Granted, it takes collective effort to generate the smoke of fire called music. This applies when one comes up with a song, the arrangement, or track.
In the book, The Poetics of Rock, author Albin Zak defines a song as “melody, harmony and lyrics, the components that can be notated and copyrighted. This is what is traditionally considered to be the ‘composition’; the arrangement as “the specific combination of instruments and singers used to realise the song in the studio”; and the track as “the timbre and space of the recording itself. Recordings can be copyrighted, but they’re separate intellectual property from the song”.
Once in a while, however, there emerges an individual who plays a number of instruments, including the lead, rhythm or bass guitar, while leading the vocals.
While the figure of a rhythm or lead guitarist providing leading or backing vocals has become a common sight in Malawi- bearing in mind the likes of Joseph Tembo, Paul Banda, Synoden Ibu, Collen Ali, among others- one hardly comes across a bass guitarist who strums the strings while playing the role of lead vocalist.
Snap surveys conducted by Weekender in the past five months have revealed that there is no well-known performer who plays the bass guitar while leading the vocals. From Alleluya Band, The Black Missionaries, Malawi Police Orchestra, Mathumela Band, Jupitters Band, Zembani Band, Heath Education Band to Adzukulu Band, the figure of a bass guitarist-cum-lead vocalist is a rarity.
Is this a national crisis?
Gospel musician Sweeny Chimkango suggests that playing the bass guitar while doubling as a lead vocalist is no mean feat, and that only rare breeds successfully execute such a task.
“However, the situation (lack of bass guitarists-cum-lead vocalists) is not only prevalent in Malawi. You will rarely come across multi-talented people who can ably do that the world over. Not that such people do not exist; they do. I have Cameroonian jazz artist Richard Bona in mind,” says Chimkango.
According to the Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians, www.jazz.com, Bona is a bassist who combines the music of his native Cameroon with reggae and jazz to create a personal hybrid.
“His virtuoso technique and smooth sound are reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius, and his playing is often accompanied by his light and airy singing voice,” reads a description of the 47-year-old Cameroonian on the website.
Bona was born on October 28, 1967 in Minta, a small village in Eastern Cameroon, and has performed alongside well-known African musicians such as Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango and Malian singer Salif Keita.
Chimkango says the fact that Bona is appreciated wherever he performs bears testimony that people appreciate his talent.
“I have watched his performances and they leave me lost for words. The guy is multi-talented and it’s not often that you come across such talent,” says Chimkango.
Veteran musician Synoden Ibu acknowledges that it is not often that one comes across a bass guitarist-cum-lead vocalist.
“I play all a range of instruments myself, but I feel at home when playing the rhythm guitar while doubling as a lead vocalist. Otherwise, I have a younger brother, Jameson, who can do that,” says Ibu.
Matter of taste
However, Ibu says not all artists can become bass guitarists-cum-lead vocalists due to a number of factors.
“People learn how to play instruments differently and this determines what they become. Secondly, people have different motivations when joining the music industry and not everyone wants to become a bass guitarist-cum-lead vocalist,” says Ibu.
Veteran musician Joseph Tembo seems to concur with Ibu. He says performers should not only be lauded when they can combine tasks such as playing the bass guitar and serving as lead vocalists.
“First of all, let me say that I used to play the bass guitar while playing the role of lead vocalist at church. So, doubling as bass guitarist and lead vocalist is not as difficult as we would want to portray it. At the same time, we need to realise that talents come in different forms. For example, it is a special gift being the lead singer; just as it is a special gift to be a bassist,” says Tembo.
He adds: “I know some foreign musicians who can play the drums or other instruments while leading the vocals. I have in mind Alick Macheso from Zimbabwe and Awilo Longomba from The Democratic Republic of Congo who used to play the drum before the world discovered that he had a powerful voice.”
Former Alleluya Band leader and music scholar, Charles Sinetre, says he cannot say much about what it takes to be a bass guitarist-cum-lead vocalist because the bass guitar is not his preferred instrument.
“My greatest instrument is my voice. People often forget that the voice, too, is an instrument. But I think it (playing the bass guitar and offering leading vocals) depends on one’s flexibility,” says Sinetre.
Sinetre, who can provide both backing and leading vocals, apart from playing a range of instruments, says every art can be perfected through relentless practice.
Musicians Union of Malawi president, Reverend Chimwemwe Mhango, observes that countries such as South Africa are not short of artists who can strum the bass guitar while captivating the audience’s attention with a melodious leading voice.
He cites Joyous Cerebrations, a South African outfit, as one such group.
“So, this is not something that cannot be done. It just takes people who want to become versatile. At the moment, I just feel like many instrumentalists are stuck on [specific] instruments. By this, I mean that people have settled for one set of equipment and decided that that’s what they will pay attention to. In music school, voice is regarded as an instrument, too,” says Mhango.
Mhango backs his point by pointing at a number of local musicians. He says Lulu can play the lead guitar while serving as the lead vocalist, and that Skeffa Chimoto is a vocalist who knows how to play the guitar.
“In gospel music, however, you will find that artists such as Mlaka Maliro, King James Phiri, Allan Chirwa, Ethel Kamwendo Banda are at their best when they are the lead vocalists and others are playing the instruments. So, it depends. It is something to do with choice, other than lack of education,” says Mhango.
Future of the guitar
Ibu says while computer programming threatens to steal the limelight from the guitar, the instrument is billed to remain an integral part of music in the country.
“A lot of people are running away from the guitar but, fortunately, we have a few people who cannot imagine life without the guitar. These are the people who will sustain the legacy of the guitar in the country. It is unfortunate that we rush for the latest technology that is introduced, abandoning things we have held dear for years,” says Ibu.
Balaka-based Sinetre does not feel that the guitar is under threat, too.
“The tendency to use studio software, where musicians depend on keyboard-facilitated bass, can best be described as laziness and childish. I, therefore, see the guitar maintaining its place in music,” says Sinetre, adding:
“The decision to use the guitar or not depends on the genre. In jazz and traditional music, you cannot do without the guitar. In fact, it’s hip hop artists who are relying too much on software. Otherwise, I believe most people still believe in the role of the guitar.”
As computer software continues waging a war against the conventional guitar, Mhango sees a long-drawn draw game.
“All instruments are important, and their use depends on the circumstances,” he says.
It will surely take a great amount of software effort, it seems, to displace the guitar from the stage.