Tendai Maraire was born into music. As a kid, year after year, Maraire performed at Folklife alongside his sister Chiwoniso in their father Dumisani’s family band. Dumisani was one of the first African musicians to bring marimba—a type of wooden xylophone—and mbira—a metal-tined thumb piano—to the US in the ’70s. Maraire has been involved in Seattle’s hip-hop community almost as long as its African music community, works at a community center teaching music to kids, and is one half of mindbending hip-hop crew Shabazz Palaces. More than most people who make the claim, music is in Maraire’s blood.
Wona Baba Maraire, his brand-new solo album, is earthy, ethereal, uplifting. Maraire interprets traditional Zimbabwean Shona music; Shona is the name of Zimbabwe’s indigenous ethnic community, whose musical traditions stretch back thousands of years. It’s reminiscent of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in its swelling vocal harmonies and Konono No. 1 in its buzzy, jewel-toned mbira melodies. (Shabazz fans will recognize the mbira from tracks like “Blastit.”) Pared down to four- and five-minute songs, Wona captures a Western, pop-like accessibility. But this stuff originates in a culture that thinks about and uses music intrinsically, in ceremony, as communication, as well as for entertainment. There’s a substantive, lived-in joy here similar to the type found in blues, roots reggae, and gospel.
Maraire plays most of the instruments—mbira, hand percussion, shakers. He sings lead vocals, backed by his mom, cousin, and fiance. He arranged and produced the album and released it himself. He sings in English on the love parable “Luchea,” pleads “please, please, please!” on the impassioned “Nyoka,” and Autotunes his voice on the English sung “is she.” But mostly he sings in Shona on these songs of familial and territorial pride, love, and respect. Which feels right.
“We use words to communicate, but music communicates itself,” Maraire says. “That is the langauge. The truth about music is how it makes you feel.”
You can buy Wona Baba Maraire at Maraire’s website.