A Teacher’s Dream

A few weeks ago I asked my friend Q Malewezi whom he could recommend for taking lessons in the musical traditions of Malawi. Without hesitation he said “Charles Mkanthama.” I figured it was high time I learn some of the traditional music of this country I have been graciously hosted in since January. After all, my project is centered on music and Malawi.

Charles is a schoolteacher by training and Malawi’s ambassador for traditional music (a title unofficially given to him by me). He is a rarity in Malawi. As odd as it seems, there are only a handful of people left in Malawi who really know how to play the nsansi (essentially the Malawian name for the Zimbabwean mbira or the “thumb piano” as sometimes referred to outside Africa) or African xylophones, sing the songs, and can tell you the origins of Malawian music. Of course this does not mean that Malawian musical traditions are not an important part of its culture(s). Music is an undisputed part of everyday life. Song breaks out spontaneously on the back of lorries bringing dozens of men to work, in minibus taxis, or among women simply doing the day’s chores. The Chewa ethnic group’s mganda dance is still a staple at any traditionally Chewa wedding. It seems like every young girl learns to dance the Chitelera and the ubiquitous “de-duh, de-duh, de-duh, de-duh” of the Gule Wamkulu (a secretive society of male Chewas) is a quintessentially Malawian rhythm heard all over Malawi. Groups of Gule Wamkulu boys cloaked in burlap-sacks grunt their way through villages, having been newly initiated. Despite music’s prevalence in most aspects of daily life somehow the nsansi has faded from Malawi’s musical culture…enter Charles Mkanthama.
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Tales from the Studio: Part 2

I had the privilege of getting to record with some of Malawi’s best musicians last week. Alfred Sitolo (bass) and Dryson Mwimba (drums) constitute 2/5 of Peter’s Amaravi Movement, the band which Peter assembled last year and will be playing at this years Lake of Stars Festival in Mangochi, Malawi. In two days we knocked out all of the tracks these guys were slated to perform on. In Malawi due to scarcity of instruments very few musicians have their own instruments. This means every rehearsal and every day of recording we were on a constant quest to find a good bass and a good set of drums.

After two basses (a third one which we could never get a hold of due to classic Malawian setbacks like downed phone networks or missed appointments) and two sets of drums, we had a sound on record which is frankly…..amazing.
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Take One

August 7th, 2010

The games have begun. We did our first recording session on Friday, August 6th. I would have burst out the champagne (they actually have champagne in MalawiJ) in celebration but I thought it much more fitting to do that once the album is completed…especially considering the logistical issues of doing a full-scale album here in Lilongwe, Malawi. This isn’t exactly Nashville.

8:20am Arrival
Kaitlin our amazing piano player and I got there early so she could practice. We ran over all of her parts and I tried my hand at “being producer,” something which I am still getting the hang of. As soon as we begin rehearsing, the difficulty of getting a clean recording hit me: There was a sprinkler ts-tsing next door, excited dogs who decided to have choir practice right after we arrived, birds migrating outside, and the roommate moving out of his room. You can plan ahead, but sometimes planning is just to make you feel better. I managed to find someone to walk the dogs, but the birds were set on being on the album.

8:45am Enter the Engineer
Our sound engineer arrives with all of his gear and we begin the task of jerryrigging a studio out of our dear friend’s piano room. Finding a piano is virtually impossible in Lilongwe. Transporting a piano is…impossible. So when we found this beautiful German Sandner piano, since we couldn’t bring the piano to the studio we brought the studio to the piano. We took off the front panels to expose the hammers and set up two mics in front on either side of Kaitlin.
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Mara Kumbweza Banda

“First of all, it’s Mara Kumbweza Banda. I come from the Banda clan. The family name is Kumbweza. So it is important to identify myself from which family I come from.”

Mara Kumbweza Banda
Mara was very specific that I address her by her family name and not just her clan name. I should have known better….hers was a name that I would not soon forget. Mara Kumbweza Banda is one of the most inspiring people I have met in Malawi.

We met Mara at her office of the Pendulum Project on June 23rd and she was very keen to do a narrative. Her reputation had been built up before our meeting by two of her co-workers and I had a good feeling. My instincts were right. Mara was amazing:
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Moving Windmills…The Power of an Individual.

Photo Credit: Kaitlin Houlditch-Fair
I have written several times about William Kamkwamba, the acclaimed “Boy who harnessed the wind.” On June 24th, myself and a few other friends were graciously invited to see the unveiling of William’s newly renovated primary school now powered with solar energy, one of the first and landmark accomplishments of his NGO Moving Windmills. I have read “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” (which YOU should read), but to actually stare at these massive windmills a fourteen year old with an imagination and an incredible will to change his situation built, is….humbling. It’s inspiring. It’s empowering. This guy saw a picture of a windmill in a book and read such a thing could be used to pump water. He could barely read the English describing what this machine did. Fast forward eight years later….there are now three windmills soaring over William’s property with plans for more. Solar panels, halogen light bulbs…this is the greenest house in Malawi.
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Lilongwe Arts Festival

Ernest Ikwanga
The pulse of Brundian drum beats. The calculated pauses and dynamics of spoken word poetry. The wail of Ernest Ikwanga’s guitar as Mafilika swells behind him. This past weekend, the International Women’s Association of Malawi (IWAM) put on the first ever Lilongwe Arts Festival at the International school in Lilongwe. They had a lineup of some of the best artists in Malawi. The Burundian drum/dance/singing troop was one of my favorites…wait Burundian? Yes Burundian and very proud to be. This dance troupe consisted of Burundian refugees from the refugee camp in Dzeleka, Malawi. Many of these Burundians have never even set foot in Burundi. A refugee camp was started in Malawi years back to accommodate the tide of fleeing Mozambiquans from their war in 1992. Likewise driven by and from war, the Burundians arrived a few years later. The camp is now home to Somalians, Congolese, and other displaced Southern Africans. These Burundians we saw are some of the longest residents, so long the troop’s child members were born in the camp. Yet, for the kids the Burundian music is rooted into the very fiber of their being. Men and children alike; they all drummed, danced, sang and did it as effortlessly as breathing. The women were just as good-relishing one of these few opportunities to journey outside the camp. In fact, the strength of their identity formed a world away from home inspired one of the pieces we heard yesterday by Lilongwe’s spoken word prodigy Q Malewezi.
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Fall in Malawi

A May night in Malawi feels like a North Carolina one in October. Indeed it is fall in Malawi and I am finally putting my sweatshirts to good use. Lilongwe is undergoing a makeover. The dusty Presidential Highway I use to cycle calmly in January is now a four-lane slab of cement and gas-guzzling SUVs racing from one appointment to the next. Indeed the highway is the centerpiece of Lilongwe’s concrete makeover, a symbol of modernity. Not only that, Parliament house was just completed last week and there were thousands of well-wishers to usher in the stunning monolith which is situated right at the base of Lilongwe’s “Capitol Hill.”

Maize, hopefully enough to last the rest of the season

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Easter Bash at the Beach

April 13, 2010

Photo Credit: Andy Kerkhoff
Photo Credit: Andy Kerkhoff
A few weekends ago I had the privilege of playing with Peter Mawanga at Lake Malawi as part of the Sunbird Hotel’s Easter Bash weekend. Braai meat, a pristine beach, and huge stage-it couldn’t have been more perfect. The show was emceed by Malawian reggae icon Sally Nyundo who is featured on “Sungani Mwambo,” Peter’s current hit single taken from Paphiri ndi Padambo, which is dominating radio airwaves right now. Here are some pictures taken from that performance by my fellow musician/friend Andy Kerkhoff:

Yesterday, Andy and myself had a great jam session with two Malawian friends in the most unlikely of places….the market. To fully appreciate this scene, its necessary to have an idea of what a Malawian market feels like, looks like…smells like…sounds like. Imagine the center of commerce in any major city with all its chaos, arguments, tension and rapid exchange of money and opinions. Its busy, crowded, and has its share of characters…many of whom we were to meet. As chaotic a picture as I may paint, for many a vendor, going to the market is just another day at the office and life teeters on the edge of tedium. So when two white guys with instruments and two Malawians with guitars slung over their shoulders walk up and ask to play in front of your barbecue stand, the most logical response seems to be “why not?” After all, it’ll be better for business right?
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