Newton Cheza Chozengwa, commonly addressed by his totem name “Matemai” (elephant), is a respected master musician, singer and instrument maker from Zimbabwe. A self-taught musician, he has developed his own musical style with his complex mbira arrangements and striking voice that can pierce hearts and the heavens.
Matemai was born 1952 in Mhondoro reserve, central Zimbabwe, and later moved to Dande, in the northeast to the region of the Korekore. At a young age, he was so taken with mbira music that he would constantly hear it, even when no one was playing nearby. It was also difficult for him to concentrate on his studies because he also had visions of mbira appear to him in his waking life.
Matemai has performed music professionally for over 25 years, and has released numerous recordings (under the name Newton Gwara and with his group Nheravauya) with varied arrangements from electric fusion to traditional mbira. He is adept at playing mbira as well as marimba and electric guitar. After his experience in the music industry in Zimbabwe, Matemai finally decided to refocus his music on the pure sound of the mbira. Matemai Mbira Group’s last CD “Harinamunda” was released in 2008, also with his first tour in the USA.
Today Matemai is a respected elder gwenyambira (mbira player), and is in demand to perform at mapira (spirit possession ceremonies) and is also called upon to play for powerful spirits like Ambuya Nehanda. Aside from performing music, Matemai is also an accomplished instrument maker, and has hand constructed mbiras, marimbas, electric guitars, among other things. Today his mbiras are sought out internationally by the global mbira community.
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Mbira music is an ancient music played by certain groups of Shona people who live in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. At its origin, mbira’s main function is to communicate with the spirit world, its sound opens up the space for trance-possession. During ceremonies, people are able to get advice and wisdom from their ancestors through spirit mediums. Today in Zimbabwe the mbira is still actively used in traditional ceremonies, as well as for general entertainment at concerts, or in government and other social community events.