Chiwoniso branches out from Zimbabwean roots

Chiwoniso has spent November touring Germany and the Netherlands, and is in Dortmund for the call. She starts to laugh loudly and asks, “Would you like a word with him?”, puts down the phone and fetches Mubaiwa for a natter! It turns out he’s part of Chiwoniso’s touring band, free at last to travel after his long struggle to get citizenship.

“We’ve been friends for a long time,” says 33-year-old Chiwoniso, who made serious inroads in the West with her 2008 album Rebel Woman. “I did one of my first tours with him when my debut album Ancient Voices came out in 1998. He moved to Canada about seven years ago, and we’ve kept in touch. A couple of months ago, he called and said, ‘You won’t believe it, everything’s been sorted out.’ I said, “Right, are you ready for the next tour?’ ”

Mubawai isn’t the only West Coast connection for Chiwoniso. Born in Olympia, Washington, she grew up mainly in Seattle, where her Zimbabwean father, Dumisani Maraire, taught marimba and mbira in the ’80s and was a renowned performer on the nascent roots-music scene. In 1990 the family moved back to Zimbabwe, but last year Chiwoniso returned to the U.S. to live.

Growing up in Seattle deeply affected Chiwoniso’s attitude to making music. “The one thing I loved is that people are very open-minded and free-thinking. I was surrounded by my father’s marimba and mbira students—there was always music going on. Things changed completely when I went to Zimbabwe because the whole colonization-brainwash system there had a lot of people believing the mbira was an evil instrument. That was a bit of culture shock.”

The songs that Chiwoniso writes bring together Zimbabwean roots and western music, especially pop with some rap and folk elements. She sings mainly in the Shona language but there are also a number of songs in English, such as the soukous-spiced “Only One World” and the mbira-driven “Rebel Woman”.

Asked what’s the greatest inspiration for her music, Chiwoniso immediately responds: “Life. I’ve been going through a real shift within myself spiritually. I got to a point where I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on singing. I’ve always been in touch with people’s emotions, but in this past year I was really tapping into that whole side.

“It can be a little difficult if you’re feeling people’s rage or frustration, and there was a lot happening in Zimbabwe at the time,” she continues. “I had to step away from it a bit because it was really starting to do my head in. Call God what you will, the creative essence is also a big part of me. I watch people, and listen to their stories, and create off that.”