ZIMBABWE: The Exorcism of a Spinster - Hope Masike
Breaking through boundaries in multiple senses, the Zimbabwean musician and singer shines a light on feminist issues in her native country
Whatever else you may think about Hope Masike’s 2019 album, it is undeniable that it has a very mysterious and evocative title. This, combined with the album art which depicts Masike in traditional dress on a plain black background, makes one very curious about the music inside, and indeed what exactly is The Exorcism of a Spinster. It turns out that the events implied by the title are something that occurs in Zimbabwe, albeit rarely. As Masike herself explains on worldmusic.net, Zimbabwe is a country where Christianity and traditional beliefs have melded, and many women who are unmarried by their 30’s are believed to have “spiritual husbands”, which need to be removed. This can be by natural remedies applied to tattoos, consultation with spiritual leaders, or in more extreme cases the exorcisms of the title. Masike stated that by the time of her mid 30’s many people in her family were worried about her unmarried status, and though she was never subjected to these treatments, she heard whispers in the family of a curse that explained her uninterest in marriage. As such, The Exorcism of a Spinster is a record that deals with a changing Zimbabwe, one where more women than ever before choose not to get married young, are able to get educated, challenge patriarchal roles and assumptions, and fight for women’s rights.
“Masike continues in the line of African feminist musician trailblazers like the previously reviewed Angélique Kidjo, by using her music not only to entertain, but to try and change society and open minds to new ideas.”
Masike is not content to just deal with hefty topics in her music alone; her choice of instrument is itself a feminist statement. Masike plays the mbira, occasionally known as a thumb piano due to the fact one plays its metal tines with one’s thumb but the sound is closer to that of a glockenspiel, an instrument native to the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Mbira playing has been historically dominated by men, perhaps the most famous of which is the Lion of Zimbabwe himself, Thomas Mapfumo, and Masike was able to break the mould. Masike’s renown is such that she has become known as the Princess of the Mbira, and her mastery of this instrument is on display on this album. The opening track, Gomba, starts with the sound of the mbira, and this has another subtle meaning, as in Shona culture, the mbira is associated with healing and religious ceremonies, and as such it could be a subversive dig at the use of mbira at a potential exorcism, but also it could be seen as Masike herself reclaiming that association; the album itself is an act of healing and growth by breaking societal barriers for women in Zimbabwe.
What is good about the album is that for all its lofty ideals, it delivers on being a good, enjoyable, eminently listenable album, if not an album that keeps me going back to it incessantly. I would struggle to hum any of the tunes after listening, but nonetheless I like all the songs, and it is very consistent, and equally I would struggle to name one I thought was worse than the others. That said, I think Idenga, the second track, is probably the best song on the album, with a strong beat and chorus, one that stays true to her Zimbabwean roots, but sounds modern and fresh at the same time, and this is a musical theme throughout the album. Because of the prominence of the mbira and the choral backing vocals, it sounds very traditional at points, but there is also an element of pop music in the mix, which once again shows Masike's desire to take her culture into a new dimension.
I do also like the opening track, which focuses on the mbira and Masike’s vocals give it an almost lullaby quality. There is also a wonderfully hopeful sound to songs like Dreams of Dande and Tonanaira, expressed through the vocals and the slow, lilting music, but also, as I was later to find out, through the lyrics as well. Masike explains that both contain a theme of “yearning and optimism”, with Dreams of Dande translating to “dreams of a better place” and Tonanaira sings of the desire to overcome the disastrous governance and cruel leaders that have plagued Zimbabwe for decades. It is a testament to her musicianship that I was able to pick up on these notes of hope without understanding the lyrics. Masike has created an album that manages to convey the emotions she is aiming to project, and while the cultural context is evidently less obvious for someone who is not familiar with Zimbabwean society, it has been fascinating to learn about. Masike continues in the line of African feminist musician trailblazers like the previously reviewed Angélique Kidjo, by using her music not only to entertain, but to try and change society and open minds to new ideas. And that, I think, is a laudable aim.
All quotes taken from this article on worldmusic.net, where Masike explains some of the context around the album.