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Doctor Kanuska Group
Mutende Mizumu

Review by Bruce Miller

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The music on this disc resides in a place many would consider either anti-science, or at the very least see as the type of woefully ignorant occurrence that happens when modern medicine isn’t as readily available as it should be. Certainly, in Northern Malawi, one of the poorest places on earth and also where these performances were recorded, Christians, themselves espousing the often-dangerous beliefs of the colonizers, see what’s on offer here as an embarrassment. Yet, with the continued existence of these types of performances come places to have conversations about cultural preservation, resistance, and music and dance as therapy and performance as art. Consider the fact that Music Therapy is a clinical, evidence-based science in the west.

Vimbuza, the music and dance on offer on this collection, tends to occur at night and at least in this area, under the leadership of Doctor Kanuska, who is a well-respected figure in the villages of the Northern Mzimba region. And if her duties include expelling spirits and curses, the music provided under her auspices delivers much needed therapy. Kanuska is a woman who deals largely with women’s health issues and plans to construct a maternity hospital for her region. So, aside from being a dance, vimbuza also includes the illness, the therapy, and the state of possession, and at least where Doctor Kanuska operates, a place where women’s issues are a necessary focus; in this way, vimbuza tells a story of sickness to treatment to convalescence.

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1000HZ, a label based in Warsaw, Poland, continues releasing some of the most hardcore, raw folk music and ritual to ever come out of Malawi. And in a country receiving some much-deserved international attention for homemade “banjo” bands such as the Madalitso Band or stylistically far-ranging groups such as the Malawi Mouse Boys, it’s awesome that Malawi’s more rural, less South African-influenced sounds are being heard as well. The band here consists of at least 20 voices, but it’s the pounding hand drum rhythms, especially those of the 7-piece ensemble’s leader, that drive this music forward. Homemade rattles and shakers attached to dancers punctuate the poly-rhythms, and the dancing is led by Doctor Kanuska, her students, and her patients. And even though the music here was recorded over several performances between May and September of 2019, it feels continuous, even climaxing with track eleven, where the spirits leave and the energy reaches peak intensity. Lyrically, songs deal with expelling bad spirits, laughing at doubters who then come to call when there is illness, and appreciation for the medicine this kind musical exorcism provides.

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Right now more than ever, as Covid-19 re-arranges the way the entire planet conducts itself, we need to pay more attention than ever to science. In the USA, where anti-science insanity, pushed by a white house-occupying monster and gobbled by millions who appear beyond reason, we see all too clearly what happens if we don’t. However, Smashmouth’s recent, idiotic performance in Sturgis, SD notwithstanding, music can also provide us with much needed sustenance, and regardless of one’s belief in spirit-possession, what the good Doctor of North Mzimba is putting out there also has value on a number of other levels. - Bruce Miller

Further reading:
Malawi Mouse Boys
Madalitso Band
Kukaya and Tonga Boys

Find the recording on 1000hz

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