I landed in Lilongwe, Malawi on October 9th, 2014. My mission: to learn more about the country’s music. The energy of Lilongwe was entirely different than in Johannesburg or Capetown, South Africa where I had just been the week earlier. Here, things moved at a slower, more relaxed pace. Day and night, joyous voices of nearby church choirs wafted through my windows. I discovered sweet songs sung in four-part harmony, soft acoustic guitar melodies, and to electric dance beats with wholesome good fun lyrics.
I was surprised to find a music shop in the city center that still sold cassettes. In fact most of music items available there were cassettes, followed by CDs and some DVDs as well (image left).
The most popular genre by far was Gospel music. But in popular music, the Lilongwe based duo Symon & Kendall were the staff’s number #1 pick. Popularly known as the Nyembaynemba Boys, this duo produces only DVDs of their music and their videos usually feature village-wide involvement.
Their most popular clip to date is “Nkhwikoa’ released in December 2012 (image right). According to Malawian music blogger Gregory Gondwe, the title track is about the esophagus. “Imagine!” he writes, “You might think there is a serious message to this, but nope, as the track merely tells the esophagus to get ready as it will experience better food passing through it down into the stomach.”
Here is “Nkhwikoa”. What’s great about this clip is that it captures moments of everyday life in Malawi with a twist of humor. The quality of the video and sound is also excellent.
The highlight of my stay in Lilongwe was on Saturday morning when I visited Music Crossroads – Malawi (MCM). It is one of five centers for music training and production in southern Africa; the others being in Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania. I arrived at the Center to find a well-organized group of young musicians waiting to greet me and to share their talents. Each one gave me their music on CD and a short performance that I filmed on the spot.
Some had professional CDs to offer while others had only rough mixes. During a brief interview, they told me why MCM was important to them. George Kalukusha comes because it offers a great sense of community and a place to meet like-minded people and share ideas. He’s currently working on a song called “Good Blood” about a girl living with HIV/AIDS and the struggles she goes through.
Neil Nayar is an English singer songwriter who came to Malawi two years ago to be here at MCM. He heard about MCM musicians playing in Malawian youth prisons. After arriving he did that for nine months and from there, has been developing his own music style with local bands that he calls Afro-country fusion. “Country music is really popular here. Since I arrived as a foreigner not knowing any local language, the one style that carried me through in the beginning was country because people really love country.” The still photos in Neil’s clip are shots I took of the city and surrounding areas.
Lackson Duncan Chazima is a singer and teaches voice and music theory at MCM Academy. He likes it here because so many “big” musicians from Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and even West Africa countries converge here and share knowledge and repertoires. He says he learns a lot just being around them.
Last but not least is singer songwriter, Ernest Ikwanga. He says he’s grown up at Music Crossroads – Malawi. He’s been coming since age seventeen. “It has been and still is my home”, he says. He just finished his theory classes and recently opened up his own home studio in Lilongwe.
There are also other musicians and singers who contribute to the diversity and positive energy of the place. Thanks to all of them, and to Director Mathews Mfune and Music Crossroads International Director, Joe Herman.
Music Today in Malawi is developing and several of the Music Crossroads artists told me that they were searching to find Malawi’s music identity. They have a few models to look to for direction such as Fikisa, Wambali Mkandawire, and Symon & Kendall, but they are already well on their way.