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Sound of guitars

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The song starts with three guitars—bass first, followed by two rhythm guitars—in a way you have, perhaps, never ever heard.

Listening to how the song starts with bass; letting your ears appreciate how two rhythm guitars respond to the bass with major and, especially, minor notes; paying attention to how the bass guitar starts the song and flows with two rhythm guitars before letting in drums and, finally, lead guitar, you realise the skill of Robert Fumulani and Likhubula River Dance Band, formed in 1975.

The band used four guitars and drums to carry the burden of Ulendo Wanu, a two-stanza song that portrays the tragedy of death of a mother, leaving orphans or children without a mother.

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In fact, the instruments sing the sadness of the story in the song. That ability to let instruments sing the message before vocals, that ability to make instruments speak to the listener’s inner ear was not unique to the Chileka band but it is safe to say that Robert and his band were masters at the skill.

By the time Fumulani and his brother Silas sing, mukupita kuti mayi wathu (where are you going, mother?), their voices confirm what the instruments have already sung. Fumulani’s voice rides on his brother’s, both sending a sense of loss in the listener.

It is a short song:

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Mukupita kuti mayi wathu

Mukusiya ife tikulira

Pa dziko lino lapansi

Ngakhale ife tatsala

Sitidzatha kuiwala

Tikakumbuka ntchito zanu

Mayi

The six-and-half-minute song begins and runs for 32 seconds before vocals come in. The vocals run for three minutes, of course, with intervals and then there is a bridge at three minutes 40 seconds. In the rest of the three minutes, we enjoy guitars and drums. And it is here, too, you realise that there was a lot of skill in Malawi. The four guitars begin—no continue—to speak and listen to each other in new ways, new styles. The two rhythm guitars sound like from a distance. Their beauty is in sounding like close, yet far away.

You have never, perhaps, listened to such a combination of guitars by Malawian artists, the way guitars speak and listen to each other, at different sound levels, confirming great work of the recording studio engineers.

And then, from about four minutes 30 seconds into the song, the lead guitar disappears, leaving two rhythm guitars, bass guitar and drums. It is here that the band members portray their skill in such a way that you appreciate what guitars can do to a song and to the ear that listens to the song.

It is the way the guitars speak and listen to each other that is the strength of the band. While you are enjoying the three guitars and drums, the lead joins in at five minutes 30 seconds, not to disturb but to add value, to add beauty to the sound in the ear.

The four guitars and drums take us to the end of the song, where at six minutes, vocals come in, singing the second stanza, that the children in the song shall never forget their mother, gone never to return; that although gone, the mother now lives in the hearts of her orphaned children.

Malawians have long been known as good guitarists. Talk of the generation of Ndiche Mwalare and Daniel Kachamba. Move on to the generation of Grifin Mhango, Deus Mwalubunju and Paul Banda. Fast-forward to Paul Chaphuka, Eric Paliani and now, Lulu and Faith Mussa. The difference between now and the past is not necessarily in the skill (of course, there is). The major difference between now and then is in the number of guitars in a song. Artists are now using two guitars, lead and bass, and a lot of keyboards that sometimes swallow the beauty of guitars.

Some music critics have suggested that Malawian guitarists are almost as good as Congolese guitarists. Of course, the likes of Dally Kimoko and Loucasa Yambongo were extraordinary. But in reality, Malawians are good at guitars. The difference is that in Malawi, there is continued use of two guitars. The result is that there is lack of beauty that comes from guitars that speak and listen to each other.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, the likes of Franco Luambo’s TPOK Jazz used up to eight guitars in their songs. The result was beauty beyond description. In his last album, La Bonne Humeur, Madilu System used five guitarists to create sound that is regarded as one of the best albums to ever come from DRC.

It is not that we have never used more than two guitars. Robert used four guitars in some of his songs. Maurice Maulidi, that skilled rhythm guitarist we lost a couple of years ago, also used four guitars in some of his songs. In the 80s, when keyboards became popular, our artists used three guitars. So, you have such beautiful guitars in Alelluya Band, MBC Band, Police Orches tra and many others. It is in the 90, stepping up into the 21st century that the number of guitars in our music came down to two. There, we lost the plot.

Now, we have music that is made of keyboards, bass and drums. The lead is swallowed somewhere in the sound. And we no longer enjoy the beautiful sound that comes from guitars that speak and listen to each other as is the case in Fumulani’s Ulendo Wanu.

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