US: World-renowned musician and performing artist brings Zimbabwe to Boulder

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By Boulder Weekly

UNITED STATES: When Julia Chigamba takes the stage at Boulder’s eTown Hall this week, she’ll bring generations of experience with her.

The founder and director of the Chinyakare Ensemble — an Oakland, California-based collective of musicians, performers and teachers of Zimbabwean music and dance — comes from a long line of influential artists dedicated to preserving and sharing cultural traditions of the Shona people.

“There was no choice [but] to be into this music and traditional dance,” she says. “My mom, my dad, my grandparents — they grew up playing music and holding ceremonies for communities and families, and for ourselves too. … It was food and drink and blankets for us in our family. It’s who we are.”

Julia Chigamba

In addition to that deeply rooted connection to the culture of her ancestors, Chigamba performed with the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe before moving to the United States in 1999. In the decades since, she has regaled audiences across the world with the traditional dance and music of Zimbabwe and Southern Africa — including a visit to Boulder 15 years ago for a residency at Kutandara Studios, founded in 1999 by local Zimbabwean music champions Amy and Randy McIntosh.

“This concert in some ways is a homecoming for Julia,” says Kutandara Executive Director Amy McIntosh. “It’s a chance [for her] to reunite with the Boulder community and bring that flavor of traditional drumming and dance to the work we already do here.”

For the married team behind the long-running studio, the benefits of that work go beyond the simple musicality of an artform that has taken root here in Boulder through studios like Kutandara and learning institutions like Naropa University. Built on a collection of percussive instruments like mbira, ngoma, marimbas and chipendani, the music also brings people together — no small detail as the world continues to reemerge from a cocoon of quarantine and social distancing.

“One fun thing about the music of Zimbabwe is that many people can play xylophone-like instruments [simultaneously],” Randy McIntosh says. “And so it’s a rigorous workout, but it’s also social and can give you spiritual meaning all at the same time.”

When it comes to sharing that meaning with others, Chigamba’s latest stint in Boulder included three days of leading classes in traditional Zimbabwean dance for all experience levels at The Spark and Streetside Dance Studios. But the main event takes place during a special upcoming performance benefiting Kutandara’s Moon & Stars Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to fostering connection through group percussion.

“I want [the audience] to experience the power of community, when people work together and rise together,” Chigamba says. “This music is powerful and it brings people together. Maybe it can influence them to be part of it. In that way, the music grows like a spider web.”