Dancing with the Diaspora

Interview Stella Chirweshe

Stella Chirweshe opened the Congo Brazzaville FESPAM music festival of 2001. One had the great privalege of speaking to her before her performance.

Stella says : "I started to sing when I was very little and herding cattle with my grandfather. I was always asking him if it was our turn to herd the cattle, to go far from the people because I had the feeling I would make noise for the people. I choose to go to a far away place in the woods. And the whole day I would be singing. I was singing for the birds. My voice was going so far I could hear people telling me that they heard me singing, but I was thinking I was far away and they could not hear me. Now that I have grown up I know that I was the person." When my grandparents moved to another region, where it was far from the mission, and there on my first visit to that place I saw that the elders were so excited that day. I said to my mother why are you so excited and she said because today we are going to listen to mbira. I said what is mbira and she said mbira is only for grown ups. At 9 years old I was not allowed to enter into the place where the elders were listening to mbira. I was famous for screaming so loud that she let me follow her. When we were entering to listen to mbira the other elders said to my mother how can you bring this child with you. My mother said I have tried, you can also try to send her out. By that time I was sitting behind the door and another grown up man was trying to come and pick me up. Before he touched me I screamed so loudly that they were not going to listen to mbira unless they allowed me to listen also. The elders then accepted me and I grew up not playing with the people of my age, I was always following the elders wherever they were going. I grew up with my grandfather and my grandmother and then the time came when I first heard the mbira I am playing now.

"I went to him one day and asked him why all the people were against my wish to play mbira. And he told me it is because you are a woman and mbira is played by men. If you play this instrument you will never be able to follow the woman's work in the home. And to work in the fields will be difficult for you because you will always be on the road. I laughed because I thought he meant if I started to play I would just walk and playing following the road. I did not know he meant being invited! So when I play there are moments when it is not me who is playing. It is just sound around me. This only happens if mbira is played for a very long time. The mbira music that you hear on records and on shows is different from the sound that you can hear at dawn. Because then they keys warm up and the sound changes to be more sweeter. The sound of mbira is the sound of water.

The first time they saw me on stage the crowd started to yell at me to say go away, go off the stage. I felt very sorry for them. I kept quiet. I felt sorry because I knew that their minds have been washed. They are young and they don't know what mbira is to them. When I started to play a lot of people there got possessed. The stage was in front of a shallow pond. People started to roll in the water with their clothes."




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