My Malawi Pt. 2

Lake Music | Nyasaland

Following the exhibition ‘Our Malawi; No Words Needed’, I zoomed out a bit.

While traveling through the country, I collected and curated environmental recordings of Malawi; from the quiet lake-side shores to the villages in the rural areas around Livingstonia, always carrying my trusted Zoom H-6 handy recorder. Having it with me at all times added to many experiences, as I was struggling to explain in my broken Chichewa what the device does, using hand gestures and headphones to explain my stance.

The first album in the series is the Unu House Charity album, performed by the children of the open-house, showcasing their musical afternoon activities, and dance. I explain the album further in my previous post, My Malawi Pt. 1.

Once we settled in N’Khata Bay at the Unu House charity headquarters located in the neighbouring village of Chikale, I took to heart local musician’s nightly hang outs, making music on the lakeshore.
First, I met Lumbani ‘JahYouth’ Mkandewire, a guitarist and singer, who was teaching music at the house . Along with him I met , Martha ‘Mama Malawi’ Chinyanja.
We jammed and talked long into the night, playing folk tunes and after a while I could convince them to play some of their own compositions.
Two days later I met Joffrey Goma, one of JahYouth’s friends, a quiet and slander singer and percussionist. By the fifth day I knew how to play all their songs, and we started talking about the option of recording. I was keen to try and get a ‘stripped-down’ version of the band, mainly catching acoustic versions, no amplification. We set up in the main gallery space of the house, placing the zoom recorder and recorded takes, stopping to discuss the performance, trying different arrangements.
For the most part, the first or second takes were chosen, having captured “happy mistakes”. I tried to emphasise the room acoustics, including the noise from outside, as the curios children from the neighbourhood peeked laughingly. All three of them, Jahyouth, Martha and Joffrey, had different vocal textures, ebb and flow. The session took two to three hours, by the end of which we all agreed we must meet again and jam different tunes. Since these are at most Jams, I took liberty with naming the songs, as we never stopped to even talk about the songs themselves, except play them.

Track breakdown:

  1. Lumbe. Jah Family Band. Recorded at Unu House. This song was captured during the second recording session. Jah Youth proposed it the same day I got back to Unu House. Before we started playing I asked where and when was this song from, when Martha commented that it was a very old song they used to play with their band, but never got to record.
  2. Traditional. Jah Family Band. Recorded at Unu House. This song was captured during the second recording session. I asked Jahyouth if he could play me a traditional folk song, a conversation which prolonged into a deep talk about the state of conservation in Malawi, each throwing around their own thesis about the way it is. Finally, Jahyouth started playing and humming this tune, saying it used to be a traditional song, but has now been disregarded, and all but forgotten. He admitted that he couldn’t remember it properly as well, making up missing parts.
  3. Kalimera. Recorded at Unu House. This song was captured during the second recording session. This was a song Martha wanted to record. She played the song incessantly throughout the entire day, practicing the strumming technique and the chords repeatedly. I heard her play this song with the children in the house (on the first album), so I was familierized with the tune, and had heard many different versions of it. Even in this version she was hesitant on how to end it, and so this track was taken from a first take, as it was raw and interesting. Maybe some day I’ll release the rest of the takes of this song.
  4. Theressa. Recorded at Unu House. This song was captured during the second recording session. This was Joffrey’s song that Jahyouth helped arrange. Joffrey was very excited for the recording, and the option to record his vocals. This was a first take, as he knew exactly how the song should play-out.
  5. Medley. Recorded at Unu House. This was an unexpected surprise, when Joffrey mixed and mashed several of his songs into one. This extended track was so much fun to record, since we got to hear a lot of the repertoire of his songs, all stacked up onto another.
  6. Think of me. Recorded in the back room of Unu House. Mr. Overton Gondwe is a phenomenal musician. As soon as I heard of him, I knew I wanted to jam with him. His songs are in English, since he plays for the most part, in hotels, for tourists. He plays accordion and sings. He has a clear cutting voice, and his accordion skills are very unique. When I asked him to play me some of his songs, he preferred to play religious songs, as he is a very christian person. He recorded the two tracks one after the other, without stopping. One memorable moment was when we listened back to the recording. Overton sat silently, with the headphones over his ears. He seemed concentrated immensely. He did not speak or flinch for the entire length of the track. After we finished playing back the songs, his only reaction was a short and almost inaudible “good”. He was the epitome of a humble musician, only striving to play his music for people, with an open heart, and a unique sound to his playing.
  7. We shall meet again. Recorded in the back room of Unu House. A gospel and a love song performed by Overton.
  8. Baby, Ndiwe wanga. Chifundo Chinoko. Recorded on the Lakeside, at Butterfly Space Hostel. Chifundo was working in the kitchen at a local hostel, when we met. He would play live shows twice a week, at the bar of the hostel, playing guitar and singing. We met through Jahyouth, and we jammed a bit. His English was very good, and he was brilliant at playing the guitar. Funnily enough, he was deeply influenced by American love songs, and pop music, and had written his own music in the same style. This song is a love song he wrote.
  9. Love. Toxic Baby. Recorded near Livingstonia. At the Mushroom Farm, I had met with a local friend of Jahyouth, a rapper, who only identified himself as ‘Toxic Baby’. He wanted to sing and jam with me, but had not come with anything prepared. I told him to just sing me something, so we went in the night to the outskirts of the mountain, far from people, to record some acapella versions. This is a song he wrote, also as a love song.
  10. Unu House anthem. Recorded at Unu House. This song was written by Jahyouth and the children at Uni House, together, as a musical activity. The kids loved to sing it, as it was for almost all of them, the first time they had written music, and played it back.
  11. Sing me some song. Recorded at Unu House. This song is by Jahyouth, and he taught it to the children of the house. They all join in, singing with him for the chorus. Through this song the kids also learned English skills, as well as a way to voice themselves. It was truly incredible to jam with them the song, as they sang it with 30 (!!!) voices. Jahyouth is leading the song form with his guitar.

The third album was a happy coincidence altogether.
While traveling to visit the Malawi-Wawi project, we sat in their headquarters, located in the rural community of Kapeska, not far from Chinteche, northern region of Malawi. Just when we were about to leave, Noam turned my attention to some singing, emanating from afar. It was barely audible, but had piqued my interest, as Julius Banda, the local manager of Malawi-Wawi project and I went over to check it out. It turned out to be the local choir’s rehearsal. Situated in an old semi-demolished church, the choir group, (which consisted of the choir master, three men, 4 women and 2 girls), had started their rehearsal for the Sunday mass. Their songs were mostly in Chitonga (local language in Malawi, endemic to the northern region). As soon as we enetered the building, the choir went silent. Julius asked the choir master to allow me to sit in, and record their music. After a short consultation, they all agreed smiling, and so I was able to catch an entire mass, consisting of four different church songs. While the choir was singing, they had orchestrated dance moves, which are salient and audible in the recording, and resemble a percussion sound. These were made with their feet and hands, using body percussion and motion. Once they had finished singing the songs, the choir master had given us the signal to quietly leave, and so we did.
I incorporated the environmental recordings from around the Kapeska community, mainly the football field next to where the church was located.

The fourth, and last album of the series, was recorded during our second visit to the country. Between February – March 2020, Noam and I decided to take our exhibition ‘Our Malawi; No words needed’ and show it around the country (I expand on this here).
During that month, we had the opportunity to return to the places we stayed in for prolonged periods the prior year. This was a heartfelt visitation, as we reunited with old friends, as well as with new ones. The album came about more concisely, because I knew I wanted to capture more songs of local musicians I had met the year before. The Unu House Chairty had since formed a band, for the kids to play in. I also made contact with new musicians, Namely Andrew ‘Bobo Andy’ Makana. He is a bobo rasta, from Mzuzu, northern region. I had made the connection with Andy through a mutual friend, Hal, AKA Selkie, from RoomTone Records in Bristol.
You can (and should) check them out here and here.
As soon as we met, we immediately clicked. Andy is a talented musician with a creative force like no other. I also directed, shot and edited a video clip for two of his songs, one of which you can check out here.
Continuing the spirit of the first album, Andy and I jammed a few sessions, before we settled on a song we could improvise, with Andy singing lead vocals and me playing the guitar, singing backing vocals and. This album is ridden with strong emotional moments for me, reminding me that I have a new home in Malawi, with all the complexities it brings, it widens my heart in new directions I did not see coming.
Leaving Malawi that time, it has taken a special place in my heart, and life.
During our exhibitions we met with local artists, poets, musicians, activists. I have collaborated with a local poet, Chris Msosa, in creating sound poetry pieces, which culminated in an evening of poetry and environmental sound-art, which I will share in the future.
I feel like this project is a personal recollection of the time spent, and could be a jumping board to a much larger body of work. In the future, I want to return to Malawi, with more equipment, and perhaps enlarge the project, reframe it in different ways, but for now, it represents the local artists and musicians through my eyes and ears. I am forever gratful to have met new friends, which are by now family, in the warm heart of Africa.

Track breakdown:

1.  MOTO. Recorded at Unu House. I first heard this song (and recorded it) on our first visit to Unu House. This time, the kids wanted to perform it themselves, without anyone else helping them with the instruments. They gathered ,singing and dancing, while I stood there as spectator, allowing them to express themselves, led by the older children visiting the house.
2. Kids’ song. Recorded at Unu House. This was another one where the kids had asked to play themselves. They had written this song all alone, following their music lessons. They arranged it themselves as well.
3. Eliza. Song written and arranged by Martha ‘Mama Malawi’ Niyanja. Recorded at Unu House.
4. I initially met Martha when we first came to Malawi. She is truly the mother of the house. When we came back this time, Martha told me she had wrote this song, but hadn’t arranged it. This is a jam rendition of the song, extended alongside Mr. Overton Gondwe, playing the accordion.
5. Unu Charity Jazz Band. This song was written by Martha and the kids together, based loosely on a vocal obstinate Martha had picked up from a Zimbabwean singer she liked very much. The song capitalises the new essence of the house band, with the kids taking a bigger part in making music. Recorded at Unu House.
6. Unu charity jazz band vocals. Recorded at Unu House. This is the original vocal rendition of the inspiration that Martha told me about. As soon as I heard this, I told her I have to record her vocals Acapella, as they moved me so much.
7. Good Vibe. This song came out of a jam session with a new friend, Andrew ‘Bobo Andy’ Makana. Recorded at Andy’s house, Mzuzu. We decided to jam and write a tune together. As we jammed, I played guitar and Andy wrote the lyrics, while we arranged the song ‘on the fly’.
8. Think of me, forget me not. This song is by Mr. Overton Gondwe, and was recorded for the last album as well. Recorded at Unu House. This time, Overton insisted on recording it again, since he thought he had a better delivery of the song now. I joined with a guitar, and followed his instructions, as we jammed the song form.
9. Where are you. This is another of Overton’s songs. Recorded at Unu House. This song is very unique, in the incredibly intricate rhythmic patterns he plays on the accordion, while singing the lyrics. I played along with the guitar, as Overton marked the chord changes with a slight nod of his head.