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25 years of ministering through music: A tale of Katawa Singers

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They started as a church project fundraising music group in the late 80s. Little did they know that they were setting themselves on a journey which would later turn them into a household name.

Such was a humble beginning of the legendary gospel music group the Katawa Singers of the Church for Central African Presbytery (CCAP) in Mzuzu.

Katawa Gospel singers have with time earned for themselves not only a good legacy but are also a practical example of the few music groups in the country that have survived the times without paving way for fame and money to cloud their heads and ending up disbanded.

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Auden Nthala, 46, is one of the only three founding members who are still singing in the choir.

He recounts the 25- year old journey not with so much precision though but still gives a vivid picture of what it has been like to be part of the success story.

The other two veteran members are Thomas Lupeska and Kenan Munthali.

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“We were just young boys and girls in our teens and early twenties trying to fulfill our role as the youth of the church, under the guidance of our then Reverend Professor Sibande, and we organised ourselves into a music group of fifteen and started calling for festivals in order to raise money for the church project then,” Reminisces Nthala.

He said even after completion of the church project it was no secret that that the group was destined for greater heights. They won hearts of many religious groups and churches that in turn started inviting them for performances.

After gaining spotlight the group went into studio to record their debut album titled Ambuye Ndibwera at the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Studio in 1991. The album took the gospel music scene by storm with hits such as ‘Welawelako’ and ‘Nganganga’ topping the music charts on the then sole broadcaster.

The messages in the songs bordered on encouraging Christians to stand firm in the word of God by not succumbing to the worldly pleasure.

According to Nthala after Ambuye Ndibwera, the celebrated choral group released four subsequent albums which were equally successful, however he was quick to mention that their sixth project Tiyimbire Yesu was what convinced the music fraternity in the country that their gospel music had come to stay.

With hits like ‘Ndimvereni,’ and ‘Para kuli Mpingo Tikauone,’ the album raked in thousands of Kwachas from audio sales and live performances.

The success of the album was just the beginning of great things ahead, the group earned recognition not just locally but also on the international front where they were invited to perform in music festivals and competitions.

In this part of Africa, Katawa Singers have courted Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and most recently Kenya where they performed in 2013. In those countries recording deals were also struck. For instance their maiden music video was shot at Lundazi Studios in Zambia.

The group was one of the pioneer winners of the MBC’S Entertainer of the Year Awards which they won twice. In 1998 the band participated in the Malawi Gin Music competition where they came third.

In 2014 the group was accorded a Legend’s Award during MBC’s 50 years’ celebration of broadcasting.

For every Malawian who has lived to appreciate the evolution of music in the country and gospel music in particular it is no secret that Katawa Gospel Singers have for the many years of their existence been the trend and pacesetters for choral music in the country.

When asked on what remains their greatest achievement in their 25 years of music ministry, Nthala said as a group they pioneered the use of musical instruments in church which during those days was regarded as unbiblical and secular.

“We were the first group to play electric musical instruments in church, a move which opened a new chapter in gospel music. We re-defined music revival; we initiated the departure from a conservative way of worship. So it is something that makes every person who has been part of Katawa Singers really proud,” Nthala narrated.

Adding: “We made people realise that a church is not a somber place but rather it should be a place of celebration because it grants people a rare opportunity of fellowshipping with their lord Jesus Christ.”

He also mentioned that the birth of Hena Katawa Music Studios in 2008 is a milestone that cannot go uncounted for. It was in the same year that the celebrated group released its first DVD in a quest to remain relevant as the world fast went digital.

“Through Hena Katawa Studios we have worked with various artists like Masudie Khonje and Dyton Mbewe where apart from music production we do cover designs, marketing and distribution among others,” Nthala revealed.

Till today gospel music groups are emerging with most of them attempting to mimic Katawa’s unique style but there still is an exceptional flair associated with the group that distinguishes them from the rest.

With ten albums to their credit the group prides in producing famed gospel artists like Eliza Kachali Kaunda who played backing vocals for iconic musician Lucius Banda for over a decade, Reverend Peter Mshanga and Thocc Katimba the ‘Anaphiri’ hitmaker just to mention a few.

With so much success to their name one is left with no choice but to wonder what keeps the iconic group intact and strong.

When asked the secret on how they have coped with the fame and celebrity status, Nthala missed no word saying it all hinges on three main pillars that are self-discipline, obedience and fear for the Lord.

“You see during those days the main drive for playing gospel music was to spread the word of God and win souls to Christ, as such the Bible was the major guide book for each and every choir member, personal discipline, obedience and fear of God were emphasised. We trained each never to be carried away by popularity because we treat our music as a calling,” he explained.

Adding: “I will tell you that most of our members have grown up into responsible Christians with descent families all because we emphasised on discipline. Through thick and thin as matter of principle none of us ever departed from values of the church and Christianity.”

Meanwhile in celebration of their silver jubilee the iconic group is in the studio recording its 11th album whose release will be preceded by mega live shows across the country.

The first show is slated for November 1 this year in Mzuzu before proceeding to Lilongwe and Blantyre before the official launch of the album is done in December.

On their 11th project the group is expected to feature some of its former members like Eliza Kachali Kaunda and others who are within the country.

The group continues to enjoy financial support from a Mr. Mkhalabweka Kaunda, Allen Mtambo and AP Banda of Karonga.

After all is said and done and looking back at the 25 years it is no secret that it was a journey worth embarking on.

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