BAF ARTIST SPOTLIGHT - Millicent Chapanda

We finally got the chance to quiz artist Millicent Chapanda on her life as a musician, mother and more. Read the transcript below to delve into her inspirations and words of encouragement for other artists.

How/What started your interest in music/Mbira?

Growing up in Zimbabwe I was constantly surrounded by music and the day was never complete without it. All social gatherings were immersed with vibrant sounds and creativity.

Learning the coloniser's language was mandatory and spelling games using song would help us to remember the difficult foreign words compared to the native Shona vernacular language. 

Coming to the UK I found there was a huge gap and disconnection among the diasporian community and more so among the Zimbabweans. I viewed this syndrome as a form of identity crisis stemming from educational indoctrination. The diaspora and even those still at home are disdainful of traditional music and instruments, having largely assimilated the culture of the settlers who came to Zimbabwe.  As a mother, an artist, musician and cultural leader, I did not want my daughter to feel lost or lose her identity. Hence, I felt it was my duty to learn more, to teach and perform, all the while raising awareness of our culture and traditional  music. I chose to pick up the baton from those whom we revere, to uphold, share and keep our traditional music and culture alive through music. 

When and why did you start playing and singing?

I started playing and singing professionally in 1999 when I joined Batanai Marimba, a pan African band, and World Music Makers delivering workshops in educational institutions and building awareness of our cultural heritage.

I would say identity and heritage are an integral part that informs my work. Mbira music grounds me it’s the rhythm of my life without it I’m lost.  It is my identity.


Which instruments do you play?  What was your first instrument?

 I am a percussionist playing the hosho-shakers, ngona-drums, and the mbira (a lamellaphone, It consists of a wooden board with attached staggered metal tines, played by holding the instrument in the hands and plucking the tines with the thumbs, the right forefinger)


What was the first melody you learned/played/performed?

The first melody I learned and performed was Karigamombe, which is the first song any one aspiring to play the mbira learns. Kariga Mombe means to achieve. Once one knows this melody others become easier to understand. The mbira structure, its interwoven melodies and sound are different to the western scale. 

Is your family musical?  If yes, who in your family is your biggest inspiration?

Surprisingly none of my family are musical, however, my daughter is a multi-instrumentalist who is also classically trained, plays the traditional mbira and other instruments like the violin, piano, acoustic guitar and recorder. 


Who was your first music teacher? Other teachers that have supported/influenced you?

 My first music teacher in primary school was Mrs Robertson who taught us the weekly half-hour singing sessions. 

I consider myself very lucky to have learned from Chartwell, the mbira maestro, who is not only my mentor, he surely is a living legend, an incredible inspiration who continues to patiently educate and elevate. He is a knowledgeable leader full of wisdom rooted in our culture and tradition. He empowers women to play mbira, demystifying all the stigma around female mbira players.


Which famous musicians do you admire? Why?

I admire Mbuya Stella Chiweshe who has earned herself the title of Mbira Queen. She started playing mbira and popularised mbira female players during a time when female musicians were considered of loose moral and the playing of mbira was considered to be uncivilised or demonised. Chartwell Dutiro is a maestro mbira player who popularised the adption of mbira sound to the  western instruments while playing with the renowned Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited during the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe. Chartwell Dutiro is a singer-songwriter, lecturer, author and has toured the world over. He has demystified the mbira and made it acceptable among other western instruments. The Late Oliver Mtukudzi who had 66 albums with his signature music called Tuku music that one can make a living through what you love and he always said: “Purpose of song is to give life and hope speak to the heart, heal the broken hearted”.

“Remind yourself that this moment will never come again, enjoy and just be yourself.”    

What did you learn from these famous musicians?  How has this influenced you/your singing/playing?

I have learned that one should do what they love, have humility, be confident, while remaining mindful not to become arrogant when success eventually comes. That in performance accord each event with the same importance, giving your all, regardless of the number of people in attendance. The key is to maintain consistency, determination, persistence and perseverance, to never stop learning, stay relevant, retain self-belief, to not compromise on identity and respect for other musicians and genres. 


Has your musical taste changed over the years or have your favourite genres of music stayed the same?  Is there a genre you can't stand/don’t listen to?

 My musical taste has not changed that much. If anything it has expanded and enriched and I love all music genres as each has its uniqueness that touches and inspires me in different ways.

What are your fondest musical memories? In your house? In your city or journey?

 Social gatherings such as weddings, church events, funerals that are always full of song, laughter, creativity, collectivity, accommodating, everyone, uninhibited, raw talent, dance, of happiness, consoling celebrating a life, giving hope and life lessons.


Were you influenced by old records & tapes? Which ones?

Thomas Mapfumo, Mbuya Bueular Dyoko, Dorothy Masuka, Miriam Makeba, Benda Fasie, Hugh Masekela, Dolly Parton, Don Williams, Nina Simone, Nat King Cole, Tracy Chapman, Bob Marley (many of whom are deceased now)

You do a lot of public performances - how is that for you?  Do you (still) get nervous before a performance?  Is it different nerves for playing your instrument than for singing?

 Yes. I always get nervous and adrenalin sets in at most performances. If I do not I would be worried as it may mean I am too comfortable and overconfident. Yes, it is different playing mbira instrument as I can play for hours on end hanging onto a note and letting it transport you to various places. 

What advice would you give to musicians who are nervous/just starting out?

  I always find that breathing deeply and focusing on that one person in the audience makes me feel comfortable and imagining I am in the comfort of my lounge. Remind yourself that this moment will never come again, enjoy and just be yourself.

How often and for how long do you practice?

 As often as I can at least from even as little as 10 mins a day on a very busy day 


What is your proudest accomplishment in your life/music?

 When I was invited to Winsor Castle for dinner in 2004 along with other cultural leaders for recognition of contribution to the Arts. Also for receiving the Slough Mayor's Award for contribution to the arts in 2002. 


What’s your favourite song/piece of music?  Your favourite composition?



Is there an artist you want to work with that you have not yet had the opportunity to work with?

 Mbuya Stela Chiweshe

What is your favourite thing about working in music? Your least favourite? Why?

 Just doing what I love, sharing aspects of my rich cultural tradition and music onto world stage and getting paid for it. Travelling and seeing different places and diverse people. I hate the fact that there is still not much respect for this industry in general, which is sometimes reflected in the low remuneration. it goes to prove the lack of respect for the industry and more so female musicians. Also when I have to travel long distances for back to back work/performance, with very little rest in between. These are the hazards of the trade, though.

Which and where is your favourite performance venue/space? Why?

 Centrala. It is a beautiful space that allows an intimate performance with the audience. The ambiance and acoustics should be great as most engineers find it very difficult to mic or get the right sound out of the mbira with its shells that add potent resonance that is peculiar part of the mbira music and that gives it its mystical uniqueness.


How do you balance your music with other obligations - partner, children, other work?

It was a struggle when my daughter was much younger, during term time in particular. However, at weekends and on holidays she enjoyed coming along as she always loved to perform, giving her a chance to put theory in practice (which can never be learnt from a text book). The learning by ear and improvisation combined with what she learned at school as a classical musician and enhanced her musical prowess. This was the best-lived experience I gave her as she grew in confidence, enhancing her artistry and understanding of music industry practices.  


If you weren't in music, what would you be doing?

Travel industry which is what I did and trained in too


What do you like to do for fun outside of working on music?

Spending quality time with the family, reading, going to the theatre and visiting art exhibitions.


The music circle in Birmingham is pretty special and you’re a unique component of that. Does that make you feel special?

 I feel very humbled and honoured to be accepted and a part of the music circle. I do not feel I am special at all as it is by Gods grace.

Where would you most like to play that you haven’t yet?

 THSH main stage, Reps Theatre, Birmingham Hippodrome. 

What can we look forward to hearing from/about Millicent Chapanda in the next few years?

More good music for the souls.

What thought/message do you want to share with fellow artists/musicians here in Birmingham, the UK?

 As musicians and artists that we support each other and that collaboration can better us, opening new opportunities to reach new audiences. The music industry has been casualised is in a constant state of flux and as musicians we are faced with the constant underlying factor of evolving growth and development. When an opportunity presents itself I try and get on with it – learning never stops as long as were alive. Collaborations are healthy as this fusion of instruments and genres brings together different communities at the same time as an artist it enriches my repertoire, which means I have to be able to work from different income streams

We look forward to hearing more soulful music from Millicent soon. If you know anyone you think should be one of our Artist Spotlight features, contact us at!