Message from the Director

Returning to the country where I grew up was an amazing feeling. It had been eight years, and it seemed so right, so timely, that I kneeled and kissed the baked runway after stepping off the plane – an act that was observed with great satisfaction and approval by the grinning ground crew at Chileka airport. I had left Malawi as little more than a boy. I stepped down onto the tarmac as a man with music in his heart. It was a blessing to be back in Malawi, and I knew that I was home.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana had been my previous home for three years. Just before I left, a hurricane blew through the Gulf region—the storm was not nearly as damaging as the terrible Katrina, but powerful enough to start a party. Yes, in true Louisiana tradition, what followed next was a ‘hurricane party.’ Somewhere in the middle of that party, someone put a guitar in my hands and said, “Play us a song about a hurricane Kenny.” Then, the first clumsy burst of chords came out with a rhythm not familiar to anyone else present. It was the rhythm of a Malawian dansi yafumbi (big party). In this way, my thoughts were already turning towards that red and green country, and one of the first things I did when I arrived back in Malawi was translate the chorus into Chichewa. It became Ngati Mafunde (Like a Storm)—my band’s first major recording in Malawi.

The Sangalala (Afro-blues) band started as a jam. Don Malenga is a big-bellied, big-hearted giant of a man who runs a mechanics workshop in the township by day and plays Afro-jazz guitar by night. He was running a three-piece band and I was there with a harmonica in my pocket. Destiny was just waiting to happen. After a gig I talked with Felix Jere, the bass player, and plans were made to start a new project.

Over a period of three months we sought out veteran players from the Blantyre music scene and began to session in the spare bedroom of my flat in Blantyre. At first we had difficulty playing together. All I knew was American styles, while they knew mostly Central African beats. We played. We shared. We danced. We laughed. Sweat ran down our faces. We sang. It was clear that underneath our different skin colors, African hearts were beating together as one. Our first gig was at a wedding of a friend at the lakeshore. We played for eight solid hours, singing every song we collectively knew until the revelers could only lie in the sand and watch the stars. That was the beginnings.

Playing all the local music halls was a real culture shock for the local people and me. After the first ‘township gig,’ I remember looking off the stage and seeing a room full of people staring at me with their eyes wide and mouths hanging open. Who is this guy and what is he doing singing in our language? I stared back. “Get ready for something new.” I told them, and then we’d hit Ngati Mafunde. And they danced. People always danced. That’s what made it so much fun. So we had to record it. We continued recording, at first in a back garden studio in Blantyre, complete with a guard outside whose job was to hurl rocks at the crows to prevent them from influencing our recordings. If you listen to the endings of some of first songs you can hear birdsong in the background—a beautiful accompaniment to the end of a recording session in Blantyre.

Eventually, we played at the royal palace for eight hundred women and the First Lady (may her soul rest in peace). We also had a wonderful opportunity to play with Habib Koite. Inspired by his example, we became more ambitious with our plans, launching our album at the French Cultural Centre in Blantyre. Our music video went to number three. We celebrated. Then it went to number one. We paraded through the streets of Blantyre in the back of a truck for World Food Day. When we did the ‘Mafunde’ song, a great crowd of tiny children swamped the vehicle, all singing along at the top of their lungs. We had made musical history and the whole band was grinning from ear to ear.

These were my humble beginnings producing music in Malawi, but outside Malawi, it always disappoints me how little known Malawian music seems to be to the world at large. Even within Malawi, many musicians are unaware of their musical heritage. My personal motivation for the Deep Roots project is to bring about a change whereby Malawian music, especially traditional music, will be recognized, preserved, promoted and celebrated widely. Thank you for taking the time to learn about our project and please read on to see how you can support Malawian tunes!

–Kenny Gilmore


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