5 Questions to Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa (Castle of our Skins Creative-in-Residence)

Castle of our Skins, a music initiative in Boston focusing on Black artistry through music, recently announced its inaugural winner of the Shirley Graham Du Bois Creative-in-Residence program: Tanyaradzwa Tawenga. The residency, generously funded by Arlene and Larry Dunn, fosters new creative work(s), a new production for Castle of our Skins, and several thought pieces on their Beauty in Black Artistry (BIBA) Blog. Tawengwa, a composer, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and scholar, combines classical Zimbabwean music with Western classical music to create a unique brand of cross-pollinated, hybrid music.

First of all, congratulations on the residency! What are your plans for your new creative work(s)?

Thank you. I am very grateful to hold this position, and I am excited for the year ahead. My goals for this residency are to share my most current creative voice with honesty, vulnerability and integrity; to collaborate with other Black artists and to mentor emerging Black student-creators by sharing this platform with them.

How do you combine seemingly disparate styles of music in your eyes? How would you describe your own music?

My music is who I am, and it tells the story of how I came to be.

I come from a region known geo-spiritually as Madzimbabwe and geo-politically as Zimbabwe. Prior to our independence in 1980, we endured over 150 years of a racist, capitalist, expansionist, white supremacist, Christian missionary, colonial agenda that sought to break our backs and spirits. Many wars were fought to expel colonial forces, and it was during the Second Chimurenga of 1965-1980, that political independence was finally won for Zimbabweans.

In Zimbabwe, I am part of a generation known as the Born-Free generation, i.e. those born after our country’s political independence in 1980. Colonialism was a non-consensual, violently transformative encounter that produced unintended consequences. The colonial mandate was to create dehumanized Black subjects who would strive to attain proximity to whiteness for their survival (i.e. Apartheid). As a result, education was in English, and various Anglicisms took hold in cultural practice.

It is in this way that I came to exist as a composer. I am culturally, spiritually, and musically multilingual. I grew up moving seamlessly between my ancestral Chivanhu spiritual practices and Christian missionary education. I learned our Chivanhu music instruments while also studying piano and cello from a young age. I speak five languages, and each one allows me to express myself in different ways.

The ability I have to exist in both African-centered and European-centered epistemologies, spiritual practices, and cultural practices is the unintended consequence of coloniality. In more direct terms, colonialism was an act of rape between Europe and Africa, and we Born-Frees are the unintended children of that encounter.

This is how I bridge the seemingly disparate worlds of Western classical music and Chivanhu classical music. It is not something I intended or sought out to do–rather, I was involuntarily, born into it. That said, I recognize the unique creative point of view I hold as a result of this history. My father always told me, “The tales of the hunt will glorify the hunter, until the lioness learns to write.”

What does “Beauty in Black Artistry” mean to you, and how might you approach the thought pieces for the BIBA Blog?

Beauty in Black Artistry means centering Black voices, bodies, narratives, and perspectives. As an artist-scholar working at the intersection of music and healing, I am excited to curate pieces for the blog that center us as Black artists. And I use the word “center” in all meanings, i.e. to ground oneself spiritually and to prioritize.

Castle of our Skins does a lot of collaborative programming in the community. How do you envision your work contributing to this ethos?

Mushandirapamwe ​is a Madzimbabwe philosophy that means collective co-operation.

In 1972, my grandfather, George Chirume Tawengwa, built the Mushandirapamwe Hotel in Highfield, Harare (then known as Salisbury). The opening of this space was unprecedented–Sekuru George was a Black man living under white colonial rule, yet he created a business empire worth millions and built this prolific hotel in the Blacks-only township of Highfield.

This space was dedicated to the people of Southern Africa and their struggle for liberation. The hotel was home to many political revolutionaries, freedom fighters, and prominent Black artists from all over the African continent, such as Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, Thomas “Mukanya” Mapfumo, and Bakithi Kumalo.

I mention this to share that collaboration is not only part of my ethos, it is part of my very DNA. (I am the founder and artistic director of a vocal ensemble called the Mushandirapamwe Singers.) The Black nationalist movement of the 1950-1990s also taught us firsthand the power of artistic collaboration. This was the time of iconic artists like Miriam Makeba Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, Walter Rodney, James Baldwin, and many more, who upheld the ethos of collaborative Pan-Africanism in their creative work and activism​.

Castle of our Skins feels like such an incredible artistic home for me because of their collaborative programming. Collaboration is an incredibly enriching experience, and I am always excited to work with others.

Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa--Photo courtesy of the artist

Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa–Photo courtesy of the artist

How do you see your residency changing the landscape of the Boston music scene by the end of your tenure?

Wow! That is a BIG question.

What I hope to offer to the Boston music scene is a spotlight and a bridge.

Creatives are always creating, but not everyone has access to a platform. Right now, we are in the midst of a reckoning and awakening regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, and restorative justice in both classical music and the creative industry at large. During my tenure, my intention is to serve this mission by using my platform to shine the spotlight on those who have been systematically and systemically excluded. As an immigrant/expatriate, I am interested in listening to the voices of Boston’s African immigrant and African diasporic communities and bringing these community’s voices to the stage.

As I mentioned earlier, my composer-voice bridges ​seemingly​ disparate worlds together. I hope to serve the Boston creative community in this way, as well. Creativity is such a beautiful way to bring people together, and I hope that one result of my tenure will be for those in the Boston music scene to make new friendships and collaborations with folks they may not have otherwise connected with.

I hope to make new friends myself! As an immigrant/expatriate from the other side of the world, I take great joy in building meaningful friendships in new places. Please feel free to write to me during the course of my tenure. I am committed to being accessible to the community, especially to young, Black student creatives and scholars in need of mentorship. My email is ​[email protected]​.