Monday, March 3, 2014

Plenty of Talented Artists, No Records: The Case of Malawi

Malawi’s artistic world remains largely an uncharted path both to locals and the international community, reducing perceptions about the country’s authentic identity to a blurred mix of half lies, half-truths, or nothing at all. Little seems to have changed, in terms of moving from an oral society to a records-society, some 49 down the lane of independence, so much so that getting in touch with anything artistic is like tumbling like a clueless explorer into a chaotic and Stone Age world. RICHARD CHIROMBO writes.

The lowest point comes at death, which serves as a (metaphorical) macabre souvenir that characterises the genetic time bomb that ticks away all over Malawi’s artistic sphere. Without a national Cultural Policy, and with little to no efforts being made immortalise the adventures of local artists through publications, what else can the nation expect?

In the end, the greatest loser is Malawi’s next generations, who run the risk of having no records to refer to on issues artistic. Already, the time bomb that is failure to keep records of artists that have contributed a lot to the development of the arts in the country has begun to annihilate important facts about Malawi music, poetry, painting, traditional dances, among others.

As opposed to other countries, including African countries such as Uganda, South Africa, Zimbabwe and even Zambia- where legacies and remnants of culture are carried on through the new cult of public records- death almost always marks the end of the historical journey for Malawian artists.

A good case in point is given by British Cultural Studies scholar Tony Michael Monason who, writing in an essay titled ‘Understanding African Cultures Through Dance and Music’, observed in 2012 that a search for authentic culture in Malawi is “largely a futile attempt” because, “as I discovered”, key aspects are abandoned “in the past”, a development he attributed to the trend of neglecting the role of records in national development.

Missed train
The result, as veteran musician Wyndham Chechamba puts it, is that “most musicians have not learned from veterans like me and other great sons and daughters of Malawi; hence the tendency (by up-and-coming artists) to overdo some things, in terms of the emotional aspect of music, leaving out equally important aspects such as authentic value”.

But Chechamba, who clocks 80 years in March this year, does not only blame this on the country’s failure to keep track of itself through records. He says, in terms of the country’s music industry, the absence of music schools is another factor that has hindered the transfer of knowledge from those who are knowledgeable enough to those who have not yet caught the right rope to take them to the top.

That is why, he observes, Malawians have been struggling to trace their music identity because of their failure to hold on to the past through records. What cost will Malawians pay for this blatant disregard for records?

“We will be poorly equipped to cope with the future demands of, say, music because, for you to improve, you need to know where you are coming from. I mean, future demands for our (Malawi’s) original music identity and the artists who played a key role in creating that identity,” he says, suggesting that, in most cases, the people who create do not necessarily have to be the ones to preserve. “We have a role to preserve what has been handed down to us.”

And, talking of preserving what has been handed down to us, artist Elson Aaron Kambalu says Malawi seems not to be learning from history’s tough lessons, citing the continued annihilation of cultural and historical sites.

Kambalu points at the issue of the demolition of the old District Commissioner’s office in Lilongwe, a decision he fought hard to get rescinded. The artist also penned a proposal with the aim of safeguarding and preserving the country’s heritage sites.

Observes Kambalu: “We must remember that we have children who may wish to refer back to things at some point in their life. That is where the issue of heritages sites, and the important role they play in a nation’s history, comes in. I suggest that all buildings built before 1950 should never be demolished, except with a letter and special permit explicitly written and signed by the minister responsible for either land or tourism, and also that we should preserve the history of our artists. This will promote accountability in handling matters pertaining to our cultural heritage as well as heritage sites.”

Lost opportunity

Is it not a shame that the story of one of Malawi’s widely anthologised poets, David James Lubadiri, should be celebrated more in Uganda (where he has lectured and sharpened the minds of Ugandans and other nationals) than Malawi?

Why should countries such as Cameroon beat us when it comes to celebrating their poets, the likes of Ferdinad Oyono? What is so special about countries such as Uganda, for them to record aptly document the story of play wrights such as John Ruganda of ‘The Burdens, Black Mamba and the Floods’ while we overlook ours?

Just recently (in early February), chief judge in the Malawi Writers Union (Mawu)/First Merchant Bank Short Story Competition, Jonathan Mbuna, bemoaned that 70 percent of the 77 (short story) entries received had “serious” grammatical mistakes.

The question is: How could there be improvements when the writers had no references (in terms of records) from which to draw lessons?

Fortunately, there are people who understand that Malawi has done little to honour its greatest sons and daughters in the arts. Now there is hope that artists such as Musicians Association of Malawi president, Rev. Chimwemwe Mhango, may help the nation recover from its losses.

“May be it may not be possible to right the wrongs at once, but we can start doing things that may rectify the problems we face. For example, through awards and refresher courses and training workshops, we can begin to raise the profile of our artists and, then, possibly, document the major aspects of their lives,” Mhango says.

Mhango acknowledges that the one thing missing about local artists are locally-available records. For instance, while it is difficult to locally find records documenting the musical path of the late Daniel Kachamba, the same can be found in the 1988 edition of the ‘Year Book of Traditional Music’ published by the International Council for Traditional Music.

However, another school of thought advances the argument that keeping records is not as difficult as it seems.

For example, Mawu president Sambalikagwa Mvona says keeping records cannot be a problem to unions such as Mawu.

“The main issue is resources. We need financial resources and these resources have not been easy to come by,” Mvona says.

Facing the future
But, even if we had records about local artists littered in every public library, one aspect is bound to plague such a dream-spectacle: Women.

Ask Theatre Association of Malawi vice-president, Joyce Mhango, about the recognition of local women in the arts and she will be quick to point out that, despite playing a key role in the background, talented women have largely been sidelined.

“It has always been a challenge for women to take up leading roles in male-dominated spheres, including executive positions in arts associations. So, we really need to be accommodative for the history of the arts in the country to be complete. To achieve that, however, there is need for women to support fellow women,” Mhango says.

Mhango adds that records without women will not necessarily reflect the complimentary roles of men and women in the arts, and calls for the recognition of women.

While acknowledging that failure to keep records has been costly to the nation, Culture and Tourism Minister Moses Kunkuyu says the current administration is committed to uplifting the arts, saying things are bound to improve once work on the Cultural Policy gets finalised.

“At the moment, we are looking at a number of issues that could help improve the way we do things in the arts. If we join hands, we can overcome so many challenges and succeed,” he says.

Otherwise, each artist’s death may continue to be a macabre souvenir of the national time bomb that ticks away all over Malawi: Failure to keep records. And nothing will prepare us for the life without the artist in question!

No comments: