Musical Sunshine from Malawi

Posted February 26th, 2008 at 1:33 am (UTC-4)
12 comments

Nestled between Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, Malawi has earned it’s nickname as ‘the warm heart of Africa’. And ‘warm’ is precisely the adjective I would use to describe Malawian music. There is a sunny optimism in much of the Malawian music I’ve heard, and after a grim weekend of cold, rain, and snow, here in Washington D.C., I figured I’d warm myself up with a few Malawian recordings from our collection.

One of the most popular styles of music in Malawi, in the late 1960s was South African Kwela; a driving dance music, powered by virtuoso penny whistle players. Migrant workers returning from South Africa and Zimbabwe brought kwela music to Malawi, and it was in Salisbury, the capital of the federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (which is now Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe), that Daniel and Donald Kachamba discovered Kwela music. When the brothers returned, in 1961, to Nyasaland (which became Malawi in 1964), they started to perform Kwela music on the streets, at markets, and in nightclubs. Daniel played the guitar, and his younger brother Donald was a penny whistle virtuoso; he had been playing the instrument since the age of six.

In 1967, the Austrian ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik heard the Kachamba brothers playing for a large crowd near the main market in Blantyre, Malawi’s largest city. And at some point that same year, he brought the Kachamba brothers band to the United States Cultural Center in Blantyre. In February of 1968, the United States Information Service office in Blantyre, sent a four-song tape to the Voice of America, with the following description: ‘enclosed is [a recording, made on December 4, 1967 of] an African combo consisting of four boys aged 7-16. They were recently discovered by a German musicologist who was researching African music in Malawi.’

In fact, at the time of these recordings Daniel was 20 years old (he was born in 1947, and passed away in 1987), and Donald was 14 (he was born in 1953, and passed away in 2001); two younger boys accompanied them, one playing the string bass, and the other the rattle. Donald’s penny whistle playing on these two tracks is fantastic.

Let’s jump ahead a couple of decades, with one of Malawi’s most popular bandleaders of the late 1980s and 1990s, Robert Fumulani (he is the man crouching in the picture above). He was born, in 1948, in the city of Zomba (which is 40 miles northeast of Blantyre), and first started to draw the attention of Malawian audiences in the 1970s. During the 1980s, Fumulani won the Malawian ‘Entertainer of the Year’ award three times. And by the time he passed away, in 1998, his musical earnings had allowed him to open several businesses, including the Likhubula Entertainment Centre, his nightclub in Chileka (a suburb of Blantyre), and a cargo services company at Chileka airport. His musical legacy is kept alive by three of his seven sons; Anjiri, Musandide, and Chizondi- who are the core of the Black Missionaries, currently one of Malawi’s most popular groups.

This track gives you a good idea of Fumulani’s relaxed Afroma (a contraction of Afro-Malawian) groove. In this one Fumulani pleads with ‘Patricia’, he sings, ‘don’t leave us, stay with us, don’t break up your family.’

One of the key ingredients of the Likhubula River Dance Band’s sound was the guitar playing of Ernest Mapemba. Near the end of ‘Mwana Wanga’, or ‘My Child’, Mapemba breaks things down with some wonderfully relaxed playing.

This last track has got a nice reggae beat. Fumulani asks for guidance and advice.

Let’s keep the reggae beat going with Evison Matafale, who before he passed away in 2001, was one of Malawi’s most loved artists. In 2000, he surprised music fans with his debut release ‘Kuyimba I’, which became one of the year’s best-selling releases. Matafale recorded the album with Robert Fumulani’s three aforementioned sons, who after Evison passed away, renamed themselves the Black Missionaries.

In 2001, after a long battle with tuberculosis, Matafale released ‘Kuyimba II’. He passed away several months later, however, dying suddenly while in police custody. He was only 32 years old. According to an article published by the BBC, Matafale’s brother Elton believes Evison was killed, because of letters he had written to then-president Bakilu Muluzi, denouncing his government’s policies. In ‘Yang’ana Nkhope’, Evison sings ‘Look at my face, look at your face, we are all God’s Children.’

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    Evison Matafale ‘Yang’ana Nkhope’

Next up is Joseph Tembo, a great guitar player, from southern Malawi. He was born in 1997, in southern Malawi, and is a member of the Sena ethnic group, who are related to the Shona people of Zimbabwe. This relationship helps explain the similarities between Tembo’s music and the Shona melodies and rhythms of Zimbabwean Chimurenga music.

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    Joseph Tembo ‘Dimingu’

This last song is by Coss Chiwalo, who for many years was (and may still be) the bandleader of the ‘Alleluya Band’, a Malawian musical institution. He was born in 1974 and has released three solo albums. ‘Wakwatiwa’, one of his biggest hits, is a song that is usually played at weddings. He sings of the joy of the bride and groom.

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    Coss Chiwalo ‘Wakwatiwa’

I hope the music hit the spot. I would like to thank Dr. John Lwanda of Pamtondo records for his help with research and song translations.

12 Responses to “Musical Sunshine from Malawi”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this wonderful review of Malawian music from the 1960′s to the present. Am actually enjoying all the songs but the song ‘Patricia’ from Robert Fumulani and Likhubula dance band has greatly refreshed my heart. The guitars…Oh my! I was born in 1979 but this song has reminded me of my childhood memories in the 1980s.

    Many thanks!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Matthew – Please, please find some way to release some of this stuff, esp. Robert Fumulani !

    I’m coming to realize that the African music available on CD in America is actually a tiny portion of the great music that’s out there. There’s a growing market for it too.

    This blog is expanding my ears every time you post.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hello Bennett, thanks for getting in touch. I love the relaxed feel of ‘Patricia’, and the warm tone of the rhythm guitar. Did you ever see Fumulani and the Likhubula dance band perform? Brian, if you enjoyed the Fumulani tracks, you should get in touch with Pamtondo records. The label is run by Dr. John Lwanda, and he has released a lot of great Malawian music. Ten years ago, there were many more non-African labels-mostly French, English, and a few American- that released a lot of fantastic African music; often licensing recordings that were produced for African audiences. Since then, it seems that there are two parallel African music markets; the USA/Europe market, and African markets. The best example, I can think of, is probably the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Congolese music is one of the few African musical styles appreciated throughout most of the continent, yet contemporary Congolese music has no presence in the USA/Europe market. For example, the latest Zaiko Langa Langa release was one of the best Congolese releases I have heard in the last ten years, but unfortunately the disc has NO distribution. Thanks for the encouragement!!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Matthew, I grew up in the north of the Malawi and therefore I did not have a chance to see Robert Fumulani performing live shows since they were based in the south of the country. Those days it was difficult to travel from northern Malawi to other parts due to bad roads. Our only consolation was to listen to the songs through the only radio station (government one) at that time and Robert Fumulani was enjoying massive airplay. Thats how I came to like his songs. Unfortunately, I came to the south after the band had stopped performing live shows. Keep on digging African music treasures! Cheers!

  5. Anonymous says:

    the tracks by Robert Fumulani & the Likhubula River Dance Band are just fantastic -do you know if pamtondo or any other source has music of theirs available? I looked around a little on the pamtondo site but wasn’t able to see any. Thanks Matt for posting these, its always great to find such nice music by acts you haven’t heard of before.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hello Zim, nice to hear from you again. I looked through the Pamtondo releases that I have and I also didn’t see any Robert Fumulani tracks, but I know that in the past Pamtondo has also distributed Malawian cassettes. He may have some Fumulani recordings for sale.

  7. Anonymous says:

    This site is GREAT! Thanks so much for the tracks! The grooves are right on and the guitar playing in particular is INCREDIBLE! The tones are so snarky and mangy, I love it!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hi Matthew – great work! It’s fantastic to hear these old kwela recordings by the Kachamba brothers. The one-string bass (like a tea-chest bass I think) is called ‘Babatoni’ in South Africa, and seems to have been found in kwela groups of the time. I wrote a short post about it in The Kwela Project blog. It would be really nice to hear some more kwela if you have any – it’s terribly hard to find these days! Kind regards,

  9. Anonymous says:

    Hello Chris, thanks for visiting and for the encouragement. I will take a look at the Kwela project blog. I don’t think we have many more early Kwela recordings. I am always finding new reels in our archives though… if I find anything I will post it. Thanks for your help.
    best matthew

  10. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the accurate and elaborate article. Viva Malawi music!!!!

  11. Anonymous says:

    hi matthew,
    i just discovered this post and wanted to express my gratitude to you for your great, edifying, and rocking blog. i have been desperately trying to find more info on daniel kachamba, as his guitar playing has been a huge influence on me. to such a point that i posted this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LsZ4PCQ0-A&feature=email
    i wish his solo (and group) recordings were released on cd!
    i also was up and dancing to “mwanga mwanga”. would love to get that somehow. do you know where?
    i have a random blog you may find of interest: cocoringo.wordpress.com
    cheers
    cory

  12. [...] can read more about the brothers in this excellent blog post, which is full of recordings by the Kechamba Brothers and also by other artists influenced by the [...]

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Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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