Zimbabwean singer Chiwoniso — who was partially raised in the Northwest — returns to the area with her band, which blends African and American sounds.
For singer/songwriter Chiwoniso Maraire, Monday’s debut performance at Jazz Alley is like coming home.
One of Zimbabwe’s biggest stars, Chiwoniso, who records and performs solely under her first name, spent a good part of her adolescence in Seattle. She’s honed a powerfully incantatory sound based on mbira, the thumb piano that plays a central role in the music and rituals of the Shona people, but she also embraces jazz and rap, R&B and rock.
Born in Olympia and raised in Seattle until the age of 7, Chiwoniso returned to the area from Zimbabwe at 11. By the time she moved back to the southern African nation, she was a hip-hop-loving 15-year-old with a knack for beatboxing. Before long, she had helped launch Zimbabwe’s seminal hip-hop crew Peace of Ebony, a group that established her creative template as an artist fundamentally grounded in Zimbabwean culture.
“When the guys in Peace of Ebony and I started working and writing together, my father asked me to invite the boys over to the house,” says Chiwoniso, 32. “He gave us the best advice: Do what you’re doing, and find your identity. Make it Zimbabwean, whatever language you’re using or music you’re playing. I still use that same advice. I’ll be singing soul, and I’ll put an mbira line in it. We’ll use a reggae lick, but there’s no question it’s coming from Zimbabwe.”
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Chiwoniso’s father knew a little bit about cultivating Zimbabwe’s culture. Dumisani Maraire played an essential role in introducing and spreading Shona music in North America, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Through his work as an ethnomusicologist, bandleader and teacher at the University of Washington and The Evergreen State College from the late 1960s until his death in 1999, he inspired thousands of Americans to explore Shona culture by building and performing on mbiras and marimbas, providing a vivid example with his own family.
“This tour is my reintroduction to the American audience,” Chiwoniso says in a phone conversation from New York City. “Before I was very young, and part of my father’s band. People here know me in relation to being my father’s daughter.”
In many ways, the band Chiwoniso has assembled for her first U.S. tour reaps the bountiful harvest sown by her father. In celebrating the release of her captivating new album “Rebel Woman” (Cumbancha), Chiwoniso is working with a multinational band made up of Zimbabweans and African-American musicians, including her older brother Tendai Maraire on mbira and percussion, her younger sister Tawona Maraire on backing vocals, Nigerian-American bassist Mohamed Shaibu, drummer Ronnie Bishop, keyboardist Jonathan C. Phillips, guitarist Thaddeus Turner of Seattle’s Maktub and percussionist Stephen Golovnin (a longtime Dumisani Maraire collaborator).
“When I was growing up, a lot of black Americans didn’t feel African music,” she says. “There was almost a stigma against it. A lot of this has changed. These guys are hot, and in the space of four and a half days they picked up 12 songs. My music isn’t extremely complex, but you have to know what you’re doing. We’ve worked really hard, and I was close to tears last night after the rehearsal. All the guys were playing my song ‘Pamuromo,’ singing in Shona, and they had really got it down.”