Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Correspondent
IN 2013, a day after the death of mbira queen, Chiwoniso Maraire, Ammara Brown could barely contain her grief and all the emotions that she had kept within came gushing out on social media.
“I went to bed this morning hoping I would awaken to the absence of my cries . . . then echoing in my head and wallowing in my mouth . . . But I’ve woken. It isn’t a nightmare. Chiwoniso, our love, our mama, really did pass away last night.
“My pillow is drenched with hot tears. I can literally feel my heart continuing to break beyond self repair. My spirit is weeping, even when my eyes are not. Chi . . . she was true love . . .was? I’m trying to accept the idea that she will not hug us again, smile again. We won’t sing together again?” she said as part of lengthy and emotionally charged post on Facebook.
It was a heartbreaking post, one that mirrored Zimbabwe’s collective grief at having lost one of its greatest ever female musicians. Ammara had always been close to her mbira virtuoso stepmother, who had been married to her equally legendary father, Andy Brown.
Amid the outpouring of grief that followed news announcing Chiwoniso’s demise, Ammara’s bucketful of tears felt the particularly sorrowful, as Chiwoniso had a huge influence on her as she was growing up.
At the time of her passing, Chiwoniso was arguably the only active female musician that could comfortably rub shoulders with some of the country’s biggest male superstars.
In a country in which the music industry can sometimes feel like a man’s game, she was one of a few musicians carrying the torch for women. Her achievements and the respect that she attained were a result of hard work and risk taking throughout her career.
Four years after she released the album Ancient Voices, which entered the Europe World Music Charts three times and brought her a nomination in the Best Female Vocals of Africa for the Kora Awards in 1999, she left Andy’s The Storm to concentrate on her own solo career.
Leaving the shelter provided by being part of a well respected and successful musician was risky to say the least. If she failed, she would have had to return, her head down and tail firmly tucked between her legs.
Instead she prospered, becoming, with her signature dreadlocks and mbira, one of Zimbabwe’s most recognisable musicians.
Four years later, not much has changed for female musicians in Zimbabwe. If one surveys the field and picks out the front-runners, it is clear that the country’s female musicians are still largely playing second fiddle to their male counterparts.
The build up to Ammara’s album last week however, suggested that with the right mixture of talent, focus and drive, female musicians can also grab the attention of hard to please Zimbabwean music lovers. Years of hard work seem about to pay off with an album highly anticipated by the legions of fans that Ammara has managed to cultivate over the last few years.
Having been blessed with a famous last name, it has been amazing to watch how rarely she has used it to get ahead in her career. Instead she has taken risks of her own, branding herself as a carefree urban girl who, despite not being afraid to show a little skin now and then, does not rely on her looks to get head.
At face value, Ammara’s music bears little resemblance to that of her stepmother. Chiwoniso was the dreadlocked African queen who made the mbira modern and fashionable. Despite switching between English and Shona flawlessly, her music was firmly rooted in the country’s ancient traditions and culture.
Ammara’s music on the other hand, is fiercely urban with the hit singles she has released over the last few years making her a darling of dance floor lovers.
However, despite this, Ammara’s fearlessness and drive show that she might have learnt a thing a two from all the years she lived under the same roof with Chiwoniso. If her album, Ammartia, is a success, she might have finally taken the torch the late mbira icon who, from wherever in the afterlife, will look down on her protégé and smile.