Chiwonso Maraire has died.
There is shock in Harare, and the social media is awash with loving memories of this great singer. Chiwoniso greeted the world with arms open and she was hugely loved in return. Whichever came first into your life, her music or her person, you might struggle to imagine that there was more to come, but you were wrong. She was warm and beautiful on stage and off.
The role Chi played as an ambassador for our country cannot be overstated. Her collaborations with a diverse array of international musicians has taken mbira music to new heights all across the globe. There is shock and sadness in many other cities and nations too on this day. Habib Koite of Senegal writes on Facebook, ” We’ve lost our dear sister Chiwoniso Maraire from Zimbabwe. May she always be remembered for the great music she made.”
Chi has spent a life surrounded by music. Her father was the highly regarded mbira player and teacher Dumisani Maraire, and she was married to Zimbabwean music legend Andy Brown. Andy passed away last year, which marks yesterday as the loss of a second icon in as many years.
Chi released four albums, the first of which, Ancient Voices (1995), gained her international accolades. This landmark album was followed by Timeless (2004), Hupenyu Kumusha, Life at Home, Impilo Ekhaya. The Collaboration: Volume 1. (2006), and Rebel Woman (2008).
What Chi did for music internationally, she did for Zimbabwean women at home all over again. The mbira is Zimbabwe’s traditional sound, and usually the domain of male musicians. In adopting and transforming mbira music, Chi simultaneously paid homage to her roots, but also pushed the boundaries of traditional society, questioning gender roles and lighting a fire in young women everywhere.
One such young woman who carries the flame ignited by Chi is Hope Masike who expressed her grief and shock on social media last night saying ” Through it all, His mercy endureth forever. Chiwoniso Maraire… I have no idea what to say. Go well. I am hurting. I just thought we still had you for many many years to come.”
An example of Chi’s musical potency is the memory many will have of her performances at HIFA this year, firstly with Chikwata 263, Zimbabwe’s rocking punk-mbira group where she shook up the crowded Coke Green. Though some in the audience might have been taken aback at first, Chi’s enjoyment and ease of performance made the collaboration seem the most natural thing in the world. Her performance embodied her progressive outlook on life and society.
The second performance was with the legendary Baaba Maal of Senegal. It was plain to see that Chi’s spirit had touched this man too when he called her on stage and hugging her as they performed, he was proudly calling her ‘My Sister’. That was the effect Chi had on everybody who was fortunate enough to cross her path.
Chi is an inspiration to so many people, not just musicians. The way she acted and lived by the things that she believed in should jolt our thinking around our different roles in society.
Chi had more to offer, more life to live, and her passing is a tragedy that has broken hearts and will cause some anger and confusion. She died aged 37 at the South Medical Center in Chitungwiza from a lung infection. The question people are asking today is How and why did this icon slip through the fingers of our nation so quickly and suddenly?
She is survived by two daughters, who today have the condolences of Zimbabweans everywhere. Go well our Rebel Woman.