"Music knows no boundaries"

Singer Piwai first album has been a spiritual journey. She had lost her lifeline after an ominous car accident and faced depression and an identity crisis. It was not until she picked up a metal-tined Zimbabwean instrument that life began to have a meaning again. Piwai is now ready to release African Turquoise.

Singer/Songwriter, Piwai ‘s first album has been a spiritual journey. She had lost her lifeline after an ominous car accident and faced depression and an identity crisis. It was not until she picked up a metal-tined Zimbabwean instrument that life began to have a meaning again. Piwai is now ready to release African Turquoise.


Grief and other emotions

"I grew up in Harare. I guess every foreign, immigrant, has a story to tell. I don’t see my story to be one of a kind. But it was very challenging coming here. I was 19 years old and by myself. I only had 50 USD in my pocket and had to survive," says Piwai when she recounts her move to the U.S.

She is now releasing her first album, Africa Turquoise. The album was recorded in Zimbabwe and has taken over two years to complete as Piwai wanted to find some “missing pieces”.

"I recorded the album in 2012 and it has been a working progress. Fear was telling me that I couldn’t do this. When I travelled to Zim my intention was to record only one song, and leave out the rest I had penned prior to the trip. I had recorded ten songs by the time I came back. But living as an African in the U.S, I wasn’t even sure if anybody would listen to my music or if my voice was good enough. And growing up as a girl, you’re never encouraged to pursue a career in music & in my case I was to become a doctor. I didn’t realize that I could actually live on my music."

The album’s title is taken from the spotted teal jasper, a chalcedony also known as the African Turquoise. The stone comes in different range of colors that often are symbolic of our different emotions.

Africa Turquoise is a musical painting of Africa and how she relates to it. Piwai takes the listeners to the war torn Congo, the streets of Harare and the slums of Soweto, African nightlife, to the ethereal traditional aspects of its core. Nevertheless, she does not want to describe the album as mellow and says that the album rather reflects the most sacred thing in Africa, life.

"We have different stages in the Shona culture, or even anywhere else in Africa. We have birth, then there's growing up and death, amongst other aspects of the social fabric. I titled the album African Turquoise, as each song has its own emotion."

A pair of old socks

The millenium was still in the air. It was year 2000 and Piwai had just got of the plane from Zimbabwe."My dad gave me a pair of his old socks. 'Oh, it’s going to be very cold', he told me. I remember when getting of the plane in Texas. It was so hot and I was wearing these thick socks," Piwai says laughing.

The thing she cherished most in the suitcase though, was her six diaries. Still packed, to this day, in the same small plastic bags as when she arrived to U.S. "I started to write a diary when I was 13 years old. I read them when I want to have a good laugh. I used to write everything in detail. It was almost ridiculous."

Piwai wrote her first song, Let It Be when she was in Zimbabwe studying at the Monte Cassino boarding school, an all-girls catholic school in which music had an important part in the daily stringent study lives. The girls sung at church and whenever they were together. Let It Be was written an ordinary day when she was improvising tunes with friends. "Years later, when I went back to the school, albeit as a returning student teacher, I heard the girls sing my song at the assembly & they knew exactly who had written it. That’s when I made a realization that I heard a bug, I could never separate myself from songwriting.

"I wasn’t even aware of being depressed"

At first music was a means to pay my college tuition, so she was toured with a Congolese band. It was not until a fateful car accident in 2001 that she seriously healed with music and blames herself for the accident. She was driving her small Ford Taurus with her two friends when they got into a head on, side sweep collision. Both of her friends got seriously injured and she, a scratch from glass lodged in the mid left section of her head.

"This, all because of me. It was the scariest moment in my life. I saw blood. To see my friends bleeding from their mouth because their internals were…" Piwai leaves the sentence hanging in the air. She describes the time following as dark. She fell into depression. Depression is often not acknowledged in many African cultures and is often dismissed as a Western illness.

"I didn’t know it was depression because we don’t grow up with that in our culture. So I wasn’t even aware of being depressed. But when I came to the realization I started to make discoveries about myself and began to understand who I was."

The accident also occurred at a time in Piwai’s life when she started to assimilate into the American life and thus losing her culture. "I felt like my own identity was at risk and started to be more conscious about the change in the world. I’m a very shy and emotional person. Music became therapy for me.

Remembrance of home

I had a dream in which I saw some people I never met but seen pictures of. Some,my grandparents and other people I could not quite recognize. "One day I danced to rave & techno and mbira music all night (literally) in my room and knew music would be a big part of my healing.

Ironically it was during a car drive that Piwai found the path to the music she is playing today. She was driving from Texas for California and along the way played the same CD, a friend had lent her, with music from Zimbabwe. She recalls playing the same song from Tucson to Yuma. It was pure acoustic with only the sound of a mbira and whistles. "I honestly don’t know if it was me who drove the car from that would section of the drive. I was so lost in the music. As soon as I arrived in Oakland I went online and looked for the people in my dream. Somehow I found the one specific person that had been in my dream and he happened to be on a visit in the U.S. I contacted him and he told me that I had to come. He gave me my first mbira and that’s how I started to play mbira.

The mbira is one of Zimbabwe’s oldest instruments. It is played to instill healing, as well as a conduit to evoke ancestral connection to the universe. Christian missionaries thought it to be a practice of paganism and banned the instrument which since then has been perceived as a taboo. It is only, in the recent decades that the instrument has become widely used again and popularized by artists as Cosmas Magaya. It was him that Piwai contacted that day. Like fate, Cosmos Magaya happened to be at Duke University where he resident artist and working on another volume as co-author of the “Soul of The Mbira” with Paul Berliner.

"For me, that was not only fate. It was spiritual. I believe in fate and faith as well but spirituality, that’s what binds us together. We’re all spirits. The mbira helped me through the identity crisis that a lot of Africans face when we move abroad. I suffered a lot, especially as an African woman here. The racism here really shocked me. It was an eye opener for me. I wasn’t used to the racism, even though I grew up close to apartheid, in post segregated Zimbabwe. Most shocking was the racism from people of color. I just couldn’t understand that. The mbira became a remembrance of home, a source of my healing."

"Music knows no boundaries"

Despite of moving alone to a country, facing racism and even being an inch from being struck by the lightning, stage fright is what makes Piwai tremble most. "I’m scared shitless on stage. You have no idea. Inside I just freak out. I get nervous, a total wreck. I try not to be around people before each show. I meditate and try not to think about what I’m going to do.

Music knows no boundaries, music knows no language, music is the perfect way of connecting with people and I love doing so. If I can be the instrument for something, to speak in the voice of someone else I can do it through music. And when I’m on stage I just try to shake it of and say: Let’s do this!"

Piwai's album African Turquoise will be released in December 2015.

Text by...

Sumbu Temo

27 years old journalist student and dreamer from Stockholm