Once the rosy fingers of music crept through Zimbabwean musician Melusi Khumalo’s mind in 1987, turning back has not been an option.
However, Khumalo soon realised that his mind had escaped into a world where awkwardness in terms of which genre to choose often forced artists to abandon their preferred type of music for the most popular genre in a bid to sail with the public winds.
So, pumped up with the frustration of failure to record his songs, the gangly musician was, at some point, forced to call it quits—in much the same way as Lucius Banda has revealed that he contemplated quitting music due to piracy.
These are some of the issues the renowned international artist shared with Weekender in an exclusive interview after his tour of Malawi. The musician, who travelled all the way from Botswana to perform in the country last week, entertained people during a night dubbed ‘A Night of Classical Afro Jazz, Rock and Reggae’.
Like most Malawians, Khumalo traces his music career to his involvement with the church.
“My music was nurtured through the Baptist Church and, once I ventured into professional music in 1987, I became so passionate about it that I have never looked back,” says Khumalo.
However, his most cherished moment came in 1987 when he composed the single ‘Khumbula’.
“I was happy because I played alongside my four sisters. It was amazing in the 1980s, with the lack of infrastructure, to make a song and sing it. I, therefore, decided to record it,” he says.
But interest does not always breed success, as Khumalo would learn after attempting to record an album in the early 1980s.
Khumalo points out that his initial efforts were frustrated by the lack of infrastructure, as the music scene was characterised by lack of recording studios. The development was not different from Malawi in the sense that, in Malawi, this was the era when musicians such as Allan Namoko, Michael Yekha, among others, had to rely on the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation to record their songs.
“I started recording with a studio in Zimbabwe but I was let down by infrastructure. People may not believe this but I quit music at one point and concentrated on church activities until 2011,” confesses Khumalo.
But lack of infrastructure was not the only challenge. He was also confronted with the dilemma of either sticking to the genre he had always admired or adopting ‘Sungura’, a genre that rose to prominence during the era of veteran Zimbabwean musicians such as Alex Macheso and Leonard Dembo.
“Sungura was the most famous genre at the time and Leonard Dembo was the hit boy of the moment. The guy [Macheso] was at his peak and music lovers advised me to ‘Make it like that guy’ and this was a source of frustration for me. I did not want to follow in the footsteps of the hit boys; I wanted to create a niche for myself,” says Khumalo.
He had to seek inspiration in influential foreign musicians and South African musician, Jabu Khanyili, proved to be that source. Khumalo says he drew lessons from Khanyili and his [Khanyili’s] music in-roads inspired him.
“After taking a break from music in the 1980s, in part because I was frustrated that I could not record my songs whenever I wanted to, I received revelation that ‘God has got something to cultivate through you’ and that’s when I got into active music again.
“I have got stacks of music; I am just pulling the tracks I like and recording them. I still love music and I have taught my two boys how to play music. My son ‘Methembe’ is specifically enthusiastic. I often play acoustic music,” says Khumalo.
Some of his remarkable songs, both in Zimbabwe and on the international scene, include the Shona hit ‘Mambo Jesu’ and ‘Musandire’—which discourages people from showing off and implores them to praise God for what they have.
“What I am actually saying is that we do not have to despise people like street kids, albinos. Those people did not choose to be in that situation and some of them can’t correct the situation. They have got rights, too. The song became so popular that I did it in three languages: Bemba, Ndebere and Bemba,” he says.
His other international hits are ‘Uthando’—which he performed in Malawi last Friday— and ‘Kwazekwakuhle’, a song of hope as it encourages the down-trodden to keep their heads high.
Challenges in Africa
However, Khumalo observes that the Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) musician faces a tall order in terms of rising above the international music waters due to a number of factors.
“The first challenge has to do with infrastructure. We are still starved of infrastructure. We will be squeezed because we have no tools and infrastructure. The reason the West will always beat us is that they have the equipment and infrastructure,” says Khumalo.
He adds: “Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe: We are in the same boat. South Africa is more advanced. So, we need infrastructure and facilities and brains. We need brains to nurture the talent and the infrastructure to support it.”
Gospel versus secular musician
The divide between a secular and Gospel musicians is so pronounced in Malawi that the two artistes live in two different worlds.
For Khumalo, however, there should, really, be no such divisions.
“My music cuts across both [worlds]. In the end, all lyrics have to do with Jesus Christ. My philosophy is, ‘Do well, and do it with all your heart’,” he says, and adds:
“There is need to strike a balance between Christian life and everyday life. The first thing should be putting Christian values first. That’s why I don’t sleep around [with other women]. I have been married to Nkosinomsa Khumalo since December 7, 1994 and I am dedicated to her. I believe in morals.”
Khumalo says the African artist has a chance to make it big internationally, but that success would hinge on clearing the playground.
He says one of the challenges facing the development of music is piracy, a development he says has perpetuated the trend where music is widely regarded as a part-time career in Southern Africa.
Just recently, Balaka-based veteran musician, Lucius Banda, revealed that he was contemplating quitting music because of piracy. His latest album, ‘Thank You’, released three weeks ago, found itself on the music shelves without the artist’s knowledge and consent. They call it piracy!
“It’s sad that musicians such as Lucius Banda are contemplating quitting music due to piracy. The Malawi Government Minister of Arts should do something about it. Piracy is one of the things that, like a Cancer, is eating through the fabric of creativity,” observes Khumalo.
The other task, he suggests, should be the erection of infrastructure and establishment of music schools in a bid to empower African children who fancy a career in music and prepare them for the task of going international with their music.
“We have to break these boundaries because we have a message to share with the world. We just need equipment and accessories to teach music. We need to be intentional about developing music because there is need to have people who are into full-time music,” he says.
As Africa braces for that break-through, however, Khumalo can still look back and afford a smile. After all, it has not been easy, but he has made it this far.
“When I look back at my life, I feel my tears running down my cheeks,” he can afford to say when other musicians—weighed down by the yoke of piracy and an unappreciative international market—can only say, ‘say that once again!’