The ceiling of Malawi music is rising so high that the international community is beginning to like how thing are unfolding.
Ironically, some of the songs that have made a name for Malawian artists in particular and Malawi in general were done in vernacular language.
Take, for instance, Wambali Mkandawire’s ‘Nkhujipeleka’, which was nominated for the coveted Kora award.
The Kora All Africa Music Awards, is for deserving artists from sub-Saharan Africa to be recognised and honoured for their prowess in the music industry.
The awards, which entrepreneur Ernest Adjovi founded in Benin in 1994, are named after the West African plucked chordophone— known locally there as kola.
Talking about music, Zimbabwean iconic musician Oliver Mtukudzi is on record to have said lyrics in a song mirror and express things that have already happened; meaning that music serves as a reflection of goings-on in one’s life or country.
Through music instruments, he suggested, and other add-ons that make music to be what it is, music lovers either relate to the instruments, intonation of a musician’s voice, language or para-speech [gesture, posture, focus of the eyes, among others] features.
For Kalimba Band, whose song ‘Sometimes I Wonder’ even made it to second position on BBC’s radio chart, it probably must have been the instruments and language [English] that attracted the attention of the world.
“However, you must bear in mind that language itself does not make one’s music good music. It is how one arranges instruments, projects the voice, incorporates unique instruments such as the mbira or visekese, among other things, that attracts the attention of even those who do not understand a language the musician is singing in,” veteran musician Synoden Ibu opines.
Indeed, Kalimba has a horde of English songs but only ‘Sometimes I Wonder’ thrilled the world. There must be something special in the track because, for one to love the song, they do not have to be encased by their own people or understand the language.
However, when it comes to taking Malawi music across the borders, some Malawian artists seem to prefer travelling abroad to perform before Malawians in the diaspora.
In that case, it is the artists, and not necessarily the music, that crosses the border.
Crowd-pullers Zembani Band have, for example, performed in the United Kingdom.
Soldier Lucius Banda, who founded the band, has also performed in countries such as the United States, giving Malawians there a chance to gauge for themselves how far Malawi music has come.
Others, however, the likes of Alleluia Band, fly abroad to countries such as Italy to play Malawi music before foreign audiences.
This, from all perspectives, seems like one of the best ways of selling Malawi music to foreign audiences that are not familiar with it.
Through patrons’ feedback there, the band has been moving up the ladder of quality music production, with some of its members benefitting from music scholarships as Italians help Malawi up its game in music.
The other way of ‘breaking’ the borders is, basically, by producing quality music that can be liked by foreign audiences.
A typical example is Tay Grin’s ‘Ndabwera’, which enjoyed airplay on international television channels such as Channel O and Trace.
In yet another border-breaking strategy, artists take their music beyond Malawi’s boundaries by relocating.
Take, for instance, Onesmus and Gwamba, who turned their music international by relocating to South Africa. The two have since relocated to Malawi.
This notwithstanding, their music continues to enjoy airplay in the Rainbow Nation.
It is the same case with Lawi, who has been getting better and better, with some of his music being played on television in South Africa.
All these scenarios make one wonder: Is it language, beat, composition of words or genre that attract the world’s attention?
Ugandan Sylvia Kaloli, who is based in the United Arab Emirates, said in a WhatsApp conversation that she fell in love with Giddes Chalamanda and Patience Namadingo’s mash-up medley.
“It is sweet to the ears; mostly the beat— I like it so much,” she said.
Another fan from Kenya, Mugure, said she enjoys tracks composed by some Malawian artists, even if they are in Chichewa.
Music critic Mayamiko Seyani thinks that improved quality of music and videos is attracting the attention of foreign nationals.
“As much as there are areas that can be improved, generally, Malawians are getting better, music-wise. On language, it doesn’t matter. Music is a universal language.
“However, because of cultural similarities with Zambia, for example, musicians can tap into that market just like Zambians have been doing in Malawi,” Seyani said.
One of the Malawians who have been doing their best to attract the attention of foreign audiences is Namadingo, who oscillates between Zambia and Malawi.
He has even been singing in Zambian languages in his bid to enchant music lovers.
However, like other musicians in Malawi, he may struggle to get enough airtime for his music.
Seyani has a hypothesis.
“One of the things that hamper Malawi music’s chances of making inroads abroad is the fact that, for Trace TV to play your videos, they consider issues like where more requests are coming from. Countries such as Nigeria, with its big population, always win against Malawi with just 17 million people where only a few own TV sets,” he said.
Another music commentator, Levison Msakambewa, who is also Skeffa Chimoto’s manager, believes Malawian artists can do better if they stop copying music from abroad.
“Produce unique sound, unique music and be different from any other but if we copy we lose. Remember Kalimba with that ‘Sometimes I Wonder’ song? That’s the way to go,” he said.
Msakambewa also believes that Malawian artists can do better on their own without being guided but what is needed is to have creative minds.
“The case of Kalimba; their secret was originality and uniqueness. The beat, vocals and instruments were in harmony. It was something else. All those things should work in harmony,” he said.
However, others feel that making inroads on the international scene depends on musicians and artists much as it depends on producers.
Zomba-based DJ Moda, real name Kalinga Moda, is of the view that producers have to do musicians a service.
The DJ, who has starred for Malawi Police Orchestra, wants music producers to be strict.
“Early in the days, music producers could send back artists whose work was not impressive. But, today, most of them are just going ahead with whatever they have received. They may proceed with a substandard production, which is bringing the industry into disrepute as all they are after is money,” he said.
Moda also says it could have been better if musicians in the country were sharing views on how to progress with others.
He does not include language on the list of things that would help Malawi discover its music formula.