As a visual artist, I don’t know a lot about the technicalities of music; but I do recognize the language of emotion and soul. And, if joy can shape-shift into musical notes, the nimble fingers of Chihera band members know how to conjure it.
I first discovered Chihera on a golden late summer evening last year as roosters crowed, laughter soared, barbeque smoke tantalized, and sunflowers reverently bowed to a setting sun. Lilting notes slipped in and around rustic picnic tables as Chihera played the Mbira (traditional thumb piano), amplified with a Deze (a gourd), and the Marimba (like an over-sized zylophone). Cadence of the Djembe (drum played with bare hands) and shakers completed the magic. Attending a fundraiser for Hope’s Promise Zimbabwe Orphan Ministries, I expected to give. I was the one who received.
Chihera band member and spokesman, Tafadzwa Obert Muchineripi, cites stylistic influences as far-flung as Spanish and Celtic music, but his childhood in Zimbabwe formed his musical foundation. Obert’s father, gifted at playing the Mbira, a thousand-year old traditional Zimbabwean instrument, often played for hire. Sometimes he invited his young son along to add percussion with the Djembe.
Obert often roamed around the neighborhood in search of spare drums to play, but longed most of all to play the Marimba. At age twelve, he visited a high school he would soon attend, and he was delighted to discover students playing Mrimbas. However, when he enrolled, the instruments were nowhere to be found. For the next twenty-one years, he never saw another Marimba.
Growing up in the challenges of a developing country, music was perceived as but a game. Obert focused on academics. He immigrated to the US as a graduate student in 2001; and only then did he comprehend the depth of his passion for music. For years he felt content to simply lose himself in spontaneous music jams with friends.
When his daughter, Chipo, was born in 2002, he discovered a child after his own heart. As a toddler, she labored to play real songs on a toy piano. From an early age, she could hear a song once and play it by ear.
In 2009, Obert and his family attended Zimfest, a Zimbabwean music festival held that year in Boulder; and the event sparked his long-ago childhood dream of playing the Marimba. It took a few years to locate a teacher; but eventually Obert found Mary Ellen Cuthbertson Garrett. Obert at long last learned to play the Marimba along with his family.
Obert’s wife, Mandy Dube-Muchineripi, perceived her husband’s and daughter’s musical talents and urged them to form a band. In October 2014, the band Chihera coalesced, comprised of Obert and Mandy and their three children: Chipo (age 14), Chamu (9), and Chiedza (3). Their marimba teacher, Mary Ellen, sometimes joins them as well. The Chihera is a female eland, a type of antelope, and is the family’s totem. All the females in their tribe are known as “Chiheras,” so Obert and Mandy named the band in honor of their daughter. All their instruments, native to Zimbabwe, were hand constucted by artisans in Boulder and Oregon. Today, Chihera often plays in Denver Public schools as well as community events.
Chipo, an old soul at age 14, describes music as “a language that brings people together, an inspiring message (thousands of years old in the case of many Zimbabwean songs) understood by all.” Both father and daughter note the passion they feel when performing, the joy that swells within their own hearts as they play a universal language inviting the listener to celebrate.
Surely my own soul heard the invitation on that warm summer evening last year, as joy danced with the rays of setting sun. At the same time, a deeper, nameless passion also beckoned in Chihera’s music. Perhaps it has something to do with Obert’s own journey, cast against the backdrop of growing up in a country now labelled as one of the poorest on earth, with a leader consistently named in the top ten of world dictators.
As Obert says, his story of hope deferred and re-discovered “symbolizes hope amidst chaos, hardship and suffering. The music we play reflects that.”
Strange how a summer evening can shift the soul, how an American visual artist can sense thousands of years of perseverance and dignity in the music of another culture, a language understood by all.
Chihera also very generously donated their talents for Shine Like Stars, an orphan issue awareness First Friday gallery event in Colorado Springs last fall.