Stella Chiweshe | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Stella Chiweshe

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The mbira--a set of tuned metal keys affixed to a wooden board and housed in a resonator made from a halved calabash--is a cornerstone of Zimbabwe's Shona culture. But though it's been part of ritual life for a thousand years, musicians started to use it for entertainment purposes only as recently as the 1970s. Stella Chiweshe, one of the first to expand its role, was well equipped to handle the controversy this stirred up: a decade earlier, when she first expressed interest in the instrument, it was considered scandalous for a woman to play it. (A sympathetic uncle eventually gave her lessons on the sly, and once her talent was recognized her gender became moot.) Starting in 1974, Chiweshe released a slew of singles, working as a housekeeper by day and performing at ceremonies and in clubs by night. In the 80s, after Zimbabwe achieved independence, she became a full-time musician, joining the new state's National Dance Company and later striking out on her own, performing frequently in Europe. Her sporadic recordings since then have all mixed the spare, hypnotic traditional stuff with chimurenga, the bubbly electric dance style pioneered by Thomas Mapfumo. But on last year's superb Talking Mbira (Piranha), her first release in seven years, the gulf between the extremes--between the electrified groove of "Musandifungise," where the guitar bounces through the ambling mbira as though the two elements were dancing together, and the mesmerising lattice of "Tapera," played on three mbiras with chanted vocals--seems more startling than ever. Here Chiweshe performs solo; the show's free. Wednesday, February 5, 8 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630.

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