
Those are two messages she hopes to take on her tour, which begins this week in New York, involving both family (her brother is leading her live band) and a chance to tell people about the home she’s left.
"I’m not going to sit up there and make a speech or anything, but will tell it with the song, tie it into what is going on in Zimbabwe. I want people to know."
And it’s what she hopes to take back to Zimbabwe in the future. She’s only renting, not selling, her house and definitely plans to return. When she does, she very much hopes that it can be a time of happiness. "There are a lot of problems," she says. "But the world is a very beautiful place."
Listen to ‘Vanoropa’