Zimbabwe's foremost mbira player, Stella Chiweshe, "The Queen of Mbira," blends haunting mbira lines with percussion and call & response singing behind her evocative vocals. She sings and plays songs of liberation, spiritual experience and social commentary. The mbira dzaVadzimu, the classic Zimbabwean thumb-piano, is a medium for playing songs handed down from generation to generation for centuries, used for maintaining contact with the spirits of the Shona people. The mbira consists of 22 to 28 metal keys mounted on a hardwood soundboard and is usually placed inside a large gourd resonator (deze). The keys are played with the two thumbs plucking down and the right forefinger plucking up.
In traditional Zimbabwe Shona culture, people remain a part of the community even after their death. At special ceremonies they are called back by the sounds of the mbira, and possess a person through whom they communicate with the gathered people. Stella Chiweshe does not even remember what has been sung through her afterwards. Sometimes the words are such a deep Shona that only few (mostly old) people know or understand. For Stella the songs come as visions and dreams.
When Zimbabwe was still the white settler's "Rhodesia", Stella started to receive underground recognition as a musician and medium at these kind of ceremonies. After playing all night in forbidden meetings she then returned to her daytime struggle of survival as a maid in a colonial household. After independence she was invited to become a member of the newly founded "National Dance Company of Zimbabwe", where she soon played a leading role as solo mbira player, dancer and performer. After her controversial performance of "Mbuya Nehanda", Zimbabwe's national heroine in the first Chimurenga war, she decided to break away to live the life of an artist and woman according to her own rules, something unseen before in her home country. Since then Stella has experimented with transferring the mbira music into a Western performance context without losing her close relationship to the tradition.
The Mbira Queen of Zimbabwe has come a long way from the secret gatherings of colonial times to the stages of the world. Besides her international performing success and recording career, she has worked for theatre and film. She not only introduced the combination of mbira and marimba into the modern Zimbabwe soundscape, but she is the only woman in her home country who leads her own band, and is in control of her own equipment and transport: an achievement only those who know under what kind of horrifying conditions female musicians normally work in Africa can understand. She took a leading role in the formation of the Zimbabwe Musicians Union, and since 1993 she is director of the Mother Earth Trust Network Of Female Artists in Zimbabwe.