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Malawi music in the eyes of John Lwanda

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SOUNDS OF MALAWI – The cover of the book

It has been said now and again that Malawi has immense talent in different artistic disciplines and through this talent, the country has been put on the spotlight on the international stage.

Take music for instance, there are lots of musicians who have walked their craft and toured outside the country selling Malawi and its beauty.

Names of acts such as the late Donald and Daniel Kachamba, late Mtebeti Wambali Mkandawire and Kalimba Band, among others, have raised Malawi’s profile with their exploits.

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Although the country still lags behind when it comes to supporting the creative industry, creativity has contributed immensely to development efforts.

But let us talk about music which, in this modern age, continues to trend in the country, with several young people releasing music that continues to be enjoyed by the masses.

Imagine a world without music, what kind of biosphere would it have been, surely it could have been boring. Music has come a long way and it has passed through different transitions and through his love for music, renowned writer, academician, doctor and historian John Lwanda conducted an extensive research on the craft before publishing a book titled Making Music in Malawi.

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Launched in Scotland and hosted by the Scotland-Malawi Partnership, the book is a culmination of many years of Lwanda’s research and he said the book is a ground-breaking contribution to the historical and socio-cultural significance of sounds that make and remake Malawi.

Writing in the scotsman.com, Lwanda looks at Ali Mazrui, in his 1990 book Cultural Forces in World Politics (James Currey), where he argued that culture provides lenses for perception and cognition, motives for human behaviour, criteria of evaluation, a basis for an identity, a mode of communication, a basis for stratification and the system of production and consumption and that by this time, he was well into his obsessional collection and study of Malawian music.

“I suppose I was born a musicophile, always the first to tap feet or indeed dance. My upbringing, perhaps, exacerbated and, in a way, consolidated this tendency. My dad, an Anglican primary school teacher taught music, Scottish Country dancing and could sing like NP (Nashil Pichen) Kazembe. My mum broke into gospel or hymns at the drop of an argument,” he says.

Lwanda adds that he was exposed to all sorts of African, European, and American music from the early 1950s via Radio Lusaka (CABS).

Since 1969, Lwanda, who has inspired many creatives in the country, collected Malawian music on vinyl, cassette, compact discs, video and digitally and that he has written about it since 1981.

He recalls that at some point, especially as he was driving around doing his house calls, the music consumption also became analytical.

“Time gave me the opportunity to listen to the lyrics and the messages they carried. My research covered traditional music, sacred and gospel music, jazz band music, popular music, mbumba music, afro-jazz and classical music,” he said.

He further details more information in the scotsman.com that he won a locally made Nzeru radio in a writing competition in 1968 and on arrival in Glasgow, Scotland in 1970; he was able to buy a powerful shortwave radio from John McCormack’s (Bath St, Glasgow).

“They had hire purchase terms to arriving international students on scholarships. Then on shortwave I could hear some African radio stations; (South Africa, Ghana even, briefly, in the 1970s, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation,” he says.

As a music producer, Lwanda writes that in the wake of the World Music interest, he run a small record company that issued a number of compilations and new recordings of Malawi music and that later, as a mature PhD student in history and social science, he recorded traditional, gospel and popular music on video.

“My efforts saw me meet and interact with key Malawi musicians, such as Allan Namoko, Saleta Phiri, Kasambwe Brothers, Kalambe, Kamwendo Band, Waliko Makhala, Overton Chimombo, Wyndham Chechamba, George Mbendera, Beatrice Kamwendo, Lucky Stars, the Malawi National Dance Troupe and Mount Sinai Choir,” Lwanda said.

Lwanda cites the Oral Literature Research Programme in Chileka by Moya Aliya Malamusi and Professor Gerhard Kubik as having a vast collection of field recordings in Malawi as well as from the sub-region.

He also details the recording industry in the country and beyond as well as the recording facilities which have also moved with the times and that the technological advancement of the music industry continues to impact on the sector.

The book also highlights the use of computers in making music as opposed to some of the artists who rely on playing live instruments.

In his book, Lwanda did not avoid writing about the country’s popular reggae group Black Missionaries and the legacy of Evison Matafale as the founding leader of the band.

Despite losing Matafale in 2001 and later Musamude, the group has continued the reggae mission as well as maintaining the release of Kuimba albums.

While the group has received criticism from some quarters for failing to maintain Matafale and Musamude’s styles of reggae, some have given them kudos for keeping the group alive and they still remain crowd pullers when it comes to live performances.

“We are open to criticism but it should be concrete criticism. We are thankful to Matafale and other fallen artists such as Musamude and Gift for starting this mission and we continue with this mission. We are thankful for the support,” the group’s lead vocalist Anjiru Fumulani said.

Coming back to the book, Lwanda acknowledges Robert Fumulani, father to Chizondi and Anjiru. Fumulani was a household name in the 1970s and 1980s with Likhubula River Jazz Band.

Lwanda in the book has also not left out the exploits of Lucky Stars Band, famed for the hit ‘Chinafuna Mbale’. The group, which started in the 1970s had Boniface Ndamera, Raphael Banda and Patrick Mpatula. The group was inspired by Sena traditional music.

There are more case studies in the book as regards Malawi’s music development and it includes that of Bantu Khamuladzi, MBC Band and Chichiri Queens, Michael Yekha, William Malikula, Morrison Phuka and New Scene, and Geoffrey Zigoma.

Lwanda said his collections and research have produced papers in newspapers, magazines, journals, books, and encyclopedias.

“I believe that in largely oral cultures – and Malawi is one such – music plays an important role in storing, transmitting, interpreting information, history and traditions. To understand such cultures, one needs to be able to access some of their public spheres,” he said.

Lwanda, who has starred in different festivals in the country, said in Malawi, on the authority side, music, is used in most traditional rituals and ceremonies and that it is, as everyone familiar with Malawi knows, a major staple of political rallies.

“It is used in school as well as health education. Gospel is ubiquitous and pervasive. On the other side, music is part of normal resistance to poor governance, creating Beni in colonial times and featuring significantly in post-colonial popular music. Music is, of course, a major factor in surviving lives blessed with poverty and misery; humour features greatly in Malawi music,” he said.

The veteran poet said Malawians use music to deflate sectarian and political tension and that the same tune can carry lyrics by opposing factions.

“Being oral and communal, musical lyrics in Malawi must, of necessity, be multi-layered and, if needed, ambiguous, so that both children and adults can dance communally each at their own level,” Lwanda said.

He said music has always been his first love and that Making Music in Malawi book is a testament to that love and is aimed at both the general and specialist reader.

Publisher Logos Open Culture said Making Music in Malawi is a ground-breaking contribution to the historical and socio-cultural significance of sounds that make and remake Malawi.

“This is a culmination of many years of research, Lwanda covers a staggering range of indigenous and hybrid musical genres, from sikiri to hip hop. Lwanda’s analysis stretches between rural and urban Malawi and extends to the diaspora,” Muti Phoya said.

He describes the book as an archive and mixtape of the sounds of Malawi, from the pre-colonial period to the post-colonial moment.

Ethno-musician Waliko Makhala writing on Lwanda’s book, commends him for taking his time to document information on the country’s music.

“The book has a wide range of topics. These include Jazz Bands, Gender and Popular Music in Malawi, Making Music, The Problems of Marketing, Musical Instruments, Music for Identity and Politics, Political Theatre, Mbumba, Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow, Sapota Music for Protest, Music as Prayer and Therapy, Music for Health, Well-being and Development, Music Education in Malawi; the Missions, Education, Islam and Christianity and Challenges for the Future,” Makhala said.

There is still a long way to go for Malawi music to conquer the world but strides have been made, looking back to where we come from and there are artists that are making inroads.

Names such as Patience Namadingo, Faith Mussa, Peter Mawanga, Lawi and Madalitso Band have proved through their international tours that Malawi music is beautiful.

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