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Stella Chiweshe, Susana Baca, and Tish Hinojosa Perform in Global Divas Tour

Concert Review: Stella Chiweshe, Susana Baca, and Tish Hinojosa Perform in Global Divas Tour.

A fabulous diversity of cultures was represented by the Global Divas tour--the first in a series of annual multicultural tours of women artists organized by International Music Network, of Gloucester, MA, US. Three well-known performers from Zimbabwe, Peru, and the Texas-Mexico border--and their all-male and virtually all-acoustic backup bands--joined forces on stage at the University of Massachusetts.

Stella Chiweshe, Susana Baca, and Tish Hinojosa represent three very different traditions. Chiweshe is a product of traditional Zimbabwean society, a place where western influence doesn't easily penetrate--and where it is not typical for women to take a front-center role. As a girl, Chiweshe had to work hard to find a teacher to show her how to play the mbira, a traditional Zimbabwean finger piano often used in sacred music. She had to borrow an instrument to make her first recording, in 1974. But in the years since then, she has established herself as a major exponent of traditional Shona music.

The music she played is very different from the much more well-known (to Western ears) Zulu and Xosha sounds of urban South Africa. Though the two countries are neighbors, the music Chiweshe plays is more reminiscent of the griot music of West Africa, some 2700 miles to the north. The mbira has a lilt to it, a softness--almost like a harpsichord, but with much more of a beat.

The first number, Omazarua, featured her powerful percussionists. Most of the rest of the set was a long medley featuring the mbira, smoothly segueing from one piece to another. the themes, as translated in the program, included calling an ancestor's spirit down,, welcoming back hunters and warriors, and dealing with unhappy spirits.

For me, the most exciting part of the evening was Susana Baca. Peruvian music has a wide range of styles. Much of what's been exported to North America is from heavily Indian-influenced groups, with extensive use of flute and panpipes, small guitar-like airy, breathy, high-altitude, rural sound.

Baca's style was completely different: building on the traditions of the African-Peruvian community in Lima, the capital city--excited, urban, percussive; no wind instruments at all Listening to her jazz-tinged Afro-Peruvian set, I imagined myself in a smoky beachfront nightclub in Havana, sometime around 1954. So I was amused when I found a quote from Yale Evelev, president of David Byrne's Luaka Bop records (which has recorded Baca on a collection called "The Soul of Black Peru"): "Peruvians are proud that when they play in Cuba, the Cuban percussionists have trouble following their rhythms.

Baca's vocals were strong, high, and clear, her stage presence was impressive, and her band had true chemistry. Clearly, they have worked together long enough to anticipate each other, play off the other instruments, and create the magic of a truly great performance. Flamenco-inspired guitar work by Rafael Muñoz Loredo, very creative acoustic bass--Baca calls it the most important instrument in Peruvian music--by David Pinto Pinedo, and percussion by Hugo Bravo S´anchez and Juan Medrano Cotito--the later on an unusual instrument called the cajita ("little box"). This looked like a small wooden box. Cotito opened and closed the box with one hand, and struck the side with the other. All of them seemed to enjoy themselves a great deal.

The standout song, for me, was Tonuda de la Luna, by Venezuelan songwriter Simo´n Diaz, which started with the bass and percussion combining to produce a sound almost like a rainstorm. Then Baca joined in with a sultry, passionate vocal, full of mystery. Her set also included several traditional songs from Lima's black community, as well as songs by poets Nicol´as Festejo and Cesar Calso. The audience enthusiastically clapped out the rhythms, once encouraged by the band, on "No Valent´in."

The set's final number was an exuberant, high-speed tune, which Baca used to show off her band's soloing skills.

Hinojosa's roots are along the Rio Grande--the river that runs between Texas and Mexico. Her music is an eclectic mix, sung in both English and Spanish, of Mexican and American heartland music. Plenty of country and folk influences, and of course, accordion and keyboards along with the strings--the button box was especially featured on a hot polka, "Con Su Pluma en Su Mano" (With a Pen in His Hand), a tribute to an 85-year-old songwriter from the order area.

Her set included the evening's most overtly political song: "Something in the Rain," a bitter commentary on the environmental hazards farmworkers are exposed to. her voice is thinner than either of the other two Diva's--not quite to the level of, say, Stevie Nicks, but a bit reminiscent of singers like Emmylou Harris.

She was a big crowd pleaser, and her set was marked by enthusiastic whoops and hollers from the audience. Her gift for haunting lyrics was well-displayed--for instance, these, from her set-closer, "God's Own Open Road":

"I remember one moment/the book of happiness opened/Then your eyes tell the story/like words burned upon a page...
dancing barefoot on the soft earth/touching edges of a dream."

Following Hinojosa's set, all 12 musicians came out for a finale, dancing to each other's music, interacting in every manner conceivable, and reaping the reward of an ovation from the crowd.

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