Urban music, tribal identity: Santy expresses Yao

CULTURAL IDENTITY TOOLS — Traditional dances

By Ziliro Mchulu:

While politicians strategically brought the tribal awareness issue to amass votes through tribalism, little did they know that tribal groupings would serve a positive purpose that would influence art.

Post-colonial Malawi has seen the elites striving to promote their tribal identities through food, dressing, dances and gatherings.


However, tribal consciousness in urban music was not visible until now, when we have seen some youthful musicians mixing codes in their tribal languages— a move that has sparked the identity debate in urban music.

In terms of language, Malawi is a multilingual and multicultural country. According to the language census which the Centre for Language Studies of the University of Malawi— formerly Chancellor College— carried out in 2007, the number of local languages in the country is said to be 14. English is the official languages of the country while Chichewa also serves as the language of the majority.

In terms of demographic size and geographical distribution, the language census showed that Chichewa, which is spoken and understood by more than 70 percent of the population, is the most widely spoken language across the three regions of this country.


With this base of language users, Chichewa continues to be used by the majority of people. This is also visible in music composition since many songs in Malawi are composed in Chichewa and English.

However, the Republican Constitution gives citizens the leeway to use the language of their choice. This section calls for multilingualism, which is a prerequisite for multiculturalism. However, a musician composes a song to reach many people in a bid to communicate what they create. With 70 percent understanding Chichewa, it means when one composes a song in this language, they are assured of a good audience.

Just that, in the 21st Century, Malawian artists have become aware of the sensitivity of language as the backbone of culture, hence efforts are being made to raise cultural and tribal awareness among people.

It is in this quest that we have seen the birth of tribal groupings such as Mulhako wa Alhomwe, Chewa Heritage Foundation, Mzimba Heritage Foundation and Ndamosya Ayao” just to mention a few.

This ethnic consciousness is now becoming visible in urban music, which is dominated by the youth. The dispersal of this consciousness from old people to the youth is a sign that these issues are gaining ground. It should be noted that cultural heritage groups are, if properly managed, centres of cultural consciousness and, at the same time, they can be avenues of tribalism if handled by people who do not respect multiculturalism in Malawi.

Santy, a Mangochi-based artist, seems to be on a veracious path to fly the Yao colour in her tunes. Santy, a Mzuzu University student, has been producing songs that show her multilingual prowess.

On record, she has produced three songs that use the Yao language as a medium of communication. In ‘Ngandesya’, Santy uses the Yao language and code switches to English on the hook.

According to Santy, ‘Ngandesya’ was the beginning of her Yao tag in music circles. ‘Ngandesya’ opened the Yao audience for Santy and the reception is good based on how the artist is toppling charts in community radios in the eastern region.

Santy, who now uses ‘Achakongwe’ as a chip, has produced two more melodies that fuse Yao language.

Language theorists argue that speakers use two or more languages in the same conversation to express their mixed identity in society. This is regarded as the expressive function of code-switching.

Santy’s use of the Yao language in her songs is a deliberate move to identify herself with the Yao tribe and possibly win the Yao audience, which has no representation in urban circles.

It should be noted that a study in 2008 listed Yao as one of the languages on the death bed, hence a move by Santy can be a welcomed since it will help in bringing about language awareness in youthful Yaos who do not speak this language as claimed in the study.

Santy has also produced “Ili akuno” in Yao, with “Isumaila” being produced using Yao, Tumbuka and Chichewa languages.

While Dan Lu is striving to win the Yao audience as well, it should be seen that Dan Lu is only appealing to the tribal card in passing by identifying himself as a Yao from Mangochi. In his recent productions, Dan Lu fuses a strip “Wachiyao wangalusa blaza” [A Yao does not lose] but his songs are purely in Chichewa.

This is also done by Martse, who calls himself “Mtumbuka Osamba” but raps in Chichewa.

Nthondwa, who is now branded as “Tumbuka King”, has joined a wave of Tumbuka language productions that are now dominating social media platforms.

While it is not a special thing to see an artist in urban circles producing songs in Tumbuka language, the skills and creativity in Nthondwa seem to be mesmerising many. Since he started rapping in Tumbuka, his name has gained publicity and respect, with prolific artists featuring him including Sharma Vocals.

Nthondwa has pulverised the art of rapping in Tumbuka without code-mixing and switching. This makes him a Tumbuka captain in Tumbuka hip-hop.

His song ‘Nkhwiza’, which features Leslie— another Tumbuka— narrates the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic and resultant deaths in Malawi. The song pays homage to those dead and gives hope to survivors.

Nthondwa, a graduate from the University of Malawi joins the legendary Wambali Mkandawire, who died singing in Tumbuka. Wambali produced all his albums in Tumbuka but managed to maintain a listenership across the county and Africa. Wambali made people appreciate art in music without understanding the language.

The Tonga have their own Machuluka, who represents the tribe lyrically. Machuluka, who has established himself with Tonga songs, has been featured by many in a bid to appeal to the Lakeshore audience.

“Tonga Beats” are produced by Machuluka with Tonga themes and rhythms. Listening to ‘NdaziyaIwe’, one can feel that it is not only the language but also the beat that is Tonga. The beats by Machuluka always accommodate Malipenga dancing antics since the Tonga remember themselves better when they are dancing Malipenga.

Like Nthondwa, ‘Machuluka pela wakumanya’ does not mix codes; he does it in Tonga only. This makes him a special act in the game because he competes with himself in terms of producing songs in Tonga.

Machuluka has raised the Tonga sentient and is a living example that art goes beyond language. The Tonga songs by Machuluka, which are club bangers, are listened across Malawi, like the Yao songs of the dead Fikisa group.

In the song ‘Kwido Kweamwale’, he celebrates life in Nkhata Bay. Basically, the song gives one the picture of life in Nkhata Bay, in terms of the beauty of the lake and the diversity of the women there. The song takes pride in mentioning places that are in Nkhata Bay, notably Mpamba, Usisya, Vizala, Tukombo and Chintheche.

The use of different languages in local urban music is a sign that the youth are becoming aware of the need to preserve local languages in this global village and country, where English and Chichewa are the norm and have spaces of being preserved.

Languages used in music indicates that Malawi is a multi-cultural nation, hence we need to revive, preserve and protect our customs, values, beliefs and traditional practices, especially those that will promote unity and peace.

While promoting our tribal languages, let us all remember that we are Malawians first. Using one’s tribal language in art should be seen as an expression of mare identity and not a cut-out move of other ethnic languages or a move to outshine other tribes. Engaging with one’s cultural roots does not mean being tired of tradition; rather, such engagement is an essential part of an individual’s or group’s effort to orient him/herself or itself in society.

Music not only functions to express and maintain pre-existing identities, but it also provides resources for contesting and negotiating identities and constructing new ones.

What artists are doing now is to push for their tribal identities in popular spaces. Claiming that you are Yao while singing in Chichewa is absurd, hence using one’s tribal language pushes one’s identity on its own. Music provides resources for a group to construct and renegotiate its identity, but it may also be a resource for controlling space and pushing groups into the periphery.

In Malawi, other languages in music were slowly going to the periphery, hence the coming of some artists who code-switch or mix languages is a gesture aimed at bringing their languages to the centre. When Santy, Machuluka, Nthondwa and others are making musical performances in their languages, they are making their particular group visible in society and, possibly, they want their particular culture to be part of the wider society.

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