At 34, Forward Kwenda is one of the most respected mbira performers in Zimbabwe. He was born in the rural Buhera area of Zimbabwe, an area known for its fierce resistance to colonial rulers and respect for Shona tradition. As
a young boy, Forward excelled in traditional dance and recitation of ancient poetry. At the age of 10, he began to play ngoma (drums) and hosho (gourd rattles) for his mother's gombwe (rain-making) spirit. He was given the name "Forward" because of his curiosity about many subjects, enthusiastic involvement in many activities and his singing for liberation war freedom fighters.
At 14, Forward borrowed an mbira and, with no teacher other than occaisional radio programs, began to play on his own. When he reached 16, in 1984, Kwenda moved to Zimbabwe's capital city of Harare and began to play mbira with other musicians. Within a year, he had formed his own mbira group and was making records and performing on national radio, as well as performing constantly at mapira ceremonies. During this period, he was informed by powerful rain-making spirits that he was to devote his life to playing mbira for their ceremonies. He was particularly known as a teenager for bringing the desired spirits to a ceremony by the end of the first song he played at a ceremony.
In 1985, Forward noticed that the mbira wasn't playing all the music that he heard in his head, and he began playing in his own unique complex style - much to the amazement of master mbira players two and three generations his senior. Kwenda's mbira style, considered in Shona culture to be "more ancient" because spirits prefer it, was first recorded in 1985 and 1986 by his American friend Glenn Makuna (see MBIRA tapes nos. 56, 57, 58, 143), who dubbed Kwenda "the Coltrane of mbira.". Hand-to-hand distribution of those cassettes, and others recorded later, has led to international acclaim for the virtuosity, soulfulness, and unprecedented range of melodic and rhythmic improvisation of Kwenda's playing. Meanwhile, he is in great demand in Zimbabwe, where the most ancient spirits, the makombwe, believed to be the ancestors of all mankind, prefer Kwenda's ancient style and come to earth before he can finish a single song. Kwenda claims "It's not me, my spirits just play through me," and takes no credit whatsoever for his virtuosity.
Mbira music is one of those rare combinations of sound and vibration with the objective power to change the state of performers and listeners, regardless of their thoughts on the subject - similar to ancient chants and sacred musics of other parts of the world. Forward's music is an incredible example of this. His total musical freedom reflects his personal spaciousness; this is likely part of the international appeal of his music - it is universally accessible. The soulful and bluesy sound of his personal style also makes it more familiar for some listeners new to mbira music.
Asked about his experience of playing mbira, Forward responds:
"When I pick up my mbira, I don't know what is going to happen. The music just goes by itself, taking me higher and higher until I can end up crying because the music is so much greater than a human being can understand." and "I just have to get out of the way so spirits can make my mbira play - it isn't me - I'm just amazed."
In 1997, Kwenda toured the US with Erica Azim, and recorded the Shanachie CD Svikiro: Meditations of an Mbira Master. 1n 1999, a transcendent field recording of Kwenda on a Zimbabwean mountaintop at sunset was included on Ellipsis Arts' Trance 3 CD.† †In February 2000, Kwenda performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC with Erica Azim, and they toured North America during 2000, 2001 and 2002. Forward is now based in Berkeley, California, and teaches and performs throughout the U.S. He also visits Zimbabwe to play at important ceremonies.
The MBIRA Recordings Library includes several recordings of Kwenda. Listen to his solo recordings Chakwi, Nighttime Nemakonde, and Nemakonde through the Night, among MBIRA's first digitally-recorded CD releases, which put your ears inside his deze (calabash mbira resonator).