Legendary musician Mtebeti Wambali Mkandawire has been in cocoon but now he is back in the scene as he is set to launch his ninth album titled Calabrash Breath on July 25, 2015 at Bingu International Conference Centre in Lilongwe.
Wambali, arguably one of the best musicians the country has ever produced, prides in producing timeless music which has stood the test of time.
There are several artists who have used his base to grow their music, some have managed to make progress but others have simply failed to move forward.
The veteran musician, who is currently ministering in Luafwa in the South of Mzuzu, prides in earning numerous international nominations including the Kora Award nomination for Best Southern African Artist in 2003 and MOBO Award nomination for Best African Artist in 2007.
Having announced that he had retired from public performances the past years Wambali says his comeback with Calabrash Breath does not mean he is now back into live performances.
“This latest album is one of those things I have been doing behind the scenes and I am glad you just said I am back in the limelight, you did not say that I retired from music completely as some people imply. “I did retire from public performances as I said but that does not mean that I stopped making music at all. To retire from making music means throwing away your guitar and not even play at all,” said the singer and musician in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.
He said he cannot do without music and that he has been working on different projects induly Calabrash Breath.
“To come back to your earlier question whether this symbolizes my comeback to public performances. I wouldn’t want to raise those expectations because the truth is that I retired from public performances and if you noticed in the past years I would go and perform anywhere and I had a band we used to work like that but what I am doing now is different,” says Wambali.
He said that what he is doing now is concept music which focuses on a particular theme and that this is still some kind of private performance.
“But if it appeals and takes off then I will take it but it will not be ‘public public’,” says the artist.
But still more why did Wambali retire from public performances?
“People have said a lot of things on my retirement but there are reasons to it and one of them is that I used to work with a record company in South Africa and ended up releasing the album Zani Muwone which they liked a lot and so I had distributors in South Africa, then Sony BMG was interested in the album Moto and so they asked me if I could leave Malawi as they wanted to distribute this album in South Africa and internationally but I refused as I wanted to stay in Malawi,” he explains.
It is because of his refusal to go to South Africa that if you go to this rainbow nation today, you will only find his album Zani Muwone but you won’t find Moto.
“You won’t find Moto anywhere in South Africa because I did not go there and the album could not be released,” he says.
Wambali says when he came home, he decided to form a band which came to be known as Manyasa and that using his own money he put together a band which had talented artists drawn from various areas.
“I put together Manyasa Band and people started hiring us but then things change so I am glad I changed but then I won’t go into the other details. Actually what I am doing now with this latest album it’s not that I have sponsorship, I am just using the little resources that are there and when I finish that’s all, I can only do one show as it is very expensive to do a show,” he says.
The old-timer adds that if people like what will be done during the launch, they are free to hire him and his new band stressing that he has put it in such a way that once in a while they can regroup and perform.
“By the way I did say that I retired from public performances but not international commitments. For your information my record company did not stop putting my music on the website and other platforms and so if anybody from outside calls me to perform I will go. So even though I said I retired from public performances if I got invitations I could still go and perform. Actually there were invitations I got from outside but I have been refusing because I started other projects in the village,” he says.
The musician said he could not manage to go and perform outside as he had released Manyasa Band.
Further asked if he was ready to hold shows frequently once people support him with what he demands, Wambali said:
“I am a concert person, I want to play to families and an audience which loves to listen to music and so I cannot play where people come late and would want to drag you to perform until late. So even if I get that support I will still explain what concerts I am comfortable with.”
Wambali’s latest album is coming after he released Liberty but the artist says this project is different from Calabrash Breath.
“In Liberty I used a choir and this was a worship project and in this album I was trying to show people how you can write songs in English and have African rhythms. I call Liberty a text book or training programme but this latest album is afro-jazz,” says the artist of the project which has taken him two years.
He describes it as an album which is saxophone driven with Dan Sibale playing the saxophone and that he wrote the music and the melodies as well as did the arrangement.
“After doing all the work on the songs I brought in Dan and once he mastered everything I then decided to bring in other members and so I had to go to Ndola, Zambia to recruit a bass player from Congo who was based in Zambia then but he is back in Congo and then recruited some members from Blantyre before going for rehearsals for five days and then we followed this up with another six days rehearsal before going to South Africa in January for recording,” said Wambali.
Just as he has done with all his previous albums, the artist has recorded the album at Jozi Garage in South Africa using the same producer. Some of the songs in the 12 track album include ‘One Drop One People,’ ‘ In 4B at 4am,’ ‘Tension of Fusion,’ and ‘My Ulendo.’
“Actually in South Africa I didn’t have a lead guitarist so I used Erik Paliani but he will not come down here during the live performance and instead a Zambian guitarist is the one who will take his role. This album is all instrumental, the instruments are speaking and so there is no language and all these are new songs,” he says.
Wambali said Malawi needs to establish its different genres although its has established others.
“We have a very abortive sort of culture; we don’t build on what we have established, so perhaps the foundations are the ones that are weak. Most of our music is instant, which cannot last for generations, so we do need some music that few generations can build on and so jazz is one of the traditions. I have always said that the intellectual Western music is classical music and the Africans intellectual music is jazz whether it’s American or African. So I feel that Malawi needs its own brand of jazz,” he says.
He said he was not the first one who has been thinking of this jazz affair observing that artists like Isaac Mkukupha used to play jazz but that during this time maybe the conviction to do afro jazz was not there.
“But they had to start from somewhere and then Kalimba used to have jazz afternoons so I wouldn’t claim that Wambali is starting a jazz culture. I think the major breakthrough in jazz in Malawi has been Erik Paliani releasing his album Chitukutuku which I still mourn to this day that we as Malawians did not do justice to this album,” says Wambali.
The musician says the jazz trend has started but the reception has been lukewarm and so he is just coming in to add to what others have been doing except that “I am just being more aggressive.”
“I am sure if Erick Paliani was here he could have done more but he is outside the country but I know he wants to come and do more and that is why he was happy to play a part in this album. I also know that there are people who are not necessarily musicians but, who are jazz fans and would love jazz to develop and so I feel its time Malawi started to do jazz,” he says.
He says he did a jazz album with Manyasa titled Up and Down the Shire but he was testing the waters and now he feels the audience is there.
Wambali said it has been a long journey to be where he is today but he heaped praise on Malawians for the support saying they have always been there and congratulated him when he has received nominations.
On the current band, the artist said he is working with Dan on Sax, Greciam Mokwena on keyboard, Amos Mlolowah on drums, Emmanuel from Zambia on guitar, Congolese on bass player and DT on percussions.
“I know Amos is with Mafilika and Mizu, he is not part of this band per say but he is just with me on this project and I have not taken him away,” explains Wambali.
Zeroing in on the current state of music, Wambali said:
“We are getting there in music and we have made strides. The young people are not where they were in the past. For instance when rap music came I was concerned but I have seen growth. The zeal is there but there are no structures and support that’s the biggest problem and there is also lack of discipline.”
The musician also said that the current crop should avoid using different genres for a short time and then jump on popular genres.
“Today artists are not stable they are jumping on one genre after the other, today they are in South Africa, tomorrow Nigeria, Zambia so they need to avoid this. There are artists who are committed to Malawian sound and need to be encouraged and those who are also sounding Malawian but have come up with their own style also needs to be supported,” he said.
Wambali said he is looking forward to the launch and urged people to come to be part of what he described as a historic show.
Wambali’s journey in music dates back to when he was only eight years old while in Congo where he was born. With influences from his grandmother and mother’sTumbuka hymns and fables, his grandfather’s gramophone with played music contemporary Congolese music to his uncle who introduced him to South African Jazz and music in general, his musical background is rich in diversity, from his first album Tidzamutamanda released in 1989.
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