The Board of Directors, Management, and Staff of the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe have received the news of the death of NAMA Legend Mbuya Stella Chiweshe with a heavy heart and would like to express their deepest condolences to her family for her untimely departure.
Stella Chiweshe is a true legend of Zimbabwe’s Cultural and Creative Sector, having served as the country’s cultural brand ambassador. Undoubtedly Zimbabwe’s Queen of Mbira and one of the country’s leading cultural exports, Mbuya Chiweshe was a pioneering artist who accompanied her swooping vocals on Mbira, taking the traditional Zimbabwean Shona music to the international stage.
She was born on July 8, 1946, in Mujumi Village, in Mhondoro, and was taught to play the mbira by her mother’s uncle in the 1960s, at a time when it was forbidden for a woman to play the instrument. Her recording career started with the release of the single “Kasahwa,” which achieved gold status after she clinched a recording deal with Teal Records. In 1979, she formed her own “Earthquake Band” to promote her recordings, which were being poorly marketed by the record company.
In 1980, she joined the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe as a Mbira soloist, actress, and dancer. With this group, she performed in Mozambique, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, India, China, and Korea. In 1986, she introduced the marimba for Mbira music, thus pioneering in this field by combining Mbira with marimba’s traditional instruments, and she took the combination to the international stage.
Her career, which spanned over 40 decades, included being part of the 1987 Beat Apartheid Road Festival in Germany, while between 1992 and 1993 she toured Greece, Turkey, and most of Europe. In 1994, she played solo in front of more than 10,000 people at the Womad Festival in North America. She was part of the “Global Divas” tour in the United States of America in 1998, and in the following year, she featured in a collaboration project with the Dimensions Dance Theatre in Oakland (USA), as well as performing at the World Music Festival (Hungary) and the Kalaka Festival (Slovenia). In 2006, she had solo concerts in England, Italy, and Germany. She also participated in the WOMAD festival in Caceres, Spain.
Mbuya Stella Chiweshe received various local and international awards for her musical exploits, including the 1993 Billboard Music Award for the Adult/Alternative/World Music Album of the Year for “Kumusha,” the National Arts Merit Award (NAMA) in 2006 for the most outstanding female artist in Zimbabwe, and the NAMA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020 in recognition of her contribution to the Zimbabwean music sector and her innovativeness. In 2021, she was one of the 40 recipients of the NAMA Legend Awards in celebration of the country’s 40 years of independence.
The late Mbira maestro has left an endearing legacy for the sector, in particular in traditional music circles, as she excelled using a uniquely Zimbabwean instrument. It is imperative that stakeholders and practitioners take advantage of Mbira’s listing on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage for humanity in 2020 to craft interventions aimed at improving knowledge of playing, manufacturing, and marketing the instrument.
The nation is deeply indebted to Mbuya Stella Chiweshe for her selfless work in spreading the Zimbabwean culture across the globe in an illustrious career spanning over four decades.
May her soul rest in peace.