The South Africa-derived rhythms of Malawi’s regional folk/pop hybrids, often produced on homemade instruments out of economic necessity, have garnered a bit of attention of late. There’s been the success of babatoni player Gasper Nali; the Malawi Mouse Boys’ gigs at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD festival and tours of Australia, New Zealand, and the US; Moya Malamusi’s recent field documentation of regional bands titled Banjo Bands of Malawi; as well as releases by the Tonga Boys and Kukaya on Poland’s 1000hz label. So it’s no surprise to find the Madalitso Band playing Denmark’s Roskilde Festival, doing multi-week tours of Europe, featuring on BBC Africa, and having this, their second LP, released on Geneva’s Bongo Joe label.
But make no mistake about it, while these tours, accolades, and releases do much to bring some infectious music to the West, Malawi remains one of the world’s poorest countries, and the Mouse Boys still live without electricity, on a dollar a day. The duo that comprises Madalitso spent years playing the streets of the nation’s capital, Lilongwe, which, despite being the governmental hub, contains massive poverty and unemployment. Knowing Malawi’s conditions, from its issues with drought, deforestation, and extreme poverty, it’s amazing music this infectious runs throughout the country. The basic groove, perfected on an early 1970s LP by the Kachamba brothers, perhaps the most contagious slab of wax to ever come out of the continent, owes something to South African Kwela and jive.
But it’s not that simple. Homemade instruments such as the ones played on this record, seem like orchestras. The guitar, played by Yosefe Kalekeni, holds tight to the rhythm while Yobu Maligwa’s long-necked, banjo-like babatoni, the sliding bass sound prominent in many of the country’s regional bands, serves as bottom end as well as lead. While key shifts are few, dynamics, subtleties, and variety seem endless. And their vocal harmonies are like choruses. Any track on this record demonstrates this; there simply are no weak spots. “Vina Vina Malawi,” the album’s opener, builds tension over the basic chords before the duo’s vocals chime in, praising their country, wallowing in happiness. And this spirit permeates the record.
This is music of necessity. While it’s important that they are receiving global recognition, this has nothing to do with their reasons for making music in the first place. The world should take notice of Malawi, and records like this one will help. Yet it’s clear the Madalitso Band aren’t waiting around for the world to care.
Tonga Boys and Kukaya
Zomba Prison Project: “I Have No Everything Here”
Hugh Tracey recordings from Malawi