How Chanco CSO Choir founded a music genre
By Yokoniya Chilanga, contributor:
In 2003, the Malawi Catholic Church and Malawi as a whole was surprised when college students formed a choir and released an album that became an instant success.
The album was titled Paulendo Wanga and carried a Christ-centred Pauline theology with a classical edge and lyrical depth that appealed to people of Christian religion denominations. The second album was Mundilengere Mtima and came out 2006. The group further established itself to release other albums like Munthawi Yake in 2009 and Tithawire kwa Chauta in 2014.
Now, the group has evolved into the Alumni Choir, which was formed at the inspiration of the late Archbishop Tarcisius Ziyaye of Lilongwe Archdiocese of the Catholic Church. The alumni choir further evolved into different chapters (Central Region and Southern Region), yet one.
The Alumni Choir (Central Chapter) released its first album titled Pemphero Langa in 2018. The Covid pandemic disturbed its plans. And it is back with two album projects Musamade Nkhawa and Mulungu Adzatiyankha to be launched on April 30 this year in Lilongwe. So far, Musamade Nkhawa album has been released on the market.
In this article, I am reflecting on some of the factors that may have led to the founding of the group’s unique Catholic music genre. I suggest that it is some of these factors that contributed to the formation of the genre that continues to have influence even today.
First, it could be the intellectual atmosphere in the college. The various study disciplines, interactions, and intellectual culture fostered a culture of creativity and helped the students to be exposed to diverse avenues of thought which enabled them to invent mature music. The students were also exposed to the sciences. That made them to approach music as a science.
In addition, the presence of the department of the Fine and Performing arts in the Faculty of Humanities may have played a significant role in the group. Some early members of the generation of Chanco Catholic Students Organisation (CSO) were studying the Arts and some of them like Montfort Manyozo, studied music for their degree. It may therefore be said that the choir benefited a lot from the Fine and Performing Arts Department.
Secondly, the presence of the late Bishop Patrick Augustine Kalilombe. Bishop Kalilombe joined the Theology Department at Chancellor College, now University of Malawi, around the year 2000. He had returned from the United Kingdom where he was living in exile after he was forced out of the country by the one-party regime.
Kalilombe, being an internationally respected Catholic theologian, must have promoted music that was genuinely centred on the Catholic theology. It is, therefore, not surprising that most of the songs, from the very first album Paulendo Wanga, embodied a proper Catholic theology.
The other factor could be the presence of young men and women selected from minor seminaries or Catholic secondary schools. You may want to know that there is always good music made in the seminaries. The music is always a kind of a cult as it is always hidden within walls of its majestic chapels, and is protected from the world.
Further, the meeting of the male voice from the seminaries or boys Catholic secondary schools with the female voices in one choir, every gender with own egos, perhaps created a conflict in terms of finding direction which they should take in building a rhythm. The voices were each fighting for space and dominance. In the end, the two voices finally made peace in a unique harmony of symphony orchestra that became Chanco CSO Choir.
Veteran musician and producer Paul Banda and Alleluya Band, could also be seen as having an influence on the choir, especially in the authority of the guitars in creating a rhythm. The dominant presence of guitars; the electric and acoustic guitars is one of the features that distinguished the Chanco Choir.
The common tradition with Malawi Catholic choirs had been the use of the piano. For the first time, the students gave the guitars much space in the choir. The guitars were overlain with the kind traditional African drums.
The arrival of Radio Maria in 1999, which was an initiative of the Mangochi Diocese, the late Bishop Alessandro Assolari in particular, the radio had provided a great platform for the popularisation of the Catholic Church choirs which were mostly not heard and known. Radio Maria also offered great opportunities for the live recording of choirs. In fact, the Chanco CSO recorded its first song, the live version of ‘Paulendo Wanga’ at Radio Maria Studios in 2000.
Apart from the reasons mentioned above, there was also a disdaining fortune of the presence of numerous talents in one choir. The group found everything within the choir. You would find guitarists, pianists, sound engineers, composers and lyricists and producers in the names of late Peter Thanthwe Chisama, Rodrick Zalimba, Isaac Songea, Monfort Manyozo, Francis Mmame, Fred Kamwani, Angela Kachipapa, among other many talented members.
Not forgetting the support that some ardent Catholics present in the college such as Edge Kanyongolo rendered to the organisation over the years. They were like a bloodline for continuity between generations.
Lastly, it is important to appreciate that the choir was a culmination of the successive previous generations of the Chanco CSO that had attended the college since 1965, the year that the college was established.
All these generations of Catholic students that walked the corridors, and stepped into its halls and chapels may have contributed to the genre, as they left invisible voices that evolved into a genre. The work of the generation that produced Paulendo Wanga was to assemble these random voices and scattered rhythms into a genre.