If the airwaves were iron, Lommie Mafunga’s voice would have been nothing but rust.
Mafunga is a germ of musician in his own right. He has brushed shoulders with the likes of the late Allan Namoko, Dr. Daniel Kachamba, Stonald Lungu, Michael Yekha, and a host others.
Most of them, now dead, looked at him as a young man destined for greatness in the 1980s. They saw in him a continuation of their vision, and not their circumstances.
There were times they had to face him, and square up against him. Just such an opportunity arose in 1993, when the British Broadcasting Corporation organized a competition for local acoustic musicians, whose music was to be broadcast on BBC and many other world-acclaimed radio stations.
Namoko buzzed his guitar, Lungu sharpened his choral cords, Yekha prepared his best and the audience and BBC organizers expected the best. The best did come, but it was not in Namoko, Yekha, Lungu and other acoustic greats.
The best came through Mafunga. He was the best.
Consequently, the BBC crew recorded his music and, soon, it was all over the world playing. Malawi on international airwaves.
“I am very happy to have achieved that much against the likes of Namoko, Chibvu River Jazz Band, Lungu, among other greats,” says Mafunga.
For starters, who is Mafunga? A musician from the Lower shire district of Nsanje. Many people, surprisingly, get to know his songs and fame- and not his name.
Remember the song, ‘Ababa Mica lekani; Ababa mica mzoipa!’ It was so common in the 1980s and 1990s. That is Mafunga at work, He has many other songs that have equally enjoyed more air play- on Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, MIJ, Zodiac, Star FM, fm 101, among a host of radio stations in the country.
You could think Mafunga is happy with his achievements, including that brush off with the country’s acoustic greats in 1993. Nay.
“I am tired. I am still poor. Malawi: when will you rise up to support your sons,” queries Mafunga.
These days, he walks on foot from Limbe to Blantyre, to Chilobwe and, again, Limbe. That is poverty, he says.
“Malawians are unappreciative lot. They don’t honour their musicians but want them dead to honour them. That is ironic because, elsewhere, people cerebrate life. I feel for the late Namoko and others. They were greats, too, but died paupers. I fear that I will die the same,” he says, with a pinch of salt.
For what he is, 43, Mafunga has never had a house of his own; let alone a wife.
“I will marry when I get rich. That is to say, if I don’t die poor. Malawians have done nothing to help me, yet I put the country on the world map in 1993,” he adds.
When Mafunga walks on the streets, people will always greet him, praise him. Nothing more. Nothing like buying his music, and he hates just that.
“I have just released an album whose title track is ‘Mebvala’. It is enjoying a lot of air play. But nothing more, people are not buying anymore. How will I live? How will I survive, put in other words? Malawians don’t appreciate,’ he says.
Mafunga is an old man. Mafunga is a music great. But, for all his worth, he never gathered his songs as to produce an album. Now, for the first time in his music life, he has done so, and is disappointed with the response from the public.
“I don’t understand why people dance to our music and do nothing more as to empower us financially. It happened to Namoko and others. Please, let it not happen to other musicians, especially the old folk,” he says.
There are few old musicians remaining. The likes of Mafunga and Guides Chalamanda. All Mafunga wants is that people but the music of these people.
At least that they may have a dignified exit.
That is why in ‘Mebvala’ (a Sena word meaning Mafunde), the musicians is singing sadness.
There is sadness in ‘Bwato ndimoyo’, a song in which he is warning Lower Shire people against living nearer River banks. Floods are common place that side, yet people don’t want to move up land.
Mafunga us puzzled. Isn’t that sadness, he questions, as he sings in sadness. This tone repeats itself in many other songs, warnings of a tired man. A man tired with the way we treat our greats.
Asked why he has decided to sing through an album, Mafunga says, honestly: “I want to get rich. Like all other great musicians before me, the musicians of old, I am tired of poverty which the people of this country forces on us. I have produced an album, it is being played on radio, people say it is great; why are they not buying? They want me to die poor; they are forcing poverty on me. This time, it will not work. I want to die rich.”
Next time Allan Namoko’s song plays on local radio, and Mafunga sees you shaking your head in appreciation, don’t be surprised to receive a braw.
“Why dance and appreciate as if you did something for him; at least financially?”
Mafunga’s question is a pointer on whether we have done any soul-searching about our greats, now gone by.