Haunting, Defiant Dispatches from Zimbabwe’s Chiwoniso


When she released her debut CD, Ancient Voices, in 1997, the Washington-born, Zimbabwe-raised singer Chiwoniso “Chi” Maraire—born into a family of musicians and raised on r&b, rap, pop, and Zimbabwean chimurenga music—was standing on the verge of global diva stardom with the likes of Oumou Sangare and Angelique Kidjo. But she had kids, and made the not terribly diva-esque decision to concentrate on raising them. Now, Rebel Woman, her first release in 11 years, surfaces not a moment too soon: With her homeland crippled by hyperinflation, poverty, and political upheaval fermented by a hero-turned-dictator, Chiwoniso’s songs of love, justice, and freedom have equal resonance from Harare to Harlem.

The furious and feather-voiced spark plug is backed by an eclectic, pan-African lineup, featuring guitarists Louis Mhlanga and Ivan Duran from Belize, South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and Zimbabwean drummer Sam Mataure. Rebel‘s 12 multilingual tracks swing and sing with stinging guitar riffs, ska hornlines, choral call-and-response, propulsively percussive counterpoint, hypnotic mbira thumb piano, and hand-held hosho shakers. Selections like “Vanorapa” and “Matosoti (Land of Peace)” focus on the healing powers of traditional elders and economics in the Shona language; English selections like the mid-tempo, Afro-anthemic “Kurima” and the tearful title track—a tribute to the female soldier, with the hauntingly sung line “She took off her hat and she leaned against a tree/Her rifle by her side, rough-worn hands upon her knee”—show that Chiwoniso channels Sheryl Crow and Joan Baez as easily as she does artists who prefer her ancestral tongue. To riff on Chinua Achebe, things are falling apart in Zimbabwe. But great women always make art out of man-made ashes.

Chiwoniso plays Joe’s Pub September 10