With her feet back on the ground and revitalized creative energy, Chiwoniso has spent the last three years working with producer Keith Farquharson on Rebel Woman. Recorded in Zimbabwe, South Africa, England and Vermont (where Cumbancha and its partner company Charles Eller Studios are based), the album features some of Southern Africa's most respected musicians and an intriguing collection of guests. Louis Mhlanga, who has also recorded with Nigeria's King Sunny Ade, South African icon Hugh Masekela and others provides the albums tasty guitar licks. Zimbabwean Drummer Sam Mataure, a veteran of Oliver Mtukudzi's band, lays down his trademark rock solid rhythms, while saxophonist/flautist Steve Dyer guides a crack horn section. Meanwhile, members of Cumbancha's extended family, such as Idan Raichel Project percussionist Rony Irwyn, Belizean producer/guitarist Ivan Duran and keyboardist Charles Eller lent their services for cameo appearances.
The result is an appealing collection of songs that range from the soothing, unadorned mbira and voices of "Pamuromo" to the rousing, celebratory dance beats of "Gomo." The album opens with the raw electric guitar riffs of "Vanorapa", a song about the healing power of the elders whose lyrical theme is matched by its deep groove. Chiwoniso believes firmly in the power of traditional Shona spirituality and the ability of the elders to heal people even after they have died and entered the realm of the spirits. "Sometimes a person can die because there may be issues in their life when they were alive that weren't taken care of and that's when you have spirits roaming that need to be healed," she points out. Chiwoniso wrote the song based on one her late father used to perform with Mananzi III, adding to its emotional depth.
On On "Matsotsi" (The Land of Thieves), Chiwoniso sings of the economic struggles of the workingman. Many people leave their families to find work, and they are only able to return home to visit their loved ones every month or so. In today's tough economic times, it's harder for people to even earn enough money to make the trip back home. "How do I go home if I don't have money?" Chiwoniso implores. The mood shifts on "Gomo", an upbeat tribute to the mountain regions where Chiwoniso's family originated. "We play with hosho (a type of shaker), we play with drums, we play with mbira. We are the children of the mountains," she shouts out, encouraging you to enter the trance-like state of a traditional Zimbabwean ceremony.
Because of her American upbringing, Chiwoniso is equally comfortable writing and singing in English, which she demonstrates to full effect on the South African flavored "Listen to the Breeze". The lyrics, which tell of a wise elder who imparts words of wisdom, came to her in a dream during a recording session in England. On "Only One World," Chiwoniso expresses her devotion to her children and how important it is for parents to make decisions that take future generations into account. "The children have got to be protected. If we make selfish decisions as adults, those are our decisions, but the children are affected by everything we do." Chiwoniso has long been an advocate for children's rights, and has been involved with an organization called MUSTLE Africa that helps teach literacy to the homeless, orphans and other underprivileged children.
The album's title track, "Rebel Woman," takes inspiration from a poem about the role of women in Zimbabwe's war for independence. "The song is about the physical conditions of fighting, and the price people pay," she explains, but it is also a tribute to strong women who suffer because they do not follow the restrictions society tries to place on them. "The truth is that when you're a strong woman you might lose our husband, your home, because the way the systems are structured you're not allowed to be strong as a women, unless you follow the rules. This is a song about changing those rules."
The song serves as a moving epilogue to a masterful album and confirms that Chiwoniso will continue to speak out on issues important to her, regardless of the consequences. Recognizing that artists play a special role in society, she believes they must not be afraid to speak out against injustice. "We have a responsibility. We are not bankers, we are not doctors, we are not nurses. We have another part that we play in society that must be done. So, regardless of whatever world system is going to come in and say: 'Cut what you are saying,' going to send riot cops in to your shows, going to come and arrest you and say 'We are going to try and put you in jail...' — it doesn't matter. We have a responsibility."