By Neil Nayar
The southern African country of Malawi is most famous for its beautiful lake, its cultural diversity and some slightly bizarre dealings with foreign celebrities. Due to the friendliness of its people, it has become known by many as 'The Warm Heart of Africa', but what is happening there musically? This text provides an overview of popular music in Malawi, both past and present, and attempts to shed some light on the key popular genres.
Banjo and Local Music
The biggest song of 2014 was undoubtedly ‘Amaona Kuchedwa’ by Lawi, a song about a man who sees everything taking too long, and gets into trouble because of it. It is a modern take on the classical Malawian style of playing mostly known as ‘Banjo Music’. It's said that banjo music started in Malawi’s tea plantations as a way to entertain the families of workers there. It was influenced by those returning from World War II, inspired by new jazz and blues sounds. It is also said that the famous South African style kwela (meaning 'rise' in Chichewa) was heavily influenced by Malawian 'Banjo' players who had gone south to work in the mines. Notable banjo bands include the late Alan Namoko and Daniel Kachamba, Edgar & Davis and the Kuwoza River Band.
There is still a live tradition of this style, especially performed by buskers and in villages. The recorded equivalent is simply known as ‘local music’, which typically sounds quite different, with a heavy emphasis on keyboards. This kind of music is almost always sung in Chichewa, deals with everyday topics and is very popular in Malawi’s villages. Top Local artists are Lucius Banda and Skeffa Chimoto.
Most music presently recorded in Malawi is done so in home studios with varying quality of equipment. With influences such as RnB, jazz, rumba (from DRC), house (from Zambia and South Africa) and local music, the biggest emerging genre is Afro-pop. Some of the most popular young artists in Malawi of this broad genre are Lulu, Piksy and Maskal, who play regular live shows in the season.
It's traditionally been very difficult for female performers to break into the music industry in Malawi due to a traditional patriarchal culture. Slowly this is changing, however, and today there are a number of emerging female artists, especially from Malawi’s middle class, such as Naomi Scoon, Hazel Mac, Elly K, Tigris and Lily Alex.
One genre that female performers are definitely allowed to join is gospel. There are choirs and gospel groups all over Malawi. Many of the choirs perform hit songs with a modern backing band, and many of the most popular solo artists – such as Ethel Kamwendo, Favoured Martha and Lloyd Phiri - tour the country frequently.
Gospel has recently come to be incorporated into other popular genres. For example, artists such as Lawi and Faith Moussa have combined Afro-jazz instrumentation with gospel-inspired lyrics. The same is true in the Christian hip-hop scene, which enjoys a large following. Both of these new takes on the gospel genre are well produced and catchy, and can be appreciated by non-Christian listeners.
Reggae is a hugely popular medium of expression in Malawi, with a standard sound (known as ‘Malawi Reggae’) and many variations on this theme. It is sung in both English and Chichewa, sometimes a mixture of the two. In Malawi, reggae is enjoyed by a wide demographic. There are bands to cater for the local Rasta community and others to entertain the regular folk. It’s not uncommon to see these bands on the same stage at all-day and all-night weekend shows during the season. Besides its characteristic groove, what typifies this music is the lyrics, which often deal with the everyday social issues that the people of Malawi face. Due to this reason, reggae in Malawi has become synonymous with the people's music and is thereby accessible to all.
As in the rest of the reggae-loving world, dancehall is also popular, especially in the cities. There are several artists and young bands who let out hard-hitting lyrical flows to get the crowd dancing, thinking and singing along.
In the 1980s local reggae pioneer Kalimba had some songs that were released internationally. More recently, dancehall artist Blasto (Otis Chilamba) has earned a following in Jamaica. Other notable Malawian reggae artists are The Black Missionaries, Anthony Makondetsa, Sally Nyundo, Apatsa Kwilimbe and Soul Raiders.
There is a name that everyone in Malawi above the age of 20 knows - although very few of the actually know his music. His name is Wambali Mkandawire. He's music is extremely Malawian and draws heavily from traditional rhythms, subtly fused with jazz. He's certainly inspired a new generation of artists and is the only Malawian to have been nominated for a prestigious MOBO award in the UK, which happened in 2007.
With the establishment of various music schools in recent years and a renewed dedication to find a unique Malawian sound, Afro-jazz is very popular among young musicians, especially those connected to music schools such as Music Crossroads[i]. Notable Afro-jazz artists include Eric Paliani, Mafalika, Peter Mwanaga, Konkalazi, Bernard Kwilimbe, Agorosso and Chris Kele.
Hip-hop has become very popular in Malawi in recent years, with artists like Tay Grin, Gwamba and Third Eye paving the way. Tay Grin has managed to fuse the traditional rhythms of the Ngoni (a southern African ethnic group) with modern hip-hop. Gwamba, who sings almost entirely in Chichewa, is famed for clever lyrics that make people in the audience really sit and listen. Third Eye sings mostly in English with a slightly American style and a flawless flow.
The first rap outfit in Malawi was Real Elements. The group’s founder, Q Malwezi, now runs a popular poetry event in the capital of Lilongwe. They once supported Blak Twang on a UK tour but have since disbanded.
During the one-party system that spanned from Malawi’s independence in 1964 until the early 1990s, there was only one TV and radio station – the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC)[ii]. The first-ever band in Malawi to play with electric instruments was MBC Band. This was because they were the first musicians in the country to gain access to newly imported instruments and band was formed from auditions. Things have come a long way since then, but there is still a strong identity with traditional Malawian song and dance, and much remains unexplored in terms of fusing this with modern instrumentation.
Some Malawian artists are forging new sounds that are more obviously influenced by international pop artists. Malawi has an equivalent to Pop Idol, the Sunbird Search for a Star competition. The winner of the 2013 edition was Adrian Kwelepeta, whose music draws heavily from European and American influences. He could be from anywhere in the world but in fact has never left the country. Among his peers are a host of talented musicians such as singer-songwriters George Kalukusha and Sirius, hard rock band Motobuu and the only all-girl instrument-playing band in Malawi, The Daughters Band. Inspired by the likes of legends Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye, current superstars like John Legend and Ed Sheeran, rock icons like Nirvana and many others, this new generation of artists is finding an audience and steadily edging its way into the mainstream.
All in all, popular music in Malawi is growing in popularity and evolving at its own pace - the future certainly looks promising and diverse.