Sunday, February 2, 2014

Rich Minds, Empty Pockets: The Story of Malawi's Veteran Musicians

Their music still holds the stage today, a sure sign of the nation’s satisfaction with their unconventional minds and mastery in phrasing.

Some of them arrived onto the music scene at a time the national bar line had regimented Western music into a stable series of some two, three or five beats to measure, some of which were being fused into Malawian music.

To a large extent, both colonialism and mono-partism never injured the traditional local beat.

The beauty with Malawi’s veteran musicians like the late Allan Namoko, Stonard Lungu, Michael Yekha, Daniel Kachamba, Robert Fumulani, among others, is that they knew how to ignore the bar line.

The effect was breath-taking: Western music never impeded the flow of local music but was merely a convenience, not a mathematical division or equation for success.

Take, for instance, the late Kachamba or Fumulani. They might never have graced the walls of music schools as a first call towards the journey we call music, yet one notes the rich harmony in their music and resourcefulness.

That is why we still dance to Khunju Reggae, Bambo a Tereza, Mbambande, Mlendo ndimame Luo, Baba Mika, Chisoni, Ulendo Wanga, Ndikakwatira kuMangoni, and yearn for more. It is the powerful effects, suspended dissonant notes and orthodox arrangement that strike the chord of sweet memories in us.

Theirs was probably the pioneering generation of local music, diving in unnavigated waters and, yet, leaving prints on our entertainment-tuned minds. A generation that could arrange a series of suspensions in different voices, each of whose resolutions intensified the emotional effect of the whole, while lending nobility, authority
and unmistakable force to the rhythm at a time of simple technologies.

Well before computers took over the natural sound of the banjo, guitar, and visekese. Of course, some music experts have questioned the music of the likes of Namoko, arguing that the legendary musician’s instruments sound more Afro-jazz than Tchopish (as in Tchopa) to be Malawian.

When the computers took over, rendering guitar wizardly a pastime, it was as if most veteran musicians knew what was coming and never wanted to see ‘real’ music die. Most died before getting a full dose of the corruption that is called local music. Off they went, their music uncorrupted.

However, the most remarkable thing about them is how they died in, mostly, a state that never befitted their status in society. In life, it was their talent that stood out, with the likes of Kachamba being bestowed the coveted Doctorate of music accolade. In death, it is their abject poverty that strikes us.

Should we say the voice of conscience is never loud in our nation? If not, why does history keep on repeating itself? Music scholars agree that in the keyboard, for instance, you have everything to do with the perfection of harmony. Why is it that those who play the keyboard are starved of real life harmony? Why don’t they live the life of a keyboard?

When Namoko died in abject poverty, people thought it was the end of neglect over music greats. But, until recently, his grave lay unattended to. At least until Zodiac Broadcasting Station remembered the ‘Lameck’ star.

Other concerned citizens, the likes of human rights activist Undule Mwakasungula and lawyer Ralph Kasambala have also taken to the sympathetic road, remembering national anthem composer Michael Sauka.

A well-paved path now marks the road once an abode of unkempt grass and mice.

The truth is that it is all too late; the dead never take a walk up their graves to appreciate how impressive the sorroundings are.

The world will judge us by the way we take care of our living greats while, at the same time, appreciating how we honour the living-dead.

Because their music still lives, and they live in us (our hearts), the Namokos, Kachambas, Yekhas are the living dead.

And, then, we have the living-living. Those who still live, and their music lives in us, too. These include the likes of Guides Chalamanda of the Line fame, Maurice
Maulidi of Ulendo Wanga, Batson Kapalamula, George Khombe, Herbert Makuluni and Lommie Mafunga.

For his old age and music prowess, financial constraints stood in the way between Chalamanda and the studio for his debut album. Thanks to Edgar ndi Davis, the acoustic-guitar addict has shed off the tag that for decades stood more galling than the sound of his single playing onradio.

For Maulidi, society continues to treat him unfairly through non-payment of loyalties. Having played with the Songani Strings Band and dedicated more of his 67 years to music, the veteran musician feels it is not worth it to be a musician in Malawi.

Like Chalamanda, he looks forward to the day when he will double as a living-living and living-dead when the time comes. This comes through album production.

“Money is the biggest problem,” Maulidi sums up what, to most musicians, is an everyday reality.

Memories are often sweet. It’s the present that mostly pains.

“The way Malawians pretend everything is okay with old-time musicians, yet poverty has become a way of life; it pains,” chips in Lommie Mafunga, one of the surviving musicians.

Mafunga, of the Baba Mika fame, a song that once took Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s (MBC) airwaves by storm between the late 1980s and early 1990s, is no stranger to Malawi music.

He considers himself lucky to have brushed shoulders against the likes of Allan Namoko. Brushing shoulders is one thing; it is beating the greats at their own game every musician dreams of.

Mafunga and his Tinyade Sounds did just that on April 12, 1992 during a festival of local acoustic bands. The pint-sized musician scooped first position, beating the likes of Namoko. As a result, four of his songs captivated a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) crew it took them to London.

The songs are: Kumwalira Kwababa, Chiwerewere, Miseche, Munthu Sakondwera.

It did not end there for the Nchalo, Chikwawa-born musician who looks younger than a product of June 27, 1968. On October 15, 1994, while working for SUCOMA’s Nchalo factory, an entourage of music production experts from London came looking for him and his Tinyade Sounds. They wanted him to become part of a Malawi video film on travel, alongside Namoko and Chivu River Jazz Band, Fumbi Jazz Band, Ndingo Brothers

The crew, led by George Clever, captured the Ndingo Brothers in Ndirande Township, used children pushing bicycle rims as background for Namoko’s music. So impressed were members of the crew they promised to source band equipment for Mafunga in the United Kingdom.

“I thank the then District Commissioner for Chikwawa (Chikhwawa) district, Mr. Dakamao and the then culture and sports organizer for the district, Charles Chibwana. They did a commendable job in trying to truck me down. This was a life-time chance and my music even played on BBC radio,” said Mafunga.

For that, he received 85 British Pounds which translated into K4, 095,according to Mafunga.

At this point, his smile disappears as fast as it came. He dives straight into present realities.

“It will take time for Malawians to appreciate old-time musicians;people who shaped the face of current music. We have lost respect for our music veterans and now look up to Western musicians for inspiration. Very bad,” said Mafunga.

He has caught the veteran musicians’ bag, too; the bag of poverty.

Like Chalamanda before 2009, and Maulidi now, Mafunga has no music album to call his own. A patch of singles here and there is all he calls a measure of greatness. What is more?

“I am not even married. A wife needs food to eat, clothes to wear, and may even get bored with a routine meal of sun-dried fish. Children, on the other hand, need uniforms to wear to school, school fees, and clothes. I can’t afford all these because I need band equipment for myself. Life is tough,” said Mafunga.

He added: “For the past three years, I have been surviving on Chimtuwi for lunch.”

His hope in releasing an album seems to have been realized last year, when he recorded Bwato Ndimoyo album. It has 10 songs including Munthu Sakondwera, a rendition of Baba Mika, Zikomo Makolo, Safunsa, Mebzyala, Tichezera, Mwana Wamasiye, Dziko, and Serena.

While the album- whose title truck warns Lower Shire people to move upland from their flood-prone habitats- was released last year, Mafunga has been failing to source K5, 000 for covers.

He has failed to utilize an opportunity O.G. Issa offered to sell his music. Most musicians struggle to reach this.

K5, 000 stands between him and the future; the old song for veteran musicians.
“The fear of dying poor keeps me going,” he said.

To the other veteran musicians, it is the hope that ‘tomorrow will be
fine’ that pushes them forward.

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