Tanyradzwa Tawengwa Interview

text by digital-media

24 June, 2021

In February 2020, right before the pandemic, a Zimbabwean-born opera singer visited the University of California, Santa Barbara. She collaborated with Dr. Mhoze Chikowero, an associate professor of African history here at UCSB. Together, they adapted Ms. Tawengwa’s senior thesis from Princeton, ‘Dawn of the Rooster,’ into an abridged one-hour performance you can watch here and here.
KCSB’s Ryan Scibetta, host of In The Spotlight, which focuses on interviewing unknown, underground music and putting it into the spotlight contacted Ms. Tawengwa through his world music TA, who also appeared in the UCSB performance, and she graciously accepted an interview. He joined her and Dr. Chikowero in KCSB Studio D immediately after the performance. What follows is an edited transcript of their interview.

This interview was originally recorded in February 2020. It has been edited for clarity.

R: If you want to introduce yourselves, to start us off. Go ahead.

T: Hi. I’m Tanyradzwa Tawengwa. I am a doctoral candidate in voice performance at the University of Kentucky. And I am the composer and performer of the Dawn of the Rooster.

M: Hi listeners of KCSB, My name is Professor Mhoze Chikowero. I am a professor here at UCSB in the History Department. I am working with Tanyradzwa in this event today, both in today’s performance and with a reading & conversation later today. I’m a historian. I work with music. I write about music. I use music as an archive to tell African histories, histories of human interaction, such as those that you witnessed today, Ryan.

R: Thank you so much for joining us. 

M: Thank you. 

T: Thank you for having us.

R: The very first song you performed, called…

T: Mukaiwe.

R: Yes, Mukaiwe. Why’d you choose to start with this song?

T: This song came to me at a time when I felt that we as Zimbabweans in the diaspora – or we as children born after the liberation struggle – needed to wake up. I myself personally needed to wake up to connect with these stories, but also to wake up and begin to work on behalf of our country the way that our parents and their parents worked and sacrificed for us. Mukaiwe means “wake up” [in Shona]. So it’s also like waking up to consciousness. You know, people talk about being woke. And so it’s really something that I was trying to communicate in this number.

R: What inspired Mukaiwe?

T: I began composing Mukaiwe in a basement of a von heim [home] when I was studying abroad in Munich, Germany.

R: There’s a story behind that!

T: I know! (laughs) It was the summer before my senior year. So I was a junior at Princeton University at the time. And over the summer I was in Germany, studying German. And there was a piano in the basement of the dorm where we were staying. I was beginning to think about the dawn of the rooster, because I had already started interviewing my family about their experiences during the war. I was really searching for a peace that could feel like a new beginning, that there would be something about the music that would feel like the dawn. I really loved the symbolism of a dawn and new dawn, a new day, that clean feeling we feel when you wake up really early. I’m a night owl, so I never see the sunrise. I remember the few that I’ve seen in my lifetime. (laughs) And [in a sunrise] you get that feeling of the world really unraveling or revealing itself or blossoming before you. I felt like that’s what we need as a nation: a new chapter, a new dawn. But that’s informed by everything that came before us. 

R: … I don’t have anything we can add to that. We just started the interview, and we’re already up there (gestures towards the sky). 

T: That’s the truth!

R: Is there anything you want to add, doctor?

M: So what I’m doing in my work is the work of calibrating the history of this dawn that happens in 1980 that Tanyaradzwa captures and captivates through song. I go back to look at the problematic [history]. What is this problem that Africans are fighting for and fighting against our way? How are they articulating their situation as a people? They were under colonial rule since 1890. Zimbabwe was under British colonial, colonial governance under the Rhodesians, and saw in the early [18]90s the first attempt to throw off the colonizers. That wasn’t successful. But that uprising was so important in terms of inspiring all kinds of stories, and in terms of inspiring imaginations of freedom and what independence, when it comes, might be like. That was called the First Chimurenga [Shona for “liberation”], even though that should not be called the First Chimurenga. There were other Chimurenga before it in the 1500s, 1600s. Zimbabweans fought against Portuguese attempts to colonize Zimbabwe. The Mutapa state, the same place where [modern-day] Zimbabwe is, they fought against the Portuguese. Ejected them! And the Portuguese were able to settle in what is Mozambique today, but not in Zimbabwe because of that chimurenga. So that energy, that consciousness to fight for soft liberation, for freedom, for sovereignty, is what is captured in that concept of chimurenga.

The people took up guns again in the 1960s, 1970s, quantitatives sources children of those fasta heroes. There were the bones of those heroes, some of whom were beheaded, like my own great grandfather, who is in that museum in London today. Like many others. That’s what she was singing about that second Congo that you are singing about. Shingai, Machar, Mumby. These are the people who fought in the 1990s to prevent colonial settlement. They fought gallantly, but they fell in battle. Some of them give themselves up to serve their people.They were beheaded.Their heads are in museums in London, as you speak. There are efforts to repatriate those human remains, again, as I was speaking here. 

And so, my work uses histories and songs to really capture the energy. So my first book is called African Music: Power and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe, which you read and loved. And that’s how we began to work together. That was in Kentucky two years ago 

T: Three. 

M: Three now. 

T: Mm-hmm.

M: Yeah. And so my next book is Are You Sure You Want It Done and it’s upcoming. I’m finishing bits of the final chapter now. It’s opening with that moment of independence with people. Basically, liberating, the formerly colonized place. Now, they treats we Africans were spat at as they walked on fast feet, as they purchased things. They were humiliated. 

April 17th, before midnight, the moment of official independence, people simply broke the colonial chains. They occupied this place, these streets, singing and dancing and whistling and ululating and making music of all sorts. They simply recomposed this city. It was independence. And there are a lot of songs about the dawn. A new dawn. So that’s a rule, again, one strong point where I connect with Tanywaradzwa as well.

R: The new dawn with independence. 

M: Yes.

R: Where is the most prominent example of that in the concert that we just heard? Is there a prominent example?

T: If we’re looking at it musically, the fact that I, somebody born after independence, am taking this music, recasting the music, but also writing new music around these stories is a continuation, is a manifestation of that new dawn. Because I believe in us. I believe in us, being the young people of Zimbabwe right now. I believe in us and I believe in our energy. I believe in our thoughts. I believe in our voices. I believe in our vision. And for me, the way I can communicate the passion I have for my home is by writing this music. But at the same time, in the work, I stay so close to Chimurenga music, the music of that time in order to create that transgenerational continuity musically.

R: Yeah, that definitely carried through.

T: Mm-hmm.

M: And also, if I can jump in. So for me, looking at Tanyaradzwa perform, I’m really looking at these newer generations of – I’m a child of the war by the way, I was born in 1972 when the war was really heating up. So I would have coined [the term] “one war”, to manage my wounds, “one war”. That’s how people were invested in this thing. So looking at here, see, this generation’s new generation. In this case of what I call “sonic reverse engineers”. Because this instrument that she was playing, the Mbira. You could not play it before independence without getting harassed. It was driven underground as a target by missionaries.

R: Attacked by missionaries?

M: Yes! 

T: Mm-hmm!

M: They crusaded against this [the Mbira] and other instruments that were spiritually powerful. Instruments that when she plays it and sings, instruments that someone, the spirit of the ancestors who fought against colonial oppression, and these spirits possess people and create this ambiance, are very powerful. That’s the spiritual system that the missionaries were fighting against to impose Christianity. So the Mbira is that symbol of the deep Zimbabwean African mythological, but also sound engineering.

R: Ah.

M: Children were taken to mission stations as part of the crusades to change to reengineer them sonically. Now they would only perform on the piano with supposedly Western instruments, but not on traditional African instruments, which were this spiritually powerful. They were being re-created, rewired in the mission schools. 

There is this saying, “all kinds of ways”. Which is why they survived. Which is why we have the Tanywaradzwas of this generation. They are now basically the flowers. I see the flowering of this vast sonic engineering. You see that in women in independence where people who are now seeing and being recognized for what they were singing, for who they are. So independence becomes at that moment of self reharmonization, which is sonically legitimized by these touches, given the right kind of space. 

There’s a huge performance at independence in April 1980 that Bob Marley, Zimbabwe musicians spent the night and the weekend singing at. Now, they [the Zimbabwean children taught by the missionaries] would sing, but they wouldn’t sing like that. We would only hear this kind of music through pirated video from Mozambique, from Zambia, from other places which were independent in the 1970s. Now they would compose and sing the song, and people would dance.

R: …Last week, I had a student here [for a radio interview]…

T: Mmm.

R: … and his songs were about girls who didn’t like him.

All: (laughter)

T: And? What are you saying?

R: It’s a bit of zero to 100.

T: (laughter)

R: I’m glad to hear that we are able to perform these songs because they were really powerful.

T: And still are!

R: Definitely. You were talking about how it was only Western instruments that were being able to be played back when their [Zimbabwean] songs were being suppressed. And in this concert, we had Western instruments with the piano, and we had the traditional instruments that you were playing. Was there a reason for that sort of fusion?

T: Of course, of course, my music is who I am. I wrote a paper when I was an undergrad about the colonial encounter.  It was an extension of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. And there’s a chapter in his book called On National Culture. My paper was looking at how to describe those of us born after war, after colonial encounters and war. Because what happens is colonialism, the act of it, this idea of stripping people of their identity and making them fit within this mold to be little British people, in the case of Zimbabwe. It’s something that never works, but what it does is, it’s like an irreversible chemical reaction. And what you instead create are these hybrid beings. I speak the way I speak because I went to a Catholic school, a private school with mostly British teachers. This is how I’ve always spoken, even when I was in Zimbabwe. This is not because I came to America for school. I’ve been speaking this way since I was a child. And that’s because of the education system that still is rooted in colonial education. 

At the same time, everything you saw in the performance today, how I was dressed, the music I was playing, the instruments I was playing, is because that’s my identity with my family. My grandmother was a spirit medium and we would have these ceremonies where people would come and play Mbira and people would be possessed. And it was all grounded in tradition.

This is something that I carry within myself as a person in an almost bilingual way. It’s like I’m culturally bilingual, but it’s not even being bilingual. It’s what my expression of being Zimbabwean is. It’s my truth as a Zimbabwean. 

I went to a convent for school. I had my piano teacher, Sister Loyola, who started to teach me piano when I was eight years old, and she taught me cello when I was 11. I played in the Harare Youth Orchestra. I did my theory exams. I did all of the A.B.R.S.M., the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music Exams all the way up to grade eight.

R: Sounds very brutal!

T: You know! (laughter) I probably would have been a head girl or a prefect (laughs) like Harry Potter, you know. And at the same time, I was in this traditional context as well. And that’s really, as I said, the most honest expression of who I am. And so in this paper of mine, I describe myself as almost like a hybrid being. And that everything about me will always express the traditional and the colonial. It’s not something I can shake, but it’s something I must acknowledge in my work. 

You know, I can’t strip one. To strip one is to remove a part of my story. And I can’t do that, you know? And so both must live. But it’s really like Harry Potter being a horcrux for Voldemort. Like, that is not supposed to work. Are you a Harry Potter person?

R: Mm-hmm.

T: Good. Because otherwise I would’ve been like, what kind of life are you living? (laughter) So you know in Harry Potter where Voldemort tries to kill Harry Potter and by mistake, Voldemort latches a piece of his soul to Harry Potter. And so Harry, throughout his life, can speak Parseltongue and speak to snakes and has all these things because a little bit of Voldemort is in him. That’s me as a post-colonial neocolonial being. We have the traditional but something about the colonial encounter created something it didn’t intend to create – me.

And so that’s what you see and hear in the music, that it is this story, this traditional story, but presented within the classical idiom. I grew up in classical music just as much as I grew up in traditional music. We were singing Handel and Mozart at our church choir competitions in Zimbabwe. So for me to try only to be one thing or try only to be the other is to only tell half my story.

So that’s why these things are married in this recital. That’s why you see the piano. That’s why you see the mbira. That’s why you hear the specific style of vocal production. Because that’s who I am. 

R: Awesome. It works out well. 

T: It’s who I am! (laughter) Yeah. I can’t look at it or judge it or evaluate it. I can only share it because it’s who I am. 

R: Thank you for sharing it!

T: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for receiving it. That means a lot. Otherwise, I’ll just be singing to the shower. (laughter)

M: Well, you could do that as well.

T: Yeah, I still do.

R: It’s a good time! (laughter) Speaking more about the production of this concert itself. You mentioned at the end of the concert that you had met Jared Holton, who is the piano player, yesterday. And that was the day before the concert, since we’re taping this interview the same day as the concert.

T: Correct. 

R: How were you able to coordinate so quickly? 

T: Jared is excellent. That’s all I can say. He definitely had the music in advance, so he had time to look at it. But we didn’t have any time to really have in-depth conversations about the music. But because his own doctoral scholarship is in some ways related to these stories, my family – it’s all about an empathetic experience, right? That’s what I like to think of a concert, as opposed to a performance or presentation. We enter a space and we’re able to activate our empathy as human beings. The job of the artist is to give people permission to activate empathy. 

And so, working with another empathetic being as my collaborative artist, he was already seeing things and feeling things before I even arrived to talk to him. So when we finally had rehearsal yesterday, it was so easy to just get into the music because he had already opened up his heart to telling these stories and had already found connections with his own story. So I feel like he was magical and I would love to work with him again and again and again on this concert.

R: This is your call to action, Jared.

T: Exactly! Come on the road with me, Jared!

R: Dr. Chikowero, you did the narration for this concert. What was that experience like for preparation?

M: I give lectures. 

R: So you didn’t need any further preparation?

M: No, I did, actually. It’s a different thing, this performance. Well, lecturing is a performance also. But over the last few years, I’ve moved away from formalistic lecturing, where you’re listening to your voice. Well, professors don’t usually listen to their voices. I don’t know if they do. So this is something that you have to cultivate if you want to perform in front of audiences, not just students in a lecture room. A lot of the material is what I teach. So working through the texts back and forth, adding a thing here, subtracting, editing out a thing there, I think is also a part of the work before we get to this piece of performance.

But it also means that this kind of act is also really about what I feel as someone who teaches for the art, for the living, but also teaches as an African. It means I don’t just walk into a classroom and deliver knowledge and leave. It means I work with things about the classroom from a historical perspective, as a historian, because a classroom should not be taken for granted.

As I said to my colleagues last week, the history of the classroom is a history of struggle. And so I assume a kind of character when I’m in the classroom, because if you look at this story of Chimurenga, these African self-liberation struggles – In the 1960s and 70s, there were classrooms, students. The children are being taught. Those young girls and boys woke up one morning and started to walk [to school] and become a guerilla. Their classrooms were being set in the guerrilla camps in the forest in Mozambique and Tanzania and Zambia and Angola. It wasn’t just about being taught to fire a gun. They’re being taught like regular students under trees. Under makeshift shelters. 

R: Wow. 

M: Because the process was not just about how to kill the enemy, you first understand your condition. What is it that made us like this? Why are people poor and suffering and victims of colonial violence on a day to day basis? What is colonialism? What is an enemy? Who is an enemy? Are we fighting a human? Are we fighting a system? Are we fighting a skin color? Are we fighting a particular psychology and ideology of oppression? But also the regular ABCs of the classroom, they are being taught all that stuff. So what? I’m in the classroom. I’m teaching this stuff. I’m taking my students to Mozambique. And when I’m in front of audiences, I’m taking you to Mozambique. Tanywaradzwa is doing that with a powerful vocalization, and instrument playing.

So this is not just the experience of the liberation struggle. It’s also the African system. How our knowledge is produced and shared and transmitted in the African school system is not different from everyday life. It’s not about professors and students. It’s a circle of knowledge production we propose, sit like we were sitting in the performance yesterday, where children were sitting with grandparents, and they’re building these transgenerational connections and communities, where stories are being taught in research. You know what I mean to you. You know what your ancestors did. And you know where you are going in the world, what you might do as an agent of change. 

So that’s how I feel when I am reciting this thing [a speech during the performance]. I see myself as one of those youngsters who fell in the forests of Mozambique but whose spirit is still with us.


R: Alright. I did not know that there are schools set up in those camps.


T: Absolutely. Because the idea was, we as Africans had to be prepared to take over the running of the country, so it wasn’t enough just to fight. We also had to know how to run a country. My grandmother was president of the Senate up until two years ago [2018]. And during the war, she and my grandfather were actually flown to Massachusetts on liberation scholarships to go study at Amherst, so that they could be ready to take over the government. So certain people were selected for their aptitude and were sent to schools here, overseas to begin studying. My aunts, as you heard in the piece, were nurses in England. They were studying nursing so they could take over the healthcare system.


M: But also, during the war, those students, during vacation, would actually fly. They wouldn’t spend time like regular students do. They’d go to the leadership camps in Mozambique. Those students would study medicine. They’d go there and actually practice medicine and work on injured comrades. In [the fight for] independence these students became the frontline in the healthcare system, in the schooling system, because Chimuranga was more than anything else, a lab for making new nations.


R: So the people who were going and learning overseas came back to help directly, as you said, on the frontlines.


M: Yes, yes. 


R: You said your grandmother was president of the Senate, until two years ago?

T: Correct.


R: How long did she have that position?


T: She moved through government in many ways. This is actually my maternal grandmother’s younger sister, Edna, months younger. And she started off in education. And at the time, she wanted to be minister of education, one of the deputy ministers.


M: She was a minister. 


T: She was a minister. But also, my uncle was minister of education.


M: But she stayed.


T: She stayed as senator for a long time. That was a long time position. And then with the regime change, she stepped down. 


R: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?


T: Well, I would love to talk about this performance, because this is the first time that the dawn of the rooster has looked this way. So just to tell you a little bit about the history of the piece as a performance work. This piece was my thesis at Princeton. So I turned in this production as a final paper.


R: Wow. 


T: Yeah. Because I studied composition as an undergrad. And so as composers, we had to turn in a performance work. And it really has taken on a life beyond what I could have imagined for it.


R: How’s that? 


T: Well, I wrote it like I said in the piece, my brother passed away when I was a sophomore. All of a sudden I became very obsessed with stories and how as Zimbabweans growing up, going to school away from home, we really had to be intentional about our own historical archive, and making sure that that information was transmitted generationally, that it would happen even if we were all the way here in America and everyone else was in Zimbabwe. Stories are a big part of who we are, even thinking about oral histories. So stories are not just things for entertainment. That’s where literally our understanding of self has been passed down from generation to generation. So that has to continue. I was thinking about a way to make sure that that continues. And so as I gathered these stories and then decided to write music for them, I didn’t know what would become of the piece beyond Princeton. 


I performed the work with my peers, people who were not necessarily performers, not necessarily singers, and they just jumped in with open hearts like we saw today and did the work and two producers from New York came to the production, which was pretty amazing. They were just an audience and two of my mentors, Pat Mitchell and Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues. So they came to the performance and I moved to New York after graduating. And one of my mentors, Carlton Brown, had a performance space in New York called MIST: My Image Studios. And they let me workshop the piece and develop it in New York City, which was amazing. And then after that, with my affiliation, when I was enrolled at University of Kentucky for my graduate work, I performed the work at McGill in Montreal and then at the University of Kentucky. 


And as people interacted with the piece and responded to it, it was just amazing how everyone was able to put their own story into it. I would meet somebody, say, from South Africa who would say, wow, these you know, this really touched me. I grew up during apartheid X, Y, Z, I understand having to walk off the pavement. Or I would meet somebody who grew up in the 1960s in the US and was like, yeah, it was the same thing. You had whites only bathrooms. On the buses, black people had to sit in the back. That kind of thing. Or I would meet someone from Tanzania, and they would be like, yes, we sang that anthem, too. I also know this music. We grew up singing it, too. And I realized that more than just sharing my own story, there was a potential for with every production, tapping into personal stories of people who were there. And so that’s really what’s become the DNA of this piece where I have the music. But everywhere I go, the stories change. And some of those stories are stories that people are speaking from their own experience and they just blend in seamlessly with the stories. And so it was very important for me in this production here at UCSB to collaborate with students who could, if they wanted to, share their own stories, as well as they were reading to collaborate with Mhoze here. Dr. Mhoze Chikowero, and hear him speak some of his own story and then also speak my own story. And that’s something that I’ve really loved because it’s now morphed into this empathetic space where people are not only spectating, but also participating. And that really means a lot to me. It makes it feel like something that’s so different from anything else I do. And I love that. 

R: Speaking of the stories, were there any of the stories we heard from the students that were their own experiences?

T: You would have to ask them. 

R: Alright. 

T: I’m like a doctor. I’d tell them that I had this client, whatever privileges, secrets. (laughter) How did you feel? I want to flip it on you. How did you feel watching the piece? And what did you feel?

R: It was powerful for sure. I liked some of the vocalizations you had. They were just like… Just to get my Italian ancestry, uh, (audibly uncomfortable), you see, the part, uh, the only part that was painful was the story about that small white boy who spit on that girl.

T: Mm-hmm.

R: That was … not fun to hear. And it just kind of made me feel bad. 

T: That’s my aunt’s story. My mom’s big sister. It was hard to listen to it. And honestly, Dawn of the Rooster is about two and a half hours long. There are darker stories. That story is just the top of the surface.

R: Oh, boy.

T: Yeah. You know, war is gruesome. And even as we perform and retell these histories, we can’t sanitize bloodshed. 

I was working with an hour [for the UCSB performance] and I knew I had to be able to tell poignant stories in a very short time. But with time and space, the audience would also have time to prepare their own souls and hearts to go deeper. There are much deeper stories. I have an uncle who witnessed killings at his school. He had never told this story, even to his wife, my aunt, who shared that story, until I went to ask him about it. They had been married for over 20 years, and she never knew that he had experienced that.

So people bury trauma very deep. But as we know, trauma is also carried on to the next generation, which is why it’s important even for me to understand the trauma my mothers and fathers went through, so I can better understand myself, so I can heal and they can heal. But, yes, I’m glad that the work touched you. And challenge you right out, as always, it always challenges us all.

R: You succeeded in that!

T: (laughter) Thank you. 

R: Yeah, there are some parts where I was sitting in the back going, Whoa! And there are some parts where I was going, whoa. Oh no.

T: A review.

R: I wasn’t surprised, but I was sad.

T: Yeah, yeah. And that’s the empathy. We need to let ourselves feel that, you know, so that when people are having these discussions again, it’s so. I read somewhere that, you know, our job is to live with open hearts in hell as human beings.

R: That’s a good quote.

T: Yeah. It’s easy, you know, to close off because we feel threatened, accused, judged, and be defensive, but it’s hard to walk through the world with arms and heart wide open and really listen and really receive. So that’s my job too, is to also be able to share these stories with an open heart on my end. It’s not anger that drives me, but really a desire to heal. We as humanity, we need to heal. And I feel like hopefully this kind of space, this kind of experience can open us up to that kind of personal healing work.

R: I hope so too.

T: Mm-hmm.

R: We’re coming up on time. Is there anything else you’d like to say? 

T: Thank you.

R: Thank you. 

T: [to Mhoze] What would you like to say about the Mbira? 

M: I should ask Ryan.

R: Sure. 

M: If you should think we should maybe run courses and seminars. Where text like that dovetails into performances towards the end of the quarter. Cross-departments. Well, what do you think of that idea? 

R: I think if you do that right. If it works, it would really be powerful. Because this is a powerful performance on its own, without that background.

T: Thank you. Yeah, let’s do it.

M: Yeah. So that’s what we’re looking at.

R: You got two thumbs up for me. If you happen to be in a classroom with Dr. Mhoze, you might hear this performance again.

M: Yes. Yes. Yes. Tanyaradzwa has been here twice. So the last time she was here, to quote elements of this to my students, she was also here to kind of fundraise for people who had fallen by a cyclone, in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, and she’s been bringing the community to work around that. So she’s very much involved with UCSB. 

T: Also, before the concert today, I sang at Dr. Chikowero’s son’s school.

M: Yes, yes, yes. 

T: So I was seeing four more babies. How old were they? 

M: Five year olds.

T: Five year olds! I did a little concert for them first. It was amazing! It was my second time. So I definitely feel connected to the Santa Barbara community. 

R:  That’s the best audience. 

T: Yes! They sent me positive vibes, y’all. Like, they made me sit on a chair and then they all stretched their hands out and sent me positive vibes. It was the most magical thing I experienced in my life. Little five year old positive vibes. It was amazing. 

R: I feel so envious.

T: (laughter) I’ll send you some. 

R: Thank you. I feel blessed here.

T: Yeah, me too. Well, thank you for having us. 

M: Thanks so much for having us.

R: Thanks for being here! To those of you listening [reading], I hope you get some positive vibes right now.

Posted in Interviews