Rebel woman. Sister-fire: Chiwoniso Maraire (5 March 1976 – 24 July 2013)
Beauty in Song: Chiwoniso singing and playing the mbira [See Below]
Rebel woman. Sister-fire. Fingers that brought down the rain. The power and joy of your voice, a portal to past and future and worlds we could dream in. The light and heart and force of you.
For all the stages we rocked together. Nairobi. Amsterdam. Durban. Blantyre. Capetown. Jozi. Medellín. Quibdó. Harare and Harare and Harare.
For all the conversations – on buses and planes, in cafes, dressing rooms, airport lounges. We talked agents and business, stagecraft and art, love and family. We talked politics and struggle, heartbreak and vision, migration and return, soul-nourishment and soul-poison.
You taught me not to eat chocolate backstage: it creates mucus. We were united in our insistence on getting the sound right, our loathing of sloppy production, our outrage over artists not being treated as professionals. When you were on the program, I relaxed – I knew that anything I missed in tech, you would catch and fix.
You and Chirikure, hamming it up against the grey skies of Amsterdam. You at HIFA, saying to me, eyes tender: Isn’t it a beautiful country? You onstage at the Harare Book Café: the rest of us had wilted, and you were just warming up. You sang that night down. As you have sung so many nights down. As you have brought the sun up for so many around the world who long for home.
The first stage we shared was Poetry Africa at the World Social Forum in Nairobi, 2007. My first time to hear the mrimba, to be blown away by your virtuosity. I played your CD over and over for weeks after. Of our company that night, three are gone now. Dennis Brutus died in the fullness of his 85 years. Bantu Mwaura, we could not save. But you, Chi? In my body there is a deafening NO. This was NOT your time. Your daughters. Your unwritten songs. The world stages waiting for you.
I don’t know how to say goodbye to you, Chi. I don’t know how to hold the reality that we will never share a stage again, never talk again, never celebrate again on the dance floor. Out of my tiny right to mourn you, I imagine the hugeness of loss and grief for your children, your family, your people.
Rebel woman. Sister-fire. Fingers that brought down the rain. The power and joy and complexity of you. The light and heart of you. You are so deeply and widely loved. For all time.
Additional tributes from Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes
Your fingers bear the callouses
of the artist’s sacrifice of blood
and flesh. We do not know
the wounds behind the box
of magic smoking out rings
of pure grace, ribbons
of music as impossibly lasting
as stars over a village
of lament and laughter.
And when your voice,
husked and seasoned,
transforms the babble
in the room into a single
prayer, we know the meaning
of mercy, Chiwoniso, we
know the glory inside
that fragile womb of light.
You taught us the pitch
of sorrow, you taught us
the pitch of gladness,
you have left in the air
an unspeakable awe
— Kwame Dawes
THE BEND OF TOMORROW
A great psalm brews on her face.
A revolution in her eyes, her hands
poised over metal keys ready to pluck
a new dawn, a new song for Zim.
In the bar she laughed, husky,
a voice well lived in, well travelled
across the sinewy terrain of a heart
ravaged by love and tenderness.
It’s never what I hear in my head, she says,
shaking the locks piled on her crown.
Never the wonder I approach on the inside.
Then she laughs, easy, an ease, ah.
She says, who can know the song
of tomorrow. It lives somewhere down
the river, around a bend we never reach.
Cesaria Evora comes on the iPod –
A huddle of poets hushed by a voice
from our hearts. That, she says,
as the last whispered note dies.
That is from around the river bend.
Noah laughs as though he knows
all things. And he does. Lebo
is holding TJ’s hand. Sisters.
Khadijatou is rubbing the djembe’s skin
lost in a possible tomorrow. But I
know when Chiwoniso holds that half womb
of song to her body and leans
into the microphone we see only grace.
And for a moment, around the river’s bend.
— Chris Abani