Sunday, March 17, 2013

The 'Times' of Lucius Banda

On the surface, the threads that form the spine of Lucius Banda’s ‘Time’ album seem to be such issues as love’s infallibility and blindness, the vanity of nationalism, hope, self-awareness, the perpetual search for money as a means of buying survival, among others. But I suppose that the impulse behind the work is an attempt to portray the jarring double-faces of ‘Time’ (in its literal sense).

In other words, the veteran musician’s album puts Malawi in the frame of a verandah-garden riddled with the impact of time (within relatively the same period of time) on two objects, namely: the individual person, and; the nation.

The individual personas, on one hand, share their experiences through the many solitary voices that riddle the musician’s 17 tracks. Sometimes, there are two personas in one song, if it’s a love song, and these personas respond to each other’s musings. The nation, on the other hand, has its aspirations, fears, hopes, and disappointments reflected by the title track, ‘Time’, which is, simply put, a stock-taking exercise aimed at gauging the gains and losses accumulated in the past 49 years of independence.

‘Time’, with its mood of dolorous lamentation, aptly captures the feelings of a people that attained independence from former colonial master, Britain, in 1964, only for the new leaders to sink the citizenry deeper in the mire. This strange sense of loss of place and hope comes after the so-called nationalists rescued the hitherto ‘clueless’ people from the colonial ‘enemies’.

This ‘national’ face of time is aptly reflected in the title track itself, especially when the persona who, like an elected representative of the people, queries: “Is it freedom of independence, or freedom of self-suffering? When will this country change? Who will develop it? 50 years of sovereignty and we still rely on donors to drive our economy?”

The short of it is that, whereas politics was supposed to be a smooth road, the tendency by politicians has been that, once the electorate put them in power, things change for the worse and it feels as if they (voters) have paved the politicians’ road to hell. They, in turn, become another Lucipher, detached and exiled from the reality of poverty and helplessness that hovers all over the land.

That is why, when these two hidden faces of time are put together, they form a liturgy of despair, regrets, love’s invincibility, death, anger while, at the same time, offering hopeful moments of supplication for divine solicitude. Drawn on the past, these presences (poverty, hopelessness) endure- leaving a permanent mark on the people as they become hopeful and obdurate!

This makes the songs ring true, and sound closer to life.

And, just like in the previous 16 albums of Banda- especially the title tracks- the persona takes a swipe at the nation that is about to turn 50 years (in 2014), calling it a gathering of 15 million babies! A nation that is 50, but clings to its mother’s breast.

Apart from the general swipes that persona in Banda’s songs takes at the citizenry, politicians- and the adorable lyrics that decorate the flower bed of love, Lucius has severed ties with tradition by experimenting with a number of genres. Among them are Reggae, Ngoma, Beni and Manganje, Kwasakwasa blended with other genres.

This, it seems, has been done to accommodate the musician’s varied audience, and recapture the audience that takes unkindly to monotonous sounds.

What that has done, inevitably, is to portray the musician as a man of no identity (or a man of varied identities, sometimes conflicting)- making it more difficult to identify the veteran musician with one particular genre. It is like the same cook dipping 17 cooking sticks in one pot! Chances are that people won’t realise which stick cooked better.

For instance, while ‘Miss You Lucky Dube’ is a Reggae beat composed in memory of the fallen South African musician Dube, ‘Nancy’ throws Ngoni traditional beats, including a tinge of Ngoma, into the mix.

Then, there is ‘Wandikwatiradi’- a love song that recaps how the son of a cook who had resigned to staying in the boss’s boys’ quarters located at some hidden corner within the perimeter fence ends up marrying the boss’s daughter, to the chagrin of her parents- which is a slow beat whose seriousness gets lost in the unmistakable Kwasakwasa guitars in the evening of the track.

The trend is repeated in ‘Forever’, another love song that let’s us appreciate the gladness of a persona who finally weds a long-time lover. The track starts softly, only to dilute its beat into the energy-sapping Kwasakwasa.

The first-timer may also get confused with the track ‘Forever’, taking it for an English song when, in fact, ‘Forever’ is the only English word in the lyrics.

Otherwise, the musician has shown his music prowess by harmoniously mingling Chichewa with English in the track, ‘Tseketseke’- which features Piksy and is characterized by the unmistakable voice of a South African lady-backer who pronounces the word 'Tseketseke' as ‘Zeke-zeke’. One would, however, be forgiven for thinking that ‘Tseketseke’ is a Chichewa beat. In fact, it is an English song whose only connection to Chichewa is the word Tseketseke in the chorus.

‘Usaope Akatchena’ is another captivating song, but chances are that the track may come under a barrage of criticism from feminists such as Jessie Kabwila. Kabwila chides songs that portray women as ‘recipients’ of men’s advances and overtures, and took a swipe a Banda’s song, ‘Wawa Angoni’ for portraying women as objects when it categorized them in the same group as beer, meat when it says in the chorus ‘…Kamkazi kali pambalipa/ Koimba nthungululu”.

‘Usaope Akatchena’ captures the story of a male persona who fell head-over-heals over a well-dressed women, but could not summon enough courage to approach her. As it turns out, the woman also fancied the man but, picking a leaf from society’s norms, failed to make her feelings known because only men are expected to propose love to a member of the opposite sex as dictated by culture.

Otherwise, this is another creative piece emanating from the great brain of Banda, cementing his reputation as one of Malawi’s greatest composers.

This love song- along with ‘Flora and Mavuto’, ‘Zidutswa za Mtima’, ‘Forever’, ‘Ndi Wanga’, ‘Usaope Akatchena’, ‘Tell Her I Love Her’, and ‘Wandiwatiradi’- makes love one of the dominant themes in ‘Time’. Religion also takes a prominent place in the album, though it is unclear whether this ‘gospelisation’ of Banda’s voice has anything to do with his being taken ill before ‘Time’s’ production or it is just a question of a veteran musician taking time to thank God for being with him throughout his 17 albums!

What else can one say, other than singing praising his creator, when he becomes the first Malawian to churn out 17 successful albums?

The most encouraging aspect about ‘Time’ is the way the musician plays around with old messages to shed new light on life, calling people to keep their faith when they tumble in ‘Paulendo’, a message he also advanced in ‘Cease Fire; album. And ‘Wandithawadi’ could as well be a creative extension to ‘Wandithawa’, in which a ‘dilly-daller’ saw his hopes disappear when the woman he had fancied all his life found herself in the embracing arms of another man.

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