Malawian Music

Malawi is a small landlocked country dominated by the beautiful Lake Malawi. The country’s thirteen million inhabitants are packed into an area about the size of Scotland or Maine. However, this tiny country has produced an impressive body of influential music over the past century. Within these small borders, there exist nine tribal and linguistic groups, each possessing numerous traditional dances and rhythms. These include the Chewa and Nyanja masked gule wa mkulu (the big dance); the Ngoni’s ingoma war dance; the likwata and beni ‘military’ dance among the Yao; the highly stylized and chic mganda among the Tonga; tchopa among the Lomwe; the healing vimbuza of the Tumbuka and Henga; and the Nyanja’s likhuba and chitsukulumwe.

Only a precious few of these traditional songs and dances were recorded in the 1940s and 1950s, and they can still be heard on cassettes in the villages across Malawi today. However, these forms of cultural expression starting slowly losing popularity once musical preferences began rapidly changing in the post-World War II environment.

During WWII, Malawian soldiers served in Central and East African battalions, carrying their music along with them as they covered the continent. After the war, these same soldiers brought the banjo back to Malawi and infused traditional beats with their new influences. Banjo and guitar duos dominated for nearly twenty years before being supplanted by kwela music introduced by Malawian migrant workers on their return from South Africa. Malawian jazz, an acoustic traditional form of jazz, reigned in the 1970s, followed by the emergence of the afro-rock-Malawi beat. In the 1980s and ’90s, Congolese soukous-style music took hold, as it easily blended traditional forms of Malawian music. Most recently, reggae, gospel, and pop have combined to create an eclectic and vibrant music scene across the country.

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