Celebrating the life of Mr Jo


Belgian Jazz musician, trainer and French teacher, Johan Vanhoutte, will surely be remembered by the creative industry for his works.

A simple and humble person, Vanhoutte, who was fondly known as Mr Jo, loved music and always wanted the best for Malawi music.

The 60-year old artist died on Sunday in suspected suicide and his body will be cremated at Hindu Crematorium in Limbe before a memorial celebrating his life at Phoenix International Primary School in Blantyre.


There are songs, many songs, that people have sung at a tender age whilst in primary school and we all loved to sing them.

These were songs that were sung during music time and, in most cases, when we were knocking off.

One can recall songs such as ‘Galuyu N’wandani’, which went like:


Galuyu n’wandani?/

Wadya matenda/

Galuyu n’wandani?/

Wadya matemba?

Tim’cheke pamimba/

Ngati wadya matemba…

And, then, there was ‘Sera Sera’, and the lyrics went like: Sera, Sera/

Sera mwana wa ticha/

Ndimamukonda ‘we Sera/

Sera mwana waticha…

These songs continue to be sung in schools, although they were more popular in the past than now.

But we all were singing anyhow, without following patterns, and we could outshine each other while some learners just shouted.

But Belgian volunteer, Johan Vanhoutte, observed that, as students, “we were only singing the songs on top or, rather, scratching from the surface; hence, there was need for more.”

Vanhoutte said then that these were good songs and that these songs set up good platforms for students to learn music and, yet, there was nothing more than that.

This is why he teamed up with some people to establish Music Development Centre, a non- governmental organisation concerned with music— focusing more on music education in the country.

Vanhoutte was, until his death on Sunday, one of the board members of the organisation alongside musician and project manager Mandinda Zungu.

The Belgian jazz musician indicated that the first goal of the Music Development Centre is to help primary and secondary schools with music equipment as well as offer pieces of advice wherever possible.

“This goal can later extend to helping and producing music teachers and musicians,” he said.

Vanhoutte said Music Development Centre was all about breathing life into music in the country, putting much focus on teaching students in primary schools. It even expanded its work to sourcing music equipment for schools.

Vanhoutte played a crucial role in sourcing guitars for schools and also taught learners how to play the guitar. He also taught French.

Several students in schools such as Blantyre Girls Primary School will attest to the fact that they were trained by Vanhoutte.

“With basic equipment (instruments), teachers in primary schools can learn how to play, for instance, the guitar and pass those skills and knowledge on to children interested in learning,” the Belgian musician told The Daily Times during one of the events at Blantyre Girls Primary School.

Vanhoutte said, with a good structure and a clear plan, gifted children can be identified and stimulated in their musical talents.

Many public primary and secondary schools do not have musical equipment and this has even made things difficult, in terms of teaching music.

On top of that, there are a few teachers who have the expertise in music education.

“Music is in the national curriculum of both primary and secondary schools but there are no instruments and well informed music teachers. Even teachers in colleges don’t have the necessary equipment to train upcoming teachers in music. There is no lack of interest but there are no instruments and no learning materials,” Vanhoutte told The Daily Times.

To Vanhoutte, music was as important to adults it was important to children.

During the week, ethno-musician Waliko Makhala said he was shocked with Johan’s death, describing him as one of the most prolific jazz musicians and music education trainers.

“He was an experienced music trainer, who was conversant with the science of music and he was looking at music deeply,” Makhala said.

Makhala recalled one of the great moments he had with Johan at the International Ethnomusicologist Symposium, University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania two years ago when they had a joint performance.

Musician and teacher Malala also said he was saddened by Johan’s death.

He said he will remember Johan as a source of inspiration.

“He made me believe in the power of acoustic music. We had formed our acoustic trio called Anonymous Acoustic, with Michael Goba Chipeta. We could spend hours practicing in his house,” Malala said.

Vanhoutte, who used to play the guitar and double bass, was vibrant and also used to hold jazz concerts in Blantyre with colleagues such as Dave Montreuil.

His last concert was on March 8 at music room at St Andrews High School in Blantyre, where he performed with Guenaelle De Graaf, Swarthout, Sally Walker and Brian Mundy.

Musician Faith Mussa also said he was saddened by the death of Vanhoutte.

“It’s sad because we were planning to record together,” Mussa said.

Zungu said Vanhoutte was a friend and part of the family.

“He was always there for everyone I was always struck by his benevolence, skill, talent and the drive to charitable causes,” Zungu said.

She added that Vanhoutte was driven by the passion to do good to those around him.

“He believed in bringing out the best in the child and the adult alike. He found joy and satisfaction in simple things,” Zungu said.

She said thousands of pupils in different schools in the Southern Region, particularly Blantyre, would miss Mr Jo, who came from nowhere to make a difference in their lives with music.

“They will now have to wait a long time, maybe a lifetime, for someone like Mr Jo to come their way again,” Zungu said.

And in Zungu’s words, “whatever life or death brings, in Mr Jo we learn a life lesson to live with purpose while time allows”.

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