First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2008, Volume 15, #10
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Tue October 28, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Zimbabwe once was a beacon of hope for an independent, modern Africa, but the nation has fallen, once again, on hard times. Corruption, murder, and crooked elections have filled the news, all but obliterating the optimism of Stevie Wonder’s and Bob Marley’s early tributes to Robert Mugabe’s dream of peace and harmony. Things haven’t been easy for Zimbabwean musicians either — especially those who have been critical of the direction in which their country recently has turned. As a result, the best of Zimbabwe’s artists have scattered around the globe, and many of them, such as Thomas Mapfumo, have sought refuge in the United States. Nevertheless, although Mapfumo continues to make incendiary music, up-and-coming singers, like Chiwoniso Maraire, likely have the best chance of attracting the attention of Western listeners, thereby alerting a younger generation to the troubles that continue to plague Zimbabwe.
Chiwoniso’s father was a Zimbabwean ethno-musicologist who took up residence in the state of Washington in the early 1970s. Although she was born in Olympia in 1976, Chiwoniso returned to her homeland at the age of 14. There, she joined the hip-hop-flavored outfit A Peace of Ebony, and five years later, she embarked upon a solo career. Her debut Ancient Voices brought her international acclaim, including the Best New Artist Award from Radio France International.
Rebel Woman, Chiwoniso’s latest outing, could be considered a master’s summit for West African artists. Because it was recorded in Zimbabwe, South Africa, England, and the United States, Chiwoniso had access to some of the greatest players on the world music scene, including members of King Sunny Ade’s, Hugh Masekela’s, and Oliver Mtukudzi’s bands. Consequently, Rebel Woman is one of the most intricate — yet, light and breezy — collections of socially conscious dance music to be issued in some time.
The compositions that fill Rebel Woman are driven primarily by the sound of a mbira, a kind of wooden xylophone. In fact, the instrument provides the perfect complement to the South African guitar phrases and high-life rhythms that are interwoven into Chiwoniso’s songs. She sings in English as well as in a local, Zimbabwean dialect, and her voice is rich, lilting, and infectious. Like Dobet Gnahore, another young, African vocalist, Chiwoniso’s style is very approachable, particularly for ears that otherwise are accustomed to Western rock music. Listen to the Breeze, Only One World, and the title track — the three songs on which Chiwoniso sings in English — wouldn’t sound out of place on FM radio. As a result, it is exciting to consider that an artist of her caliber could have a presence on North American and European airwaves.
Because it is so easy to assimilate her work into Western culture, Chiwoniso’s Rebel Woman serves as a wonderful introduction to African music, especially for those who aren’t already familiar with the continent’s typical melodic structures. Rebel Woman was designed to be accessible and enjoyable. To her credit, Chiwoniso also makes no compromises in her compositional integrity.
Of Further Interest...
Rebel Woman is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box