Archive for July, 2008

War, Exorcism & The Legend

July 29, 2008

After a brief stopover in Lilongwe on Friday night, we spent Saturday morning in the villages of the Mzimba district in north-central Malawi. Our guide, Gertrude Mkandawire, a Member of Parliament from the area, gave us an intimate look at the cultural traditions practiced in the region. As we arrived in the village, dancers and drummers dotted the hillsides from villages in all directions, preparing for the festival that awaited us. We anxiously set up our equipment, excited to see the ingoma and vimbuza dances.

Setting up in Mzimba, Malawi

Setting up in Mzimba, Malawi

The ingoma is a warrior dance practiced across southern and eastern Africa. Originally a tradition of South Africa’s Zulu warrior tribe, the ingoma spread across the continent as rival Zulu factions fled north, fearing persecution from the ruthless Zulu king, Shaka Zulu. In Malawi, these Zulu descendants settled in the north, forming the Ngoni tribe. The Ngoni still practice the ingoma today, a proud remnant of a warrior culture. The dance itself is a show of strength, a representation of the tribe’s pride and might. As such, dancers adorn themselves with prized animal skins and carry weapons and shields while performing. The entire scene was awe-inspiring, a ritual with historical depth that’s difficult to fully appreciate.

Ngoni women dancing the Ingoma

Ngoni women dancing the Ingoma

Equally impressive was the power of the mystical vimbuza, a traditional healing dance used to exorcise evil spirits from those afflicted by psychological ailments. Drummers and singers surround the possessed individual, arousing internal spirits until they take control of the victim’s body and dance their way out of their host. The rhythm’s spiritual underpinnings are said to be indiscriminate, arousing spirits within innocent bystanders and bringing them into the fray. Fortunately, none of us were possessed and stuck to our jobs behind the cameras, grabbing some incredible footage in the process. It was an exhausting dance to watch and was surely all-consuming for its performers. After the dance concluded, we packed the Land Rover and headed two hours north to visit the great Wambali Mkandawire in Mzuzu.

A 2007 recipient of the LUSO Lifetime Achievement Award as an international ambassador of Malawian culture, Wambali’s music career spans four decades of tremendous accolades. Born in the Congo to Malawian parents, he was introduced to Afro-jazz brought back from South Africa by his uncle. He then decided to move full time to South Africa, successfully launching a career as an international Afro-jazz artist. He’s produced albums on world-renown record labels, including Sony/BMG, and toured Europe and North America extensively throughout his career, spending extended time performing across Canada.

A sample from the legendary Wambali Mkandawire

Wambali charismatically shared his own personal story and his ideas on the role of music in Malawian culture and shifting trends within music production across the continent. He also spoke fondly of memories singing against apartheid across South Africa, using music to bridge cultural divides and speak out against the government’s harsh tactics and policies. After two hours lost in conversation, we motored over to Nkhata Bay to spend another relaxing night on the lakeshore.

Sunday morning we caught up with Gasper Nali, a talented self-taught traditional musician from Nkhata Bay. Nali’s unique sound stems from the babatone, his self-made, one-stringed instrument played with a metal baton and a glass bottle used as a slide. He combines the babatone with a floor bass drum (also self-made) and a crisp, clear voice to produce a rich Kwaito/Gospel blend. His sound is like nothing I’ve ever heard, distinctly Malawian, and a perfect example of the traditional elements that are disappearing from the music here.

Gasper Nali @ Mayoka Village in Nkhata Bay, Malawi

Gasper Nali @ Mayoka Village in Nkhata Bay, Malawi

After recording two songs with Gasper, we made the nine hour haul from Nkhata Bay back to Blantyre, where we’ll again spend the week interviewing musicians and going back through film to review our progress so far. Keep us in your thoughts, and thanks to everyone for reading!

The Challenges Facing Malawian Music

July 25, 2008

Another week of insider-interviews from Blantyre, all of which have highlighted important trends in Malawian music. During the colonial era, traditional musical instruments, songs, rhythms, and pedagogies were chronically marginalized. Colonial governments were concerned first and foremost with their territories being financially self-supporting, so administration was kept to a minimum. Thus, economic activity was left to profiteers and education was placed in the hands of Christian missionaries.

Unsurprisingly, missionaries abandoned traditional music in favor of western gospel, and the result has had profound effects on the development of Malawian music, the vast majority of which is divorced from the country’s rich cultural heritage. Instead, copy-cat artists have come to dominate, both musicians who reproduce other African sounds, such as those found in Zambia, the DRC, or South Africa, and those who simply sing western tunes translated into Chewa lyrics. The hope for many of these musicians is that, by mimicking popular sounds, they too will reach international audiences. Rather than embracing distinctly Malawian tunes, they are attempting to compete with the sounds of western pop. But, handicapped by low quality recording equipment and unrefined production/distribution networks, they stand little chance at making a mark on the world music scene.

Locally, musical expression has been increasingly shaped by monetary ambitions. As the sixth poorest country in the world, financial considerations are certainly warranted, but the result has been a proliferation of untrained and unprofessional recordings. Low-quality recordings have inevitably pandered to a widely held public opinion that music is not a serious professional pursuit. It’s easy to see how this cycle reinforces itself and can lead to the erosion of musical integrity.

It’s not a doomsday scenario, but the challenges facing Malawian music are real. The country is full of extremely talented musicians with broad international appeal, but the current mechanisms for artist development and promotion are simply inadequate. But, with the introduction of new low-cost production technology, the invisible hand is beginning to play a role.

J&D Record Company, a 1st of its kind in Malawi

A 1st of its kind in Malawi

In the last two years, important players have started moving into the market to counter these trends. Tuesday we sat down with Michael Munthali of J&D Records. As a Malawian record label, they are among the first breed of companies to combine the services of a professional recording studio with artist production, promotion and distribution. Michael hopes to shift public perception of Malawian music by using J&D’s administrative role to produce Malawian music to an international standard.

Wednesday, we met with four DJs from MBC Radio (Malawi Broadcasting Corporation). While many villagers may not have televisions, most have access to radios. So, MBC’s audience is a wide cross-section of the Malawian population. The DJs on-air experience made clear the demand for local music relevant to the country’s history and the issues faced by the average Malawian. For example, one of MBC’s highest-rated broadcasts is Tidzoani Zoyimba, a weekly show devoted to live traditional Malawian music. Additionally, the DJs noted that they receive more song requests for traditional music than any other genre.

Kenny and Jimmy-J @ MBC Radio 2

Kenny and Jimmy-J @ MBC Radio 2

This issue, the reflection of culture and history in modern music, continues to emerge in all the conversations we have. We’re talking to everyone—bartenders, waiters, gardeners, cashiers, etc. We’ve found a trail of interest that we’ll continue to follow.

This weekend the trail takes us on a tour of northern Malawi. In Mzimba, we’ll be going deep in the bush to learn about the traditions of the ingoma warrior dance and the vimbuza healing ritual. Then, we’ll be heading up Mzuzu to sit down with the legendary Wambali Mkandawire. Stay with us…..

Gig at Gecko Lounge

July 20, 2008

Saturday morning we woke up early, rounded up Kenny’s old crew, the Sangalala (Happiness) Blues Band, and drove six hours to Chembe, a small village inside Lake Malawi National Park on Cape Maclear. Jutting out along the southern coast, the cape grants views of the sun rising over Mozambique and setting over Malawi. A string of islands dots the horizon, begging adventurers to grab an oar and get acquainted with the water.

Gecko Lounge - Cape Maclear, Malawi

The purpose for our visit to the lake was last night’s beachside gig at Gecko Lounge. If you’re headed to Cape Maclear, it’s the place to stay and has quickly become one of Malawi’s hottest music venues. They’ve begun booking acts from Lilongwe and Blantyre, and this year, they’re hosting musicians and festival go-ers in advance of the Lake of Stars Music Festival in October.

The Big Night

The Big Night

Waliko opened with a set of traditional instruments, relaxing the mood for dinner and getting guests ready for the show to come. The tourist and village crowd alike began flowing in, and by the time Kenny got started into the second set, the beach was covered with indistinguishable figures dancing in the starlight. The Sangalala Band kept the crowd moving past midnight until tired feet found their way to warm beds.

A truly international crowd

A truly international crowd (click for more photos)

Simon and Paul from Gecko Lounge said it was one of the best nights at Cape Mac in recent memory. They took us under wing while we were here and went to great lengths to make us comfortable. We’re grateful for their hospitality and hope we can make it back to Gecko soon, as this weekend has been a blast for both the band and film crew.

This morning we were pleased to wake up and read “Uncle” Herbert’s feature, a thorough 1800-word expose on Deep Roots Malawi in The Nation, Malawi’s largest daily print-publication. Four pictures and two full pages were dedicated to the piece, which was well written and gives a face to the project in the national press.

We’re again back in Blantyre this week, conducting another round of interviews with musicians, DJs, and record labels before embarking for our tour of northern Malawi next week. Ciao for now.

Back in Blantyre

July 18, 2008

After filming, bush-camping, and traveling 1200km over the past five days, it felt great for us to settle back into our humble abode in Blantyre for the week. We’ve been busy promoting the film in the national press and television while making the rounds within Blantyre’s music scene.

Monday morning we met the The Nation and The Times. Kenny’s friends within the printing industry have proven invaluable, and we’re now looking at a feature story on Deep Roots set for both papers on next Tuesday—neither one wants to miss out or be shown up by the other.

Malawi's #1 News Source

Malawi's #1 news source

Additionally, this week we were fortunate enough to interview Lucius Banda, a former Malawian MP and currently one of the country’s most popular artists. Banda’s large presence and jovial smile cut a memorable figure, and his remarks proved less controversial than the man himself.

A former member of parliament, Banda was an outspoken opposition leader while in office, using both his music and political leverage to reach the public’s ears with his complaints. However, while in office, Banda was arrested and imprisoned for two months on charges unrelated to his political comments. However, the timing of his arrest fueled suspicion of the government’s motivations and heightened Banda’s reputation as a champion of the people. Additionally, Banda capitalized on his newfound public sympathy, producing the album Cell Block 51 upon his release from prison.

Interview with Lucius Banda

Interview with Lucius Banda

Our meeting with Banda was at Makye’s, a popular venue owned by Makye himself, a Cameroonian rumored to have the best music collection in all of Blantyre. With a panoramic view from a hilltop overlooking the northern part of the city, it’s easy to see why his place has gained so much popularity among musicians and fans alike. Our project here is entirely apolitical, and we don’t want to develop any controversy, so we steered our interview questions with Lucius away from the political realm and toward that of music and its role in Malawian culture. Banda’s insights demonstrated a genuine concern for the future of Malawian music. A former reggae musician, Banda has begun to consciously remove himself from the reggae genre in search of a more distinctly Malawian sound. Drawing upon traditional Malawian rhythms and beats, he is trying to pioneer a new wave of musicians to place Malawi on the World Music Map.

In the latter part of the week, we were able to sit down with both Ben Michael Mankhamba, another prominent name in Malawian music, and Kenny Clips, a well-known DJ at Joy Studios. In recent years, Mankhamba has championed the development of distinctly Malawian sounds, while Clips, currently shooting a documentary on Malawian hip-hop, has a great vantage point for watching the evolution of Malawian music. Both men were able to shed unique light onto our project and we thank them for their support.

Ben Michael demonstrates traditional rhythms

Ben Michael demonstrates traditional rhythms

Tomorrow (Saturday), we’re returning to Cape Maclear to play a promotional gig at the beautiful Gecko Lounge, so stay tuned for more…

Inside Gule Wamkulu

July 13, 2008

Ancestral spirits play an important role in present day Chewa culture by remaining in contact with the living world, primary through the dances of those belonging to the Nyau, Malawi’s secret societies. Gule Wamkulu, meaning “the big dance,” has become another title for these secret societies of traditional Chewa religious practices, and this weekend, we were fortunate enough to enter its secret realm. This sacred, complex cultural system is little known to the outside world and consists of a series of formally organized dances to admire the remarkable abilities of the dancers, who are considered adept at their dance due to their spiritual state.

Nyau is a term associated with those who participate in the rituals of these secret societies, members of which must be formally initiated and become acquainted with the society’s customs, traditions, and secret dialect. July is the peak season for Gule, with young villagers dressed as ancestral animals, trees or wearing masks to represent ancestral spirits. Nyau are considered to be in an ‘animal state’ while dressed in such attire and are not to be approached. Therefore, if one passes a Nyau in the village, it’s customary for an individual to drop several coins at a Nyau’s feet, never handing the money directly for fear of being taken by the Nyau for ceremonial purposes.

A Gule, or ancestral spirit

A Nyau, or ancestral spirit

The Gule Wamkulu dance generally takes place when the village chief requests such festivities, often corresponding with special occasions such as weddings, funerals, or initiation ceremonies. While a great deal of mystery still surrounds Gule Wamkulu, each formal performance is a source of great celebration for the nearby villages. The special occasion for this weekend’s performance was “our visitors from the UK and America,” the village opening its arms to our film crew and extending a warm welcome to capturing a cornerstone of Malawian culture.

After paying our tributes to the region’s chiefs, we were escorted to a small village 20km south of Lilongwe called Nyama. As we bounced along the dirt road into Nyama, we came upon the village’s small football pitch, scattered with women singing traditional hymns, men tightening their drumheads over a fire and children playing festively in the mid-day sun.

After unloading our gear and setting-up, the chief stood to make a few brief remarks to inform the villagers about our project, welcome us to the region and formally initiate the performance. Then, typical of the paradox of modern technology, just at the time when the chief opened his mouth to begin his remarks……..his cell phone rang! Quite a memorable moment, one that we thankfully caught on film.

Village headmen in Nyama

Village headmen in Nyama

Then, the drumming and singing began, continuing with extraordinary energy and without interruption for over two hours. During this time, ten separate corresponding rhythms and dances were performed, ranging from simulated fights to giving praise for the annual harvest to shows of respect for mythical animals. Some performances had only one Nyau, while others had up to three. Two acts were especially memorable for us—the lion, and the snake charmer.

The performance of the lion was conducted by two vinyau who shared a costume, much like that of a Chinese Dragon. They entered the ceremonial circle from a small, wooded area on the blind side of the pitch, and as soon as the lion became visible, villagers quickly cleared out of its path, partly in respect for the performance, but also in fear of the Nyau’s representation. Dancing to the crowd’s drumbeat, the pair occasionally stopped to give menacing glances, often followed by brief charges to taunt the crowd and send onlookers fleeing for a safer vantage point.

Then, during the fifth performance, I decided to step inside the dance circle to get some close-up footage of the snake-charming Nyau. Little did I know, by stepping inside that ring, I became a stage-prop for this Nyau’s performance. Within seconds, the dancer had placed his 5ft snake around my neck (I’m terrified of snakes, we still haven’t determined the snake’s species, and I don’t want to know), and for what seemed like an eternity, it crawled across my shoulders while I held the camcorder tightly and listened to the crowd roar. Finally, and without incident, the Nyau relieved me of my duty and I quickly blended back into the crowd, flattered to have been honored, but grateful to be alive.

The Snake Charmer

The Snake Charmer

After the ceremony, we thanked the performers, organizers and villagers for having us before handing out several crates of cold drinks and heading back to Lilongwe. After witnessing such an event, we can’t help but agree with Waliko about how resilient Gule Wamkulu seems to be as a form of cultural expression. While many traditional forms of song and dance across the globe are eroding, Gule has managed to incorporate modern elements into its form, including masked representations for politicians, public policy issues, HIV, globalization and modern technology to name a few (It’s now estimated that there exists more than a thousand different Gule mask types.) This wide range of symbolism ensures a dynamic, relevant connection between the characters and the audience. Already, Waliko and I are making plans to film a second documentary entirely on Gule Wamkulu within the next twelve months.

Back in Lilongwe, we headed over to Faith Studios to record Charles Kanthama, a legendary nsasi player and personal musician to the Achewa King. The nsasi (also known as an mbira in Zimbabwe or kalimba in Zambia) is a traditional Malawian take on a tuned idiophone (lamelaphone), placed inside of a calabash for resonation and played with the thumb, index and middle fingers. A nsasi can have anywhere from 8-45 keys arranged across two separate rows on the calabash’s interior. It’s sound is distinctly African, almost like a metallic version of the xylophone.

Charles Mkanthama, personal musician to the Achewa King

Charles Mkanthama, personal musician to the Achewa King

We recorded several of Charles’ tracks before losing the afternoon sun and deciding to call it quits for the day. We again slept at Ken’s cousins’ place in Lilongwe (thanks Mike and Allie) last night before hitting the road back to Blantyre this morning. We’ll be taking care of promotion and planning logistics this week from here before taking off for north early next week. Until then, zikomo kwambili!

Music is The Way

July 12, 2008

The name Malawi is derived from the word Maravi, meaning ‘reflected light or bright haze,’ which refers to the beautiful sunsets and sunrises over Lake Malawi. Explorer David Livingstone described the lake as a Lake of Stars that mirrors the crystal skies above. We spent last night along the southern coast at the beautiful Gecko Lounge in Cape Maclear, and its nighttime ambience surely fits these bills

Cape Maclear - Lake Malawi National Park

Cape Maclear - Lake Malawi National Park

After a slow morning of tea and cake, we packed the 4×4 and crawled eighty pothole filled kilometers to the lake’s southernmost town, Mangochi. Straddling the short, narrow waterway between Lake Malawi and Lake Malombe, the area is the only suitable overland passage for an invading force to enter Malawi from the east.

East central Malawi’s two largest tribes are the Chewa and Yao. The Yao, the larger tribe, quickly recognized the area’s strategic importance, allied with Arab slavers, converted to Islam, and enshrined the slave trade as the region’s economic engine. The Yao built a number of forts in the surrounding area, from which they sent out raiding parties to capture members from other tribes, including the Chewa. Eventually, these captives were packed into dhows bound for the shores of Zanzibar’s slave market.

The largest Yao fort still stands today, a relic of the region’s rich history. It rests upon a mountaintop overlooking the town, and the Yao were able to retain its control for over a decade after the British abolished the slave trade by proclaiming Nyasaland (Malawi) a protectorate. The Yao chief was able to successfully repel multiple British attempts to take the fort, in one instance sneaking down from the hillside, stealing a British cannon, and then hauling it back up the mountain to be used against the British themselves.

Eventually, the British hired mercenaries from other African nations, brought in a massive army, and laid siege to the fort. In the final showdown, the Yao taunted the surrounding army with drumbeats and messages of defiance before quietly repelling off the backside of the mountain and slipping away to safety without a fight. Thus, Fort Mangochi stills stands intact to this day, although the original Yao structure has been buttressed by the colonial power’s efforts to expand the existing fort.

Due to their enslavement by the Yao, Chewa culture and tradition were oppressed in this region. Therefore, the few Chewa that remain in east-central Malawi, the heart of Yao territory, strongly identify with their cultural past and strictly adhere to cultural traditions. So, this important historical context shaped our approach to attending today’s important Chewa ceremony in a predominantly Yao region.

And, although we were granted permission to record today’s celebration over two months ago, the agreement was not solidified until we had a direct, personal meeting with the chief himself. So, we drove into the small village just outside Mangochi in search of the chief. After circling the village several times, we found our man, received his blessing, and followed his lead to a large tree on the village’s fringe.

As we pulled up, the procession was already underway. I jumped out of the truck without grabbing the tripod, glued to the camcorder’s LCD in search of the women coming toward me. Only after locating them in my viewfinder did I realize that each of them moved forward wearing only a chitenje (sarong) wrapped around their waist.

Unprepared for the performance to come

Unprepared for the performance to come

Our entire crew immediately felt thrown back in time, sure that we were capturing a setting that none of us really believed still existed, but there it was, right before our eyes. I felt an indescribable force in this new, unique world of song and dance, an unfamiliar, uniting cultural power. It gives me chills to simply type about the experience.

Today’s ceremony paid homage to the villagers’ ancestors and commemorated the eleventh and final month before they make their annual pilgrimage to visit the Chewa king in eastern Zambia next month. From start to finish, every element of the ritual is highly stylized and follows a strict cultural tradition. We were particularly surprised to see the dominant role that women played in the function, due largely to the Chewa’s matrilineal social order.

Women are central to Chewa culture and performances

Women are central to Chewa culture and performances

At the close of the celebration, the village elders made a ritual offering to the tree, which represents their ancestry. After giving its roots ufa (maize flour) and water, they bowed in praise to the tree. We left the village full of life, eternally grateful for our undeserved presence, sure that we’d been a part of something much larger than ourselves.

Ritual ancestral offering

Ritual ancestral offering

Tonight we are in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe. We’ll spend the weekend in the surrounding villages as fortunate insiders of Malawi’s secret Gule Wamkulu tradition. Please check back for more from the previously undocumented world of traditional Malawian music and dance. Cheers!

Also, we have loads of photo and videos that we want to post, although so far, we have been unable to find a strong enough broadband connection here to upload anything. We promise that we’re working on it!

Deep Roots Hits the Ground Running

July 10, 2008

Muli bwanji,

Malawi is a land of smiles, a culture attuned to human sensitivities, where, unlike any other place I’ve ever been, people are unable to ignore a person standing before them. Your average Malawian’s ability to immediately relate to a wide range of social contexts is uncanny—people matter here, and they understand one another. It’s quite amazing.

The Deep Roots team arrives in Blantyre

The Deep Roots team arrives in Blantyre

We’ve hit the ground running here in Blantyre. Kenny picked me up from the airport yesterday afternoon and we settled into our place here in Nyambadwe. After dropping off some equipment, we went over to TV Malawi to pick up Waliko and make arrangements for Deep Roots’ first televised coverage, which is an interview with Kenny and me early next week. Afterwards, we captured some great afterglow footage of Waliko explaining the cultural significance of several traditional Malawian instruments, including the visekese, nsasi, nkangala (mouth bow) and bangwe.

Waliko’s huge smile, depth of knowledge, musical training and background as a musicologist make him an invaluable resource and great travel companion. I can’t imagine having a more insightful and well connected Malawian organizing the film and recording schedule in Malawi.

This morning, we woke up early to drive to Chesomba, a small village about 20km east of Blantyre. The drive out to Chesomba is blotted with the squatter camps that are emblematic of one of the world’s most rapidly urbanizing countries. Dr. Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s independence leader from 1961-1994, created his own philosophy, known here as Kamuzuism. Influenced by Mao and Lenin, Kamuzu’s populist appeal and ideology reminds me of the Cultural Revolution. During his reign, he emphasized food security by encouraging Malawians to remain loyal to their cultural roots and to stay in the villages.

However, with Banda’s downfall in the 1994 election, the newly elected Dr. Bakili Muluzi implemented a wide range of free-market policies that encouraged business development and urban settlement. Hence, from 1994-2004, Malawi’s urban population increased from 5% to 25% of the country’s population. Unfortunately, urban flight has placed increasing demands on the urban ecosystem, as the hillsides between Blantyre and Chesomba have witnessed significant deforestation due to the settlers burning wood for cooking.

Soche Hill & the road between Blantyre & Che Somba

Soche Hill & the road between Blantyre & Chesomba

Chesomba is a small, rural village of no more than a thousand people. But, you wouldn’t know that once we arrived and began setting up our equipment. As the musicians began warming up, villagers began emerging from all corners of the bush, and soon we became quite a spectacle for the area’s curious onlookers.

Chesomba’s Samba Ns’oma Dance Troupe, is a lively group of twelve professional musicians and dancers who specialize in Yao ethnic celebration dances, such as Manganje, an adolescent initiation ceremony. You really must wait to see our footage to appreciation such cultural expressions. We were fortunate to record nearly ten separate songs and dances before packing up our gear and hitting the road by mid-afternoon.

Samba Ns’oma Dance Troupe

Samba Ns’oma Dance Troupe

We’ve revised our recording schedule a bit, and this afternoon we took off to Cape Maclear, a small village on the lake’s south end, approximately five hours drive from Blantyre. From here, we’ll spend tomorrow recording in Mangochi before heading off to spend the weekend with a Malawian secret society, the sacred Gule Wamkulu specialists from Lilongwe.

More to come soon, so stay tuned…..