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Reviving Malawi's music heritage

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Deep Roots Malawi hopes to record the country's musical past and present

By Nikki Jecks
BBC World Service

You might not think you know much about Malawian music, but chances are you have heard it, or at least musicians influenced by it.

African music in general first came to international attention in the 1950s with the popularity of "kwela" in the urban townships of Johannesburg.

Outside Malawi you never hear the words 'music' and 'Malawi' next to each other
Kenny Gilmore

South Africa claims kwela for its own, but Kenny Gilmore, the director of a documentary that charts the history of Malawian music, says kwela was actually popularised in South Africa by Malawian musicians.

"The founding fathers of kwela kwela, a lot, not all of them, were Malawian, Malawi's never been that famous so nobody hears about them," he told the BBC World Service.

"Then they take a holiday down to South Africa, play some music, then, boom, the kwela kwela revolution [happens] and everybody thinks its South African."

Even a capella made famous by groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and more contemporary styles like Afro-jazz, both owe much of their distinct style to Malawian musicians according to Mr Gilmore.

Melting pot

Malawi has nine tribal and linguistic groups, each possessing its own traditional dances and indigenous rhythms.

Chesomba Traditional troupe dancers
Traditional dance forms of basis for Malawi's music

"True African music all comes from a traditional dance somewhere... and Malawi has got unique dances with unique rhythms," he says.

He cites dances such as the Chewa's masked "Gule Wamkulu" (the big dance); the Ngoni's "Ingoma" war dance; the Beni military dance; and the healing "Vimbuza" spirit dance of the Tumbuka.

But sadly only a handful of these were recorded in the 1940s and 1950s.

Inspired by the late musical archivist Alan Lomax's famous journey to collect early blues recordings in the deep American South, for six weeks last year Mr Gilmore and his team travelled to villages across Malawi hoping to document and record some of this musical heritage, both past and present.

He hoped to record as much as possible of what is left of these traditions before the memories and the music are gone forever.

"Outside Malawi you never hear the words 'music' and 'Malawi' next to each other. I went to Cape Town record shops, nothing, London, nothing, America, New York, nothing.

These country boundaries actually mean nothing in cultural terms... we've got a unique musical melting pot
Kenny Gilmore

"I'm on a mission to change it, I think the world needs to hear music and Malawi in the same sentence."

Using a portable studio, musicians from Malawi's most rural and remote areas were given the opportunity to record, promote and preserve their musical heritage.

What the team got was a mix of individual musicians, small groups and cultural dance troupes, some of it purely traditional, some of it more of a fusion of traditional with contemporary and jazz influences.

"Sometimes you get these places in the world when you get these really interesting melting pots of cultures," says Mr Gilmore.

"You have the Congolese influence just above Malawi, you've got the Zambian influence to the west, you've got Zimbabwe to the east and you've got South Africa to the south.

"These country boundaries actually mean nothing in cultural terms - so all these great influences come into Malawi, mixing - we've got a unique musical melting pot."

'Massive riotous party'

Well-known Malawian musician and politician Lucius Banda says what makes Malawi music so special and deserving of greater interest is the way it has absorbed other influences into its musical traditions, making them their own.

Lucius Banda
Musician and politician Lucius Banda believes Malawi is a cultural sponge

"Malawi music is different, the special thing about Malawi music is [that it is] so cultural," he says.

"South Africa has disco and other Western influences. But Malawian music is quite unique in its own perspective."

One such influence which dramatically influenced the country's musical style was the banjo.

The banjo was brought back to Malawi by soldiers who had served in East and Western African battalions during WWII.

The banjo and blue grass influences were infused with traditional beats and dominated the country's music for nearly 20 years.

In the 1970s jazz made an appearance in Malawi, then in more recent times has come gospel, reggae and pop influences.

But what is most special about Malawi music according to Mr Gilmore is not the way it has fused the traditional with the contemporary - it is its energy and passion.

"I've played round the world and most of the times you get the beginning and it's warming up, people not getting too excited, then there's a kind of warm phase.

"In Malawi, from the first song boom, the whole club just kind of ignites in a fire bomb and it carries on until the last.

"The bartenders have left the bar, security have left the gate, someone's climbed over the fence you can see the whole nearby village dancing next to the gate,

"It's just a massive riotous party and it just leaves me filled with so much happiness."



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