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September 16, 2008 @ 7:00 pm 9:00 pm EDT

One of the most existing talents in African music today, Chiwoniso performs entrancing and uplifting songs with ancient soul and modern spirit. Backed by the mesmerizing interlocking melodies of the mbira and the deep grooves of an all-star lineup featuring some of Zimbabwe and South Africa’s top musicians, Chiwoniso’s voice resounds with defiant strength and profound tenderness. Her new recording, Rebel Woman (2008), has just been released by Cumbancha.

Local presentation of Chiwoniso is made possible by volunteer labor, small financial contributions from hundreds of patrons of The Sanctuary For Independent Media and support from the New York State Council on the Arts.

“I am like a mirror,” declares Zimbabwe’s popular music star Chiwoniso Maraire. “I basically sing about what I see happening in the world. If someone comes up to me in the street to ask for money I’ll sing about that. If people are jumping borders because their economic situation is too difficult, I’ll sing about that. If the police are beating people up and intimidating them, I’ll sing about that.”

In recent months, Zimbabwe’s political and economic turmoil has thrust the turbulent African nation into international headlines. Based in the capital city of Harare, Chiwoniso lives in the eye of the storm, observing firsthand as her beloved homeland struggles to overcome the enduring legacies of colonialism, war, social inequality and political oppression. A devoted advocate of free speech, human rights and social justice, Chiwoniso’s music gives voice to the voiceless and speaks to the problems and joys of the world around her.

On “Rebel Woman,” Chiwoniso’s first internationally released album in over ten years, her soulful and deeply personal songs offer messages of hope, inspiration and resistance, and serve notice that this gifted singer and songwriter merits recognition as one of Africa’s greatest young talents.

While Zimbabwe’s ancient musical traditions serve as the foundation of Chiwoniso’s music, she is the child of a globalized world and her songs reflect her diverse, multicultural influences. Her late father, Dumisani Maraire was a respected scholar and musician, who moved the family to the United States in the 1970s while pursuing a degree in Ethnomusicology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Chiwoniso was born in Olympia, Washington in 1976, and although she spent the first seven years of her life away from Zimbabwe, the music of her family’s homeland was a constant presence.

“I was born into a very musical family, both my parents were musicians,” Chiwoniso points out. “My father was an amazing mbira player, my mother was a beautiful singer, so I was surrounded by this music from the day I was conceived, really, because they used to teach classes in the house as well. But at the same time they loved to listen to other people, so I grew up exposed to James Brown, Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Bach, Mozart, you name it, it was being played.” In this dynamic home environment Chiwoniso was playing mbira by the age of four.

Her first studio recording was at the age of nine with her parents, an album called ‘Tichazomuwona’ (We Shall See You), dedicated to her late uncle, Dr. Nkosana Aurthur Maraire. By the age of 11 Chiwoniso was performing with her father and siblings, Tawona and Ziyanai, in their family mbira group “Mhuri yaMaraire’ (The Maraire Family). She was also a musician in her father’s explosive marimba group ‘Minanzi III’ (Musical Sounds 3).

While Chiwoniso’s musical influences range from soul and R&B to reggae and rock, the entrancing sounds of the mbira serve as a central underpinning for the songs on “Rebel Woman.” Originating in the ancient Shona civilization of southern Africa, the mbira is a musical instrument made of metal tines attached to a wooden board. The player plucks the tines with their thumbs to create captivating interlocking melodies, which have accompanied ceremonies and celebrations for countless generations. While variations of the mbira exist across Africa, it is an essential element of Zimbabwean music tradition and has a deep historical, cultural and spiritual symbolism.

In 1990, Chiwoniso’s family made their second move back to Zimbabwe, and she quickly became a popular figure in the local music scene thanks to her role as lead vocalist for A Peace of Ebony, the country’s first hip-hop band. Along with the group’s founders, Herbert Schwamborne and Tony Chihota, and fellow members George Phiri and Tendai Viki, A Peace of Ebony created a new sound mixing rap and Zimbabwean ethnic-influenced melodies. This was when Chiwoniso and Keith Farquharson first met. In 1997, she released her first solo album, Ancient Voices, which was warmly received and even earned her the prestigious Radio France International “Best New Artist” award. While she was developing her solo career, Chiwoniso also toured and recorded with the powerful Zimbabwean group Andy Brown and The Storm.

In 1996 and 1999 Chiwoniso gave birth to her daughters Chengeto and Chiedza. Her decision to focus on raising her children saw her choose to step out of the active international scene for some years. Instead she did recordings for world-awareness groups including CARE, UNDP, The Nobel Peace and worked with other artists who were striking out in new directions musically. The groups included Women’s Voice, brought together by Malika Makouff-Rasmussen, and The Collaboration, a band that drew together some of the leading Zimbabwean artists, including Adam Chisvo, Busi Ncube, Charlie Summerfield, William Hillman, Roger Mbambo and Peter Mashasha.

With her feet back on the ground and revitalized creative energy, Chiwoniso has spent the last three years working with producer Keith Farquharson on “Rebel Woman.” Recorded in Zimbabwe, South Africa, England and Vermont (where Cumbancha and its partner company Charles Eller Studios are based), the album features some of Southern Africa’s most respected musicians and an intriguing collection of guests. Louis Mhlanga, who has also recorded with Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade, South African icon Hugh Masekela and others provides the albums tasty guitar licks. Zimbabwean Drummer Sam Mataure, a veteran of Oliver Mtukudzi’s band, lays down his trademark rock solid rhythms, while saxophonist/flautist Steve Dyer guides a crack horn section. Meanwhile, members of Cumbancha’s extended family, such as Idan Raichel Project percussionist Rony Irwyn, Belizean producer/guitarist Ivan Duran and keyboardist Charles Eller lent their services for cameo appearances.

The result is an appealing collection of songs that range from the soothing, unadorned mbira and voices of “Pamuromo” to the rousing, celebratory dance beats of “Gomo.” The album opens with the raw electric guitar riffs of “Vanorapa”, a song about the healing power of the elders whose lyrical theme is matched by its deep groove. Chiwoniso believes firmly in the power of traditional Shona spirituality and the ability of the elders to heal people even after they have died and entered the realm of the spirits. “Sometimes a person can die because there may be issues in their life when they were alive that weren’t taken care of and that’s when you have spirits roaming that need to be healed,” she points out. Chiwoniso wrote the song based on one her late father used to perform with Mananzi III, adding to its emotional depth.

On “Matsotsi” (The Land of Thieves), Chiwoniso sings of the economic struggles of the workingman. Many people leave their families to find work, and they are only able to return home to visit their loved ones every month or so. In today’s tough economic times, it’s harder for people to even earn enough money to make the trip back home. “How do I go home if I don’t have money?” Chiwoniso implores. The mood shifts on “Gomo”, an upbeat tribute to the mountain regions where Chiwoniso’s family originated. “We play with hosho (a type of shaker), we play with drums, we play with mbira. We are the children of the mountains,” she shouts out, encouraging you to enter the trance-like state of a traditional Zimbabwean ceremony.

Because of her American upbringing, Chiwoniso is equally comfortable writing and singing in English, which she demonstrates to full effect on the South African flavored “Listen to the Breeze”. The lyrics, which tell of a wise elder who imparts words of wisdom, came to her in a dream during a recording session in England. On “Only One World,” Chiwoniso expresses her devotion to her children and how important it is for parents to make decisions that take future generations into account. “The children have got to be protected. If we
make selfish decisions as adults, those are our decisions, but the children are affected by everything we do.” Chiwoniso has long been an advocate for children’s rights, and has been involved with an organization called MUSTLE Africa that helps teach literacy to the homeless, orphans and other underprivileged children.

The album’s title track, “Rebel Woman,” takes inspiration from a poem about the role of women in Zimbabwe’s war for independence. “The song is about the physical conditions of fighting, and the price people pay,” she explains, but it is also a tribute to strong women who suffer because they do not follow the restrictions society tries to place on them. “The truth is that when you’re a strong woman you might lose our husband, your home, because the way the systems are structured you’re not allowed to be strong as a women, unless you follow the rules. This is a song about changing those rules.”

The song serves as a moving epilogue to a masterful album and confirms that Chiwoniso will continue to speak out on issues important to her, regardless of the consequences. Recognizing that artists play a special role in society, she believes they must not be afraid to speak out against injustice. “We have a responsibility. We are not bankers, we are not doctors, we are not nurses. We have another part that we play in society that must be done. So, regardless of whatever world system is going to come in and say: ‘Cut what you are saying,’ going to send riot cops in to your shows, going to come and arrest you and say ‘We are going to try and put you in jail…’–it doesn’t matter. We have a responsibility.”

Cumbancha is a new record label founded by Jacob Edgar, an Ethnomusicologist and music producer who for the past eight years has been the head of music research and product development at famed independent record label Putumayo World Music. It has been Edgar’s job to travel the world in search of exceptional artists and songs for Putumayo’s critically acclaimed and commercially successful compilations of music from all over the globe. Over the years, Edgar kept coming across artists he felt deserved wider recognition and assistance in bringing their music to the world stage, and he decided to form Cumbancha to address that need.

“I believe exposure to music from different parts of the world can help open a doorway to other cultures,” insists Edgar. “Listening to music is an excellent way to make a connection with people who are very different from yourself, and it can create a common ground that overcomes some of the barriers that separate people of different walks of life.”

“My experience at Putumayo has taught me that world music is much more popular than is generally recognized. People from all generations and backgrounds are looking for music with roots in cultural traditions, even if that music isn’t as visible as it should be in the mainstream media.”

Edgar is a global explorer with an insatiable curiosity for the diverse ways in which people express themselves through music. His research trips in search of music for Putumayo’s compilations have taken him to Cuba, Brazil, Turkey, India and dozens of other countries, not to mention hundreds of the world’s greatest international music festivals, showcases and performance venues in search of exceptional musical talents.

Edgar has helped produce compilation CDs that have sold a total of over ten million units worldwide. Always scouring the planet for new sounds, he possibly listens to more world music CDs than anyone else in the USA and, possibly, the world. “My basic role at Putumayo has been to travel the world and dig up as much music as I could, then review it to uncover those truly great artists and songs that rise above, and that would appeal to both fans of world music and neophytes who are just interested in hearing something they like. I often tell people, ‘I suffer so you don’t have to!’ What I mean is I have to listen to a lot of pretty banal stuff to find those musical diamonds, but as a result I’ve gotten to know some pretty special artists and musical movements.”

The main motivation for Cumbancha sprung from Edgar’s desire to work more closely with some of the most extraordinary artists he has gotten to know over the years. “We used to say at Putumayo that doing compilations was like dating, and signing artists was like getting married,” says Edgar. “After years of flirting with some of my favorite artists, it’s nice to finally make some commitments and settle down!”

Shortly after notifying Putumayo last fall of his intentions to leave the label strike out on his own, Edgar’s former employer offered to become an investor in his new project and service his releases through Putumayo’s network of worldwide distribution. The relationship allows Edgar to continue to assist Putumayo in the development of their popular compilations, while giving Cumbancha releases a powerful presence in over 60 countries around the world. Edgar also continues to assist Putumayo in the development of their popular compilations.

“Many of the artists who will appear on Cumbancha have been on a Putumayo compilation over the years,” notes Edgar, “so in some ways this new label offers an opportunity for people who have become intrigued by artists on Putumayo’s collections to explore their work further.” At the same time, Cumbancha will present many artists whose work falls outside of the aesthetic boundaries of a Putumayo compilation, but whose work is particularly compelling or innovative.

Cumbancha’s first release in the United States, Canada and Latin America was the album ¡Ay Caramba! by the UK-based band Ska Cubano, whose appealing fusion of Jamaican ska with Cuban mambo, salsa and son has earned them wide praise and accolades across Europe. Yet, even though the group has played at some of Europe’s most prestigious festivals and concert halls, won numerous “Best of” awards from dozens of magazines, and even caused a stodgy audience of tuxedo-clad diplomats to bounce in their seats at last year’s Nobel Peace Prize Award ceremony, Ska Cubano remained largely unknown among the broader public outside of Europe. Since their album was released in the United States they embarked on a hugely successful US and Canada tour, playing in hi-profile venues such as Central Park SummerStage, Montreal International Jazz Festival, San Francisco’s Stern Grove and Grand Performances in Los Angeles among others. Praised by both the media and the public, Ska Cubano’s album hit number 5 on the Billboard World Music Charts and number 1 on the College Music Journal’s World Music radio chart, marking an auspicious beginning for the new Cumbancha label.

The first worldwide release by Cumbancha is the Israeli cross-cultural collaborative, The Idan Raichel Project, whose appealing fusion of Ethiopian folk music with Middle Eastern flavors have made them one of the most unexpected success stories in Israeli music today. While recent headlines are dominated by news of conflict and war in the Middle East, this Israeli musical collaborative has achieved success by looking beyond intercultural differences and celebrating the value of diversity. With its blend of traditional Ethiopian folk music, Arabic poetry, Yemenite chants, Biblical psalms and Caribbean rhythms, The Idan Raichel Project has already taken Israel by storm with multiple number one hits and triple platinum sales.

While the ensemble regularly fills large concert halls at home, the upcoming international release of the recordings of The Idan Raichel Project on the Cumbancha record label promises to introduce the work of this inspirational collective to a wide global audience. “The Idan Raichel Project are already superstars in Israel and Israeli and Ethiopian communities worldwide,” says Edgar, “They have performed in some of the most prestigious venues in Europe, the United States and Latin America, yet almost exclusively to Israeli audiences. Cumbancha’s goal is to expose them to a wider public who will also enjoy this unique artist.” The Idan Raichel Project will be embarking on an ambitious worldwide touring schedule in an effort to introduce their music to a new public.

The headquarters for Cumbancha is an 1830’s farmhouse in the small town of Charlotte, Vermont. Also home to one of New England’s most prestigious recording studios, Charles Eller Studios (, the complex in Vermont will allow for a unique artist retreat where musicians from around the world can come together to record in a picturesque and tranquil setting free from outside distractions. While many of the records released on Cumbancha will be recorded on location in the countries where the music is from, others will be recorded in this special setting. Most of the post-production work will be completed in Vermont, in the shadows of the verdant Green Mountains. “I spend so much time traveling around the world,” says Edgar, “it’s nice to work in a place where I can focus and be surrounded by the region’s tremendous natural beauty.”

“One of the things I enjoy most about the work I do at Putumayo,” says Edgar, “was knowing that thousands of people are exposed to music from cultures they might not otherwise get to learn about, and in a small but not inconsequential way that helps pave the way towards greater appreciation and respect for diversity.” Cumbancha gives Edgar a chance to take that experience one step further.

“Cumbancha” is a Cuban word of West African derivation that refers to an impromptu party or musical jam session. Many classic Latin songs refer to the “cumbanchero,” a person who knows how to party and have a good time. For those who are familiar with the word, “cumbancha” implies an opportunity to get together with family and friends to dance, sing and celebrate life. “I like the creole nature of the word,” says Edgar, “that it is a blend of African and Spanish. Much of the greatest music in the world reflects this interaction between cultures and the ways in which people can gain inspiration for new expressions from people of different backgrounds.”

Local presentation of Chiwoniso is made possible by volunteer labor, small financial contributions from hundreds of patrons of The Sanctuary For Independent Media and support from the New York State Council on the Arts.

The Sanctuary for Independent Media is a community media arts center located in an historic former church in Troy, NY. The venue is an intimate and acoustically excellent space which seats about 150. The Sanctuary hosts screening, production and performance facilities, training in media production and a meeting space for artists, activists and independent media makers of all kinds.

3361 6th Ave
Troy, 12180 United States
View Venue Website

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