Archive for the ‘From the Field’ Category

Lake of Stars 2008

October 17, 2008

Lake of Stars 2008 was incredible!!! The Deep Roots team reunited in beautiful Senga Bay, Malawi for three days of music and dance, hoping to collect some great interviews and live performance footage from some of Malawi’s finest musicians. The set up of the festival was brilliant. The stage was built on the beach into a massive rock formation, a smaller and yet still impressive stage similar to that of Red Rocks amphitheater. So, festival-goers could listen and dance while swimming in the lake.

The Lake of Stars music festival in Senga Bay, Malawi

Our relationship with the festival organizers gave us on-stage and backstage access to the musicians, meaning we were able to get exactly what we needed for Deep Roots. This included live performances and interviews with Joseph Tembo, the Black Missionaries, Tay Grin, Lucius Banda, Billy Kaunda, the Makambale Brothers and Body, Mind & Soul just to name a few.

Feeling the rhythm

Feeling the rhythm

Also, because Lake of Stars is a young and growing music festival, it has maintained its warm, intimate feel. Performers and spectators interacted, and several performers during the weekend collaborated to do impromptu acoustic jam sessions right on the beach, inviting anyone who could sing or play to join in. It was a pretty special environment, and we felt more connected to music than we have in a very long time listening to those jam sessions on the beach.

Sunday morning gospel

Sunday morning gospel

There were probably about 3,000 people in attendance at the festival, most all who were camping on the grounds. Lake of Stars is truly an international music festival, as throughout the weekend we met people from at least 30 different countries. Many of the people were from the U.K., but there were also many Malawians there, as well as Canadians, Americans, and people from other parts of western Europe. Regardless of where they came from, we met wonderful people, listened to phenomenal music and took in the beauty of this beautiful corner of the world. We can’t wait for LOS 2009!

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Tiwanana from the Warm Heart of Africa

August 14, 2008

Kenny, Waliko and I have spent the past three days in Blantyre going through footage, making sure we’re on the same page—translations, cultural explanations, film treatment, etc—before we all head our separate ways. For Ken, he’s off to Canterbury to start a new year of teaching secondary school in the UK. For Waliko, it’s back to TV Malawi and the election year turbulence stirring the office. I’ll be traveling around Malawi for the next 10 days, tying up loose ends before starting the overland trek back to Namibia.

Waliko, Kenny & Benjamin

The Deep Roots Team: Waliko, Benjamin & Kenny

From there, our editor, Cedar Wolf, and I will start the slow process of turning this experience into a finalized product. We hope to have a short trailer ready for screening at the Lake of Stars festival’s international press conference in early October, so we’ll be hitting it hard once I get back. After that, we aim to have the full-length feature available by the year’s end.

Thanks to everyone who has kept up with us along this incredible journey, and please continue to check back periodically for updates as we move into editing. This project was the first of hopefully many more to come, so please stay with us as we move from the field and into the studio. Thanks!

The Body, Mind & Soul of Malawi

August 8, 2008

This week, Lilongwe played host to the international finals of the Music Crossroads International (MCI) competition, a unique youth empowerment through music program initiated in 1995 by Jeunesses Musicales International (JMI) that encompasses five southern African countries: Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Since the program began twelve years ago, Music Crossroads has reached almost 35,000 musicians and 750,000 listeners. MCI is comprised of workshops, festivals and competitions to promote the African traditional and contemporary/ urban music of young African musicians. The project aims at creating sustainable musical structures in the target countries, improving self-awareness and social inclusion of young African individuals. MCI promotes the participation of young women in the program and addresses HIV/AIDS prevention through Relationship workshops.
Music Crossroads International

This week, finalists from each of the four other countries convened in Lilongwe to duke it out with the Malawian champions and see who would be crowned this year’s regional champion. On Thursday we sat down with Stieg Hannsen, MCI’s festival director for Malawi. He talked about the evolution of music throughout the region over the past decade, highlighting Malawi’s success in winning back-to-back MCI titles in 2006 and 2007, with Konga Vibes and Body, Mind & Soul respectively taking top honors.

Body, Mind & Soul playing @ MCI 2008

Body, Mind & Soul playing @ MCI 2008

So, today we arranged to sit down with Body, Mind & Soul, the reigning champions and honorary performers for this weekend’s competition. A six-piece band from Mzuzu (Northern Malawi), BMS is led by Davie Luhanga, commonly known as ‘Street Rat’, whose voice places their sound into a league of its own. The band started out as ‘Souls of the Ghetto’ playing reggae music, like many local bands; they won several local awards such as the Kuche Kuche Music Award and participated in festivals such as the Lake of Stars and Hippy Festival.

In 2005 the band felt a stronger connection pulling them towards their Malawian roots. They reflected on the importance of sharing their ancient culture in a modern time and after much thought and experimentation, created a new musical concept that they are calling ‘voodjaz’. It is a subtle mix of traditional rhythms with a jazz feel, creating a bridge between past and present Malawian cultures.

Their first international recognition came in May 2007, when they won the Music Crossroads Southern Africa InterRegional Festival in Harare (Zimbabwe). Most recently, they returned to Malawi from an eight-week European Tour in June/July. Already, they’re scheduled for a North American tour in 2009.

So, it comes as no surprise that BMS blew us away when they took the stage yesterday. I’m willing to bet that within another two years, Body, Mind & Soul will be an established touring act on the World Music scene, one not to be missed. They’ve just released a new album, Kwacha Malawi, which we hope to have up and available for download soon.

Tonight we’re headed back over to Umunthu Theatre to check out the Black Missionaries and see first-hand the new standard to which Harry has raised sound and lighting for Malawian venues. Take care…

Music as an Instrument for Change

August 6, 2008

Today we had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with both Peter Mwangwa and his record label, Rhythm of Life. Mwangwa, one of Malawi’s most prominent fusion artists, has made a name for himself in the last decade by combining indigenous Malawian rhythms with international standard recordings to produce uniquely Malawian sounds. Surprisingly, he has found the majority of his audience not within Malawi, but overseas. This highlights a common phenomenon in Malawi, where frequently, many prominent Malawian musicians find success first internationally before becoming recognized in their own home.

Most recently, Mwangwa has turned his attention toward philanthropy and social activism, founding Talents of the Malawian Child (TMC), a program designed to empower the forgotten children of Malawi orphaned by HIV. He works with these young people to teach, form and develop music groups. He records and produces their work, markets their albums and organizes performances for them. The proceeds of the albums go to pay the orphans’ school fees and purchase their clothing.

Rhythm of Life Records

Rhythm of Life Records

Rhythm of Life, a UK based NGO, strives to use music as an instrument of change to empower youth. In Malawi, they support a range of programs, including young artist development, professional recording services and support for Mwangwa’s TMC. They gave a number of insights into the challenges facing aspiring young musicians, from inadequate financial resources to production, promotion and distribution obstacles.

Over the next two days, we’ll be filming some of the best young talent southern Africa has to offer at the Music Crossroads International festival. Stick around to hear more…

The Wheels Got Tired

August 4, 2008

Saturday morning, we caught up with the Makambale Brothers, one of Lilongwe’s most talented groups of traditional musicians. Their unique sound, born from oil-can guitars and bottle-cap cymbals, screams Malawian. We recorded three songs with them, hoping to produce a music video from our short session with them. Afterwards, we were so impressed with their sound that we invited them to open up for the Sangalala Band at Saturday night’s show at Chameleon’s. The show was yet another promotional gig for Deep Roots, and Kenny once again dazzled the audience with his high-tempo stage presence.

Makambale Brothers, Lilongwe

Makambale Brothers, Lilongwe

Yesterday (Sunday) morning, we packed up the Land Rover to drive back to Blantyre, only to make it 10km outside Lilongwe before running into clutch problems. So, it looks as though we’re stuck in the capital city for the week, which isn’t such a bad proposition, as we have plenty of interviews here to keep us occupied. Additionally, Lilongwe is hosting an international music competition this weekend, Music Crossroads. So for our purposes, we’re stuck in Lilongwe during the best week of the year possible.

Today we met with Peter Malata, a well-known Malawian fusion artist. He launched his career as a reggae musician in the mid-1990s, but has since pioneered the effort to blend traditional Malawian beats with contemporary sounds. He, along with his brother Jerry (among others), recently started the Mabingu Band, an experiment delving into the cultural roots of the music associated with Gule Wamkulu

Jerry, who has been initiated into the Gule tradition in the past two years, has been given permission by the society to popularize some of the inner-elements of their music. He and Mabingu Band thus represent the first effort to incorporate the tradition’s music into the Malawian mainstream. We listened to some of the music they’re currently in the studio recording, and the results are sounds that I’ve never been exposed to before—gems waiting to be uncovered.

Jerry (left) & Peter (center) Malata

Jerry (left) & Peter (center) Malata

So, we’re back with Ken’s family tonight, where we’ll be for the remainder of the week. On tap for us in the next couple days are interviews with Peter Mwangwa, the Black Missionaries, Konga Vibes, Body, Mind & Soul, Lester Mwathunga, Harry Gibbs, Rhythm of Life Records, Music Crossroads International, and more, so stick around….

Back in the Capital City

August 1, 2008

After spending Monday-Thursday in production review in Blantyre, we resumed filming today in Lilongwe with Harry Gibbs, a key figure in Malawian entertainment and music promotion. His activities range from organizing Malawi’s annual international music festival, the Lake of Stars, to owning and operating Lilongwe’s premier venue, Umunthu Theatre.

Umunthu Theatre, Lilongwe

Umunthu Theatre, Lilongwe

He was able to give us his take on Lilongwe’s music scene while showing us around his newly opened theatre. Harry opened Umunthu last year, aiming to attract both national and international artists by providing unparalleled sound and lighting quality. Judging by our tour, he’s accomplished just that. We’re fortunately going to see the Black Missionaries at Umunthu next weekend, so we’ll be able to see Malawi’s new performance standard for ourselves.

Additionally, Harry pointed us in the direction of the Makambale Brothers, the capital city’s very own traditional music quartet. So, we gave them a call and arranged a recording session for tomorrow afternoon. Also, tomorrow night, Kenny and the Sangalala Band are playing another Deep Roots promotional gig at Chameleon’s Bar, a stylish venue for musicians, poets and comedy groups in Lilongwe. Stay with us for more. Ciao.

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…