Julia Chigamba and the Chinyakare Ensemble in Berkeley

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Julia Chigamba and the Chinyakare Ensemble perform at Ashkenaz on Saturday.

Julia Chigamba had been living in Oakland for about three years when she returned home to Zimbabwe in 2003 with a group of Americans who had been studying Shona dance and music with her. Eager for them to experience her culture in context, she brought them to her family village about 10 miles outside of the capital Harare and quickly discovered that much had changed in her absence.

“My family was so excited, they killed the cow and had a big ceremony,” recalls Chigamba, who teaches dance and drumming at schools around the Bay Area. “But when we wanted to show the community dancers no one was doing it any more! In only three years, even the elder women who had led rituals for the village, they were all into Christianity. I had to really talk them into getting out their drums and costumes.”

In much the same way that American popular culture often crowds out local production in countries around the world, Chigamba has found a steady erosion of traditional Shona culture in both rural villages and the capital, Harare. But Chigamba and her family, a cultural force amongst the Shona for generations, are working to reverse the slide. On Saturday, Chigamba and her Chinyakare Ensemble perform at Ashkenaz in a fundraiser for Chigamba Cultural Center, a family compound in Harare where her family teaches traditional rhythms, dances, songs and rituals. “We built the cultural center in 2002 with one big grand hut for ceremonies, a studio where we do shows and dance classes, and two small huts where people can stay or we can teach mbira,” Chigamba says, referring to the thumb piano whose incantory melodies play an essential role in Shona rituals.

“But we need to expand the studio,” she says. “My idea for this larger building is a place where we can do big shows and also do educational projects for woman, men and youth.  I want to support them making instruments, costumes, sewing, beading, as well as basic computer training so they can communicate with people abroad.”


For Saturday’s performance the Chinyakare Ensemble is joined by Guinean drum master Mohamed Lamine Bangoura, who performs a solo piece and then collaborates with Chinyakare, and Makandal & Africombo Band, a combo steeped in Haitian musical forms while also drawing on other Caribbean rhythmic currents. Chigamba got to know Bangoura last year when her three children participated in his production “Precious Drop” about cultural attitudes in West Africa and North America surrounding water.

“Lamine comes from traditional family too, with the same values that I have of respect for the music and each other,” Chigamba says. “My kids joined him and after two weeks of going to rehearsals with Lamine my daughter was dancing and singing like she was from West Africa. We’ve got different rhythms and movements but we’re trying to bring the music together. We are all one, all one human family.”

danceChinyakare Ensemble collaborates with another West African ensemble at the Malonga Center for the Arts Theater on Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in a collaboration with Diamano Coura West African Dance Company, Oakland’s oldest resident African dance company. The annual home season event features the work of internationally esteemed choreographers, musicians and dancers from Zimbabwe, Liberia and Senegal, along with 20 professional musicians, dancers.

Long before Chigamba settled in the East Bay, Berkeley native Erica Azim was teaching mbira, the thumb piano that plays a central role in so much Shona music. Chinyakare Ensemble also performs Dec. 7 at Berkeley’s Mahea Uchiyama Center for International Dance in a benefit for the MBIRA Musician’s Fund. A world-renowned mbira master, Azim started studying Shona culture in the days when Zimbabwe was the white-minority ruled country Rhodesia. She got to know Julia Chigamba’s father, a great mbira player and instrument builder, and her older sister, a founding member of Zimbabwe’s first national dance company (Azim and Irene Chigamba recorded an album together in Berkeley, Live Mbira Concert, in 2006).

A tireless advocate for Zimbabwean culture, Azim provides a steady flow of income to instrument builders and musicians by selling their wares and making sure they receive the money raised. The non-profit organization MBIRA also seeks to provide every musician in Azim’s catalog with a minimum annual fee, whether their recordings have sold or not.

Zimbabwe hasn’t been in the news much since Robert Mugabe, the county’s sole leader since attaining independence in 1980, stole another election in August. But things are still dire and every dollar earned in the US helps families in Zimbabwe survive. The Dec. 7 event combines the dancing and drumming of Chigamba’s Chinyakare Ensemble and Azim performing on mbira with several of her students.


“All donations made this year will be distributed to musicians in Zimbabwe who have earned the least over the past year,” Azim says. “It’s another way of making sure that music is transmitted. If a musician is out running around all day trying to make a little money to feed his family, he’s not going to have time to teach his kids. By providing a little bit of extra financial support we support transmission of the music.”

Recommended gig: Pamela Rose at the Jazzschool

Pamela Rose
Pamela Rose

Pamela Rose has spent the past four years revealing the rich but often overlooked history of female Tin Pan Alley songwriters with her album and popular multimedia show Wild Women of Song. But her new album Hammond Organ Party, a collaboration with organist Wayne de la Cruz, exists for no other reason than to revel in the joyous, orchestral sound of the Hammond B-3 applied to standards and R&B hits. She celebrates the album’s release with a Sunday afternoon performance at the Jazzschool.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.