Between Moya Aliya Malamusi's video documentation of banjo-based ensembles –titled Banjo Bands of Malawi- to the multiple recordings of the Malawi Mouse Boys, as well as Ian Brennan's award-winning audio documentation of music found in the country's notorious Zomba prison, this sliver of a nation in southern Africa is getting lots of musical attention of late. And as Hugh Tracey's 1950's-era field recordings, available on the SWP label, have already shown, the country has a rich and varied musical heritage. Kukaya and the Tonga Boys are crucial additions to the conversation.
Ukhaliro, recorded outside of Kukaya's group leader Emmanuel Mlonga Ngwira's home, features multi-generations of drummers and singers performing, among other items, the vimbuza, a healing dance ritual Ngwira learned from his parents, who were both traditional doctors among the Tumbuka-Ngoni tribe of Northern Malawi. Drum and vocal ritual performance can be found scattered all over sub-Saharan Africa, and immersion into the various cultures that perform it reveals radical differences in patterns, all of which are specific and complex. This disc bears out polyrhythms that are all but lost on the average listener; however, a breakdown of drum parts, one instrument at a time, shows how orchestrated African drumming can be and how music often written off as “primitive” by dismissive westerners is not only incredibly difficult and precise but also at the root of so much global pop.
This music is also one more example of a practice at odds with, and frowned upon by Christians. Whether or not this kind of cult possession ritual truly offers any real help to the mentally and physically ill, it's a tradition being consciously preserved in the 21st century by Kukaya, and as a result, flies in the face of any attempts at eradication by western-derived religious practices. Lyrics have been changed to deal with modern issues (the importance of tradition, AIDS), but the music continues to have ritual significance.
The Tonga Boys, on the other hand, call Mzuzu, the capital of the region they likely share with many Tumbuka, home. From their slum dwellings, they have added homemade instruments such as plastic buckets, ax, gravel-filled cans, and wire-strung guitars to their one drum for music intensely raw, but incredibly precise. Lyrically, they mix tradition with rap-like cadences for a kind of urban DIY that shows perfectly what happens as the city environment pushes the new into the same cage as the old. Black magic, hopelessness, poverty, infant mortality, and malaria bump against songs about tribal dance or the choice between one's drinking buddies and one's fiancée.
With rhythms often in 4/4, there's a familiarity here, a sense of connection with so much pop music the world over. Yet, there is nothing slick about any of this; it's straight up, hardcore, crude-by-necessity Malawian modernity. As such, the Tonga Boys are likely to be one a number of such groups found in Mzuzu. 1000HZ has not only brought forth some raw musical reality from an incredibly impoverished region of the continent, they have gone so far as to package these discs in colorful rectangular zip-lock pouches. Further information on the label and the discs can be found on Facebook and Bandcamp. - Bruce Miller
These recordings are available on Bandcamp: