“Christian colonizers in Zimbabwe brainwashed the Shona into believing their own music was evil,” she says. “I was born in a Christian household, so I was apprehensive about playing the mbira. But it’s been a spiritual awakening for me.” The ancestral notes she plucks from the mbila’s tines are a signature element of her neoafrosoul style—a mixture of complex african rhythms blended with jazz, soul, and latin flavors.
Piwai has never wanted to be center stage, but the packed crowds at Ashkenaz affirm that’s just where she belongs. She feels a sense of mission to bring the melodies of southern Africa to more audiences, especially now. “The music lifts people’s spirits,” she says. “It’s a little bit sad in a way that we don’t have more of it in the Bay Area. It’s either drumming or Afrobeat, usually. But I’m hoping to keep getting better and bring more of it forward.”
Piwai was surrounded by music from an early age. Her first influences include music from the Shona and Ndebele people of Zimbabwe, Suthu and Zulu tribes, and the Zimbabwean Catholic Church. She joined her first choir at the age of 10, wrote her first song at 13, and hasn’t stopped since. Piwai went on to study with renowned percussionists Yagbe Onilu and Butch Haynes, trained vocally at the Jazz School of Berkeley, and delved into the mbira – a traditional African instrument associated with profound spiritual union – with maestro Cosmas Magaya.