Friday, August 14, 2015

Sweeny Chimkango Talks Music, Silence

When Sweeny Chimkango ‘wears’ a silence on his face, it may not necessarily mean that the silence is a reflection of the silence in his mind.
Take, for instance, the issue of his silence in gospel music circles after the release of his second, and last album, ‘Mfumu ya Luntha’, in 1999.
This notwithstanding, Chimkango maintains that, while he has apparently been quiet in terms of album releases, he has been grappling with a ‘loud’ debate in his mind.
“One of the things my mind has loudly been reflecting on is that of the influx of gospel musicians and the subsequent commercialisation of gospel music. There has been an influx of gospel musicians and I have been having personal debates on whether the commercialisation of gospel music is good for this country and this is one of the reasons I have been silent,” says Chimkango.
Chimkango adds: “I feel, personally, that we need not commercialise gospel music and this issue that has been bothering my conscience. Commercialisation of gospel music has negatively affected dissemination of the gospel in the sense that this is a ministry and, apparently, not all have been called to minister.”
He digs holes into some gospel songs, saying the lyrics are “too shallow” and devoid of meaning. He, says, for example, that some musicians have fallen into the trap of repeating lines such as ‘Yesu abweranso [Jesus is coming back]’ from start to finish, “for fifteen minutes on end”.
Chimkango blames the situation on misconceptions that gospel music is the next possible route to riches.
“Initially, people ventured into gospel music because God had called them. God, then, blessed those he had called into ministry and some people thought that those called were into gospel music to earn money and such people have ended up commercializing the industry. This is my opinion,” says Chimkango. 
No wonder, a lot has taken place in the busy world of his head.

Foray into music
Chimkango developed interest in music when he was seven years old.
“I used to play the banjo while experimenting with my voice in Lusaka, Zambia, where I was born. I am told that my late father, Samson, used to sing when he was young.  I, specifically, learnt music because of my church engagements. I used to present special songs and church hymns as a boy,” says Chimkango.
Despite being born on foreign soil, he was born to a father who traces his roots to Chimkango Village, Traditional Authority Kuntaja in Blantyre and a mother from Makwasa in Thyolo.
“It’s like I graduated from the banjo to the guitar. Fortunately, I linked up with a group of music-loving individuals when we came back to Makwasa in Malawi. I cannot recall the name of the group.
That is before he went to Thyolo Secondary School, where his talent was nurtured after becoming one of the founders of a group called Back to the Bible Quartet.
“You see, there was a famous foreign group bearing that name in the 1980s and we decided to name our Quartet after it. Members included Justin Chataika, Evance Kaima, the late Harris Chilozo and the late John Nakoma,” says Chimkango.
But the big break came when he went to Blantyre Teachers Training College, where he met the late Mjura Mkandawire, then a music tutor at the institution.
“Mkandawire horned my skills, and this marked the first time I started reading tonics sofa [do re mi fa so la ti do] and staff notation [which indicates notes of a beat]. In fact, I put every song I write in staff notation now. The advantage is that those who understand staff notation can play the music from all over the world. The Malawi Police Brass Band is able to play the Chinese National Anthem, or any other national anthem, because of staff notation,” says Chimkango.
Indeed, he has been able to study the guitar code for Bob Marley’s music and ably plays it.
It is after his classroom-encounter with Mkandawire that he became one of the founding members for the once famous Christ in Song Quartet. The other members were Lloyd Malopa, the late Davis Kapito and the late George Chafunya.
Established in the 1990s, the Quartet was formidable in both the Seventh-day Church and other denominations. Its songs included ‘Pekeyangu’ [Swahili song], ‘The Blood’ and ‘Over There’.
Says Chimkango: “These songs were not necessarily our compositions; they were adaptations. For example, ‘Over There’ was a Golden Gate song. This is a group formed by African Americans. Among other countries, we performed in Namibia, South Africa and Kenya. The quartet broke up when the late Kapito joined active politics.
“I, thus, went solo in 1997 and released my first album ‘Yendanibe’ the same year. This was a 10-track album with songs such as ‘Thowege’, ‘Otengera Mau’, ‘Yendanibe’, ‘Miseu ya Golide’. ‘Miseu ya Golide’ was sponsored by Dr Tikhala Chibwana and Mr Patrick Khoza, who wanted to promote my talent. The song was recorded at Studio K. I will forever be grateful to them.”
Having tasted the waters, it did not take Chimkango 16 years to release a second album.
“In 1999, I released my second album ‘Mfumu ya Luntha’,” recollects Chimkango.
It included such songs as ‘Don’t Shut Me Up’, a protest song against social injustices targeted at people with handicaps, ‘Mfumu ya Luntha’, ‘Mohutherelamo’, among others.

Social injustices
Was ‘Don’t Shut Me Up’, with all its unapologetic declaration and confrontational approach, a gospel song?
“My answer would be yes. You see, the mistake people make in life is to separate social injustices from spirituality, yet social justice is an artifact of, say, Christianity. The people who oppress others come from Christianity and other spiritual backgrounds.
“We see these things happening from time to time. For example, during the time of Jesus Christ, one burdened man cried to the Lord for help but believers, those who were close to Christ, shut him up because they did not know how it felt to be in the shoes of the desperate man,” says Chimkango.
Chimkango says, coincidentally, people with physical challenges, visual challenges and other challenges continue to face avoidable challenges.
He has examples.
“This year, the University of Malawi [Unima] will be celebrating 50 years of existence. The question is: Are the physically-challenged, visually-challenged given access to the library at, say, Chancellor College? Is it fair to expect them to depend on others to visit, read and borrow books? Why can’t we have facilities that will ease access to these facilities? This is the regrettable situation at the moment,” says Chimkango, adding:  
“If we talk of these issues, it doesn’t mean we are less Christian than others. After all, we do not need all the space [in Unima constituent colleges] to accommodate people with handicaps, the visually-challenged and those challenged in other capacities. Social issues should not be divorced from Christianity.”

Between Rastafarianism and Christianity
Seeing Chimkango drive around town, one would be forgiven for calling him a Rasta man. His headgear attests to this.
“Of course, thoughts about Rastafarianism have, at one point or another, crossed my mind. In fact, I recorded a five-song Reggae album in collaboration with my brother, MacDonald, but, then, when I sat down and pondered over it, I realised that I would confuse people because Rastafarianism is not Christianity. I have, therefore, left the project in the hands of my brother. Some of the recorded songs include ‘Enemies at Your Door’, ‘A Stone-throw Away’.
“Am I, therefore, a Rasta? No. I am a Christian with so much black consciousness in me. Of course, I identify with some of the Rastafarian principles on respect for humanity but the Rastafarian practices of burning weed [marijuana] and how Haile Selassie is presented as the creator of the universe make me  feel jittery. Otherwise, I like the philosophies and ideologies on what humanity is, and how Westerners have colonised our minds,” says Chimkango.
He says black consciousness entails knowledge that one is African and, therefore, proud of who they are.
“This is the reason I did some of my songs in Manganje, and why I admire Wambali Mkandawire’s music,” says Chimkango, who works for Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Television as Chief Producer.
His work at MBC saw him becoming a pioneer in producing professional music videos that graced the television screens in the morning of television broadcasting in Malawi. These included music videos for the late Evison Matafale, Ethel Kamwendo Banda, Wilfred Kasito, Lucius Banda’s ‘Tina’, among others.
Ironically, he has not been honoured for his contributions to the music video industry.
Ironically, again, he has never recorded a music video for any of his songs. Is he a farmer without a farm? Is it because, maybe, he cannot dance?
“I think that is a very good observation. I never thought about that [laughs]. I will think of doing it. But, definitely, it’s not because I cannot dance. I have learned that the concept of music videos is not embedded in dancing. I used to think that way before, but I now realise that concepts differ. It’s possible to do a music video without dancing,” says Chimkango.

Breaking the silence
Chimkango acknowledges that, somehow, his gospel-music silence has been so prolonged it has become a famine.
“I have just recorded ‘Khalamaso’ produced by Gracian Mokwena. I am thinking of launching it this August,” says Chimkango.
The silence is, then, about to be broken. Are the social injustices ready to roost, too? The answer is beyond him.

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