From the ‘outside’ of his thoughts, Monti Louis looks almost celebratory, replete with grey hair, perhaps a symbol of life well-lived.
Of course, the divide is fragrant between the energetic Louis of between 2005 and 2009 who released the ‘Usandimenye Mnzanga’ hit song during the Bingu wa Mutharika regime.
This was a song of lamentation, sang from the point of view of a United Democratic Front supporter who saw, just in the nick of time, a presidential candidate he or she voted for in the May 2004 presidential election change political colours by dumping the political party that sponsored his candidacy to form his own.
It was a theme creative writer Sam Mpasu— now deceased— well articulated in his ‘Penguin’ short story, in which one of the politically-charged characters shouts at an imaginary political leader: “You form a political party in order to get into government. You do not get into government in order to form a political party!”
When the persona was shouting in Mpasu’s short story, an energetic Louis was letting another persona deliver a message with the same punch in ‘Usandimenye Mnzanga’, a song many a music lover felt was taking a jab at Bingu.
Today, all Louis remembers is that ‘Usandimenye Mnzanga’ was one of the pieces in his Chikumbumtima music album. In it were songs such as ‘Usandimenye Mnzanga’, which music followers simply dubbed ‘Undibwezere Mavoti Anga’.
“That [‘Undibwezere Mavoti Anga’] was not even the title of the song. The title was, and remains, ‘Usandimenye Mnzanga’,” the artist said on Wednesday this week.
Other songs in the album were ‘Banja Langa Latha’, ‘Wandimenya Mnzanga’ and ‘Mukule’, among others.
But, just as his songs have faded into the background, so has Louis’ financial capacity to record a song shrunk.
“I have songs that would make a complete album. So far, I have recorded three, including ‘Galimoto Sasonkherana’. It costs K35,000 to record one song at a good recording studio. I have only recorded three because I do not have the financial resources.
“I am looking for well-wishers to finance the recording project. I am ready to record any number of songs they sponsor and include them in my upcoming album. I really need someone to give me a helping hand,” the artist says.
Initially, the goal was to turn human experiences into gold through music.
In the end, however, he found that this quest for artificial perfection has locked him into a barren world of misunderstanding and trouble.
For the main part, this is because of ‘Usandimenye Mnzanga’.
“I don’t know why I was misunderstood. What I know, though, is the fact that this misunderstanding rears its ugly face in one of my songs, ‘Usandimenye Mnzanga’, which people re-titled ‘Undibwezere Mavoti Anga’. In so doing, they turned it into a political song. But I never intended it to be a political song,” Louis says.
Louis says people’s misconceptions might have granted the ruling elite [Democratic Progressive Party that is] reason to interpret the song as the musings of a man whose temper and wisdom was tinted by partisan politics. The musician says, however, that this was contrary to his initial plan of pacification.
“It was an innocent song, ‘Usandimenye Mzanga’. When I incorporated lyrics that tell the story of a farmer who sat under a peach tree, admiring his water melons and wondering why they (water melons) did not grow in trees, all I was thinking of was an ideal world; a world where human beings live in harmony with nature, and with each other. An orderly world,” Louis says, adding.
“In this ideal world, everything is in order. That is why a peach falls from the tree but does not injure the farmer, prompting him to praise the creator for letting water melons grow on the ground while peaches do so in trees. That is why, as we read in the scriptures, God saw that everything was good in the beginning.”
That, perhaps, is the difference between working with people’s sores and their souls. As a professional cobbler, Louis has been working on people’s shoes for the better part of his adult life, straightening wayward sores, without the slightest murmur from the shoes!
Louis has been satisfied in this cobbler world; a world that represents God’s ideal world because what is created is what survives.
That, perhaps, is the folly of taking ‘ideal’ world scenarios into the world of humans— a world where what is given out may be re-interpreted, given new meaning and, in some cases, misunderstood.
“Maybe it is difficult to work with people. People interpret issues their own way, selecting only what suits them. My song (‘Usandimenye Mnzanga’) was not political at all. But people interpreted it their own way,” Louis says.
“For your information, ‘Usandimenye Mzanga’ was part of a 10-track album that included songs such as ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Banja Langa Latha’, ‘A Neighbour’. The issues addressed in this album are not political; rather, I am addressing a number of issues that hinge on humans. I was talking of love,” Louis says.
The soft-spoken artist perfected his art at Apostolic Faith Mission Church in the early 1990s. As a member of the church’s Mabvembe Family Choir, Louis could sing without instruments.
Then, feeling contented about his competence in music, he composed songs that he took to the doors of a number of would-be sponsors. And that is how sponsors — some are still alive while others went to rest with the Lord; some are companies while others are individuals— such as Mkaka Civil Engineering, Patrick Makina, Justice Maxon Mbendera joined the fray of well-wishers to come to the artist with aid.
So promising was the future that, according to Louis— who is from Traditional Authority Malemia in Nsanje District— the then music distributor O.G. Issa pledged to purchase 30,000 copies of his album.
“That translated to K600,000 at the time. As fate would have it, however, the music distributor changed his mind at the last minute. It’s all because people, including the ruling elite, misinterpreted one of the songs in the album ‘Usandimenye Mnzanga’,” Louis says.
The cost of interpretation
The musician also claims that, under the pressure of the then ruling elite, his 10-track album never, really, took off on the market.
Louis suspects that all the music distributors developed cold feet at the idea of playing supplier to his album for fear of reprisals.
Again, Copyright Society of Malawi failed to give him his royalties, and yet his songs enjoyed airtime on radio stations such as Joy Radio (which fell in love with ‘Usandimenye Mnzanga’), Capital FM, FM 101 and Malawi Broadcasting Corporation radios 1 and 2 (which often played ‘Banja Langa Latha’ and ‘A Neighbour’).
All these experiences have, however, buoyed his quest for greatness, and Louis says his life as a musician has just started.
Drawing on the experiences of playing live alongside veteran musician Lucius Banda and Charles Nsaku, and his quest to clear the mist surrounding his lyrics, Louis at some point went to the studio to record an album he titled Mama.
Maybe, just maybe, the winds of misunderstanding have blown over his head and what remains is a future of just rewards.